[ODDS and EVENS] Yosuke Sugano’s college football career offers a valuable lesson in perseverance
Ambition is a powerful motivating force.
For some people, it’s an all-consuming thought. For others, it is a guiding principle.
Yosuke Sugano’s ambition is coupled with a strong desire to be an influential figure in the development of American football in Japan.
A graduate transferred to Syracuse University, he has two years left of eligibility as a college football player.
I saw the headlines last week that Sugano had verbally committed to playing football for the Syracuse Orange, an Atlantic Coast Conference school. So I asked him about his trip from Japan to New York.
Sugano, who turns 24 in September, plans to arrive at the Syracuse campus in upstate New York in early July and pursue his goals while continuing his education. He will enroll in the school’s instructional design, development and assessment program, which he sees as a critical component of success.
“This program focuses on how to create the environment where humans want to study, which is the study of how to increase human motivation,” Sugano told me. “My dream after the end of my football career is to contribute to the development of Japanese football by becoming a football coach. Therefore, I thought this IDD&E graduate program was the best program for me.
An interesting journey
Sugano, originally from Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, came to Saint Francis University (Pennsylvania) in 2018. He graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in strategic communication.
His football journey is an interesting (and inspiring) story of dedication. The 5-foot-10-inch (about 178 cm), 225-pound (102 kg) Sugano loves football, a sport that has yet to produce a Japanese NFL player.
Despite its status as a minor sport in the general pecking order of team sports in his native country, Sugano reveres it. It’s his favorite sport.
Sugano played football at Kwansei Gakuin High School, located in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, contributing to the Fighters’ consecutive national championship teams his first two years there.
During his senior year, the Fighters attended summer football camp at Greenville Senior High School in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, located in the northwest part of the state near the border of Ohio. And his commitment to football as a high school student led to one of the defining chapters of his life.
“During that summer camp experience, I felt like I really wanted to try my soccer skills at an American university, not a Japanese university,” Sugano recalled.
“Therefore, after the camp, I contacted the coach of Greenville High School, then decided to attend GHS for a year, to get the offer from an American college.
“Since GHS has an international student program, they have a dorm for international students. So, I went to the United States by myself. My parents still haven’t come to the United States yet.
It was an unforgettable experience for him, adapting for the first time to life in a foreign country.
“I was the only Japanese in the town of Greenville at that time,” Sugano said.
Comfort zone on the soccer field
Thousands of miles from his hometown, he found a level of familiarity playing for the GHS football team, and it was a vital stepping stone in pursuing his long-term goals.
In his first year with the Trojans, Sugano was a productive defensive player, contributing 62 tackles (46 solo), 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. GHS went 9-3 in 2017 and made the Pennsylvania State AA playoffs.
Sugano’s productivity helped him catch the eye of the Saint Francis University coaching staff. And he continued his football career in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA). Syracuse is in the top tier of Division I, competing in the Football Championship Division alongside top-tier schools like Notre Dame and Michigan, Alabama, and Clemson.
In 2018, Sugano played one freshman game on the Saint Francis defensive line. He was granted redshirt status, meaning a season of sporting eligibility was preserved and pushed back.
As a redshirt rookie the following year, he was a regular contributor to the Red Flash defense, appearing in each of the school’s 12 games in the Northeastern Conference. Sugano recorded 21 tackles (15 solo) and two sacks while playing on the defensive line.
Sugano moved to linebacker for the 2020 campaign, but the Northeastern Conference schools season was canceled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Back to the 2021 season
In 2021, after the team’s one-year hiatus, Sugano returned to the gridiron and continued his progression as a college player. He appeared in all 11 games for Saint Francis, making 12 tackles and recording two sacks.
Two games stand out when you look at Sugano’s numbers for the full season. On October 2, he forced a fumble, had a sack and made two tackles against Morgan State.
Seven days later, he had a performance of four tackles and a sack in a 55-10 loss to conference rival Long Island University.
Looking back on his four seasons at Saint Francis, Sugano highlighted his love for the game and athletic competition in response to one of my questions: What are your favorite football memories there? Here is what he said:
“My favorite memory at SFU is when I first played the game as a starter.”
He noted that he was fifth on the depth chart when he arrived at school. What seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle for him.
Or as he put it: “Therefore, at that time, I thought I could never play a game here.”
But Sugano persevered, training and preparing, physically and mentally.
“So in the first game I played as a starter in my second year, I felt so happy,” he said.
Consider this a valuable lesson in perseverance.
But Sugano’s football story is not over. He acknowledges, however, that he likely faces a formidable challenge to earn regular playing time at linebacker as a 2022 drop-in grad student for Orange coach Dino Baber’s team.
Syracuse has remarkable depth and talent in the position, including All-American candidate Mikel Jones, a senior captain, and fellow players Stefon Thompson and Marlowe Wax.
Keeping a positive outlook for the upcoming season, which kicks off on September 3 against Louisville, Sugano said: “I understand that it’s going to be very difficult for me to play in the game. However, I don’t want to give up. My goal for the first year is therefore to be selected as a member of the special teams and to play at least as a member of the rotation.
“Then, for my second year, [my goal] going to be playing the game as a starter.
For a guy who admits he knew nothing about American football until he started playing it as a freshman at Kwansei Gakuin High School, Sugano has come a long way.
Before embarking on a future coaching career, Yosuke Sugano wants to become the first Japanese in the NFL.
Indeed, it is a noble ambition.
And the next two seasons at Syracuse will be an important player development opportunity for him.
Author: Ed Odeven
Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sunday, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter ＠ed_odeven, and find it on the dedicated sports site of JAPAN Forward, SportsLook.