In 1986, Kansai Gakuin University, based in Kobe, Japan, traveled to Oregon to face what is now known as Southern Oregon University in the first college football game between American and Japanese teams on U.S. soil.
While in Oregon, Japanese officials met with then-Ashland High School head coach Jim Nagel and, after two years of fundraising, the high school from southwest Oregon crossed the Pacific Ocean to face a team of Japan's High School All-Stars, and the Pacific Rim Bowl was born.
What began 25 years ago continues to this day. Every other year, one team crosses the ocean and spends 10 days immersing itself in foreign culture, food and football. The Grizzlies hosted the Pacific Rim Bowl in 2011 and won, 26-0. With the series even at 6-6, Ashland will head to Japan for the Pacific Rim Bowl's 25th anniversary on July 27.
“It’s a great experience for our players,” said current head coach Charlie Hall, who will be taking his third team to Japan. “They stay with host families and get to experience the culture first hand. For most of our kids this will be the only opportunity to participate in an international competition.”
Hall says American football is at a club-sport level in Japan, and the All-Star team draws tryouts of more than 250 players from 40 different high schools for just 60 spots. And, until Ashland hit the All-Stars with some no-huddle zone read looks in 2011, Japan's All-Stars had gotten the better of their American counterparts in five straight meetings. "They do a pretty good job of emulating what's contemporary in college and high school football," Hall added.
This summer, Ashland's 43 players and seven coaches will immerse themselves in Japanese culture, just as Japan's All-Stars do when they visit Oregon, complete with a trek to Crater Lake.
"Last time they came in 2011, one of their defensive linemen was a sumo wrestler, so they put on a little clinic about sumo wrestling in our stadium," said Hall. "One of my knuckleheads called him out and they wanted to have an impromptu sumo wrestling match, that got pretty crazy."
The school asks each player to raise up to $2,000 to cover his portion of the total bill. "To me, that's about as much of a value, the process of raising money and working hard and being involved in the community, as the experience of going to Japan itself," Hall explained.
While the expedition comes with an price tag in excess of $100,000, Hall believes the investment is worth it.
"We try to take some of the values the Japanese have in terms of teamwork, commitment and work ethic that they have, and we try to talk about those things within our own team culture," he concluded. "There's a lot of parallels about studying the culture of Japan and trying to be a representative of the things we believe in as well."