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  • Akshay Patel

Growth of the Gridiron: The Dream Japan Bowl

Image: Cornell Athletics

When most of us think about football, we think of a sport that’s uniquely tied to the American identity. Maybe this isn’t totally unfounded. In lots of other countries, after all, the sport is referred to as American football—distinct from what we know as soccer. But two things can be true at the same time: while the game’s history and tradition might be rooted in the states, American football is hardly just American anymore.

So, what happens when one of the oldest football conferences in the country, one nearly as old as the sport itself, goes head-to-head with a relatively new league at the forefront of the global game?

The first Dream Japan Bowl was hosted last year on January 22nd in Tokyo, and was born as a collaboration between Ivy League football and Japan’s X-League. Riding on the success of the inaugural event, the American schools compiled a 52-man roster to send overseas for this year’s January 21st game. The group would be coached by Brown University’s staff, including star quarterback-turned-coach James Perry.

Though there was a similar event years ago called the Ivy Epson Bowl, it came to an end in 1996. Nearly three decades later, football has truly blossomed in Japan. 

Cornell sent four seniors to the revamped bowl game: wide receiver Nick Laboy ‘24, defensive end Noah Labbe ‘24, kicker Jackson Kennedy ‘24, and Cornell graduate and current TCU tight end Curtis Raymond III ‘21.

Image: Cornell Athletics

For Labbe, the selection came as somewhat of a surprise, as he’d only played in a handful of Cornell’s games this year due to an injury. Kennedy too described a roller coaster of emotions: “You don’t know if you’re going, you put your name in, they send out multiple emails… and at the end of the season when I found out I was going, I was super excited. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

After a successful senior year earning him Second Team All-Ivy honors, Laboy assumed his last year on the field with the Big Red was over. “I didn’t even get the list [for the bowl]” he said. “I found out from a friend.”

Immediately, they were all in a unique position. As longtime players, they would have to showcase a caliber of football that was skillful but strong, refined but robust, and ultimately, representative of the sport here. They would effectively have three names on their backs—Cornell, the Ivy League, and football in America. To represent colors as bold as those is a great privilege, but certainly no small ask. 

Raymond, for one, saw promise in that pressure: “When we got onto the gridiron you could sense the competitiveness. In a sport that’s so heavily rooted in American culture it’s amazing to see that while we wanted to beat them, they wanted to beat us worse.”

To best understand this position, it’s necessary to first understand the mission behind the Dream Japan Bowl. Though extremely young, it is an event that carries profound weight: fostering understanding and goodwill between Japan and the United States. By leveraging football as a common ground, the event champions cultural exchange and cooperation on an international stage. Such initiatives are far from trivial.

Cornell football finished the 2023 season with a record of 3-7. After a promising start, the team suffered close losses down the stretch. For Laboy, Labbe, and Kennedy, college football came to its apparent end in mid-November. 

“Coming off that last game in November, we took some time off,” Kennedy said. “Once I eventually found out [about the Dream Japan Bowl], it was sort of hard to turn right back around.” He described kicking as a place where you’re teaching yourself something new every time, so understandably, there would have been a lot of observing and relearning.

Raymond, on the other hand, had just come off a 5-7 season with his home state team, the TCU Horned Frogs. “I had been preparing for pro day, I was in peak shape ready to go,” noted Raymond. Even still, he was quick to note that Dream Japan Bowl was not slated to be a display of seamless championship season football. 

“Some of my teammates had finished their last career game,” he explained, so it’s understandable that the game would have felt more like an all-star game to them. “[Players] didn’t have to be prepared to play sixty or seventy snaps.”

A few years removed from Big Red football, Raymond also said that “it was incredible to reconnect with [his] Cornell teammates.” The Cornell squad was an admittedly small portion of the delegation, but they were extremely tight-knit. “I really [felt] like I was back on that team. I know there were only a couple Cornell men, but I’m really appreciative that we got to share that experience together.”

Image: Cornell Athletics

As I spoke to each of the four players, I began to notice some commonalities in perception—many of which I shared—of American football in Japan. “I wasn’t really expecting Japan to be so into American football,” Laboy said, “but just being there… the environment was almost the same as being here, in Ivy college football.”

It’s probably owing to the speed of the sport’s growth that we wouldn’t expect football to be as big of a deal as it is in a place like Japan. It simply hasn’t had the time to gain recognition as a global game. But it’s important that we help it achieve that honor. “There’s so many worldly, political things going on everywhere, but to have sports and play games against people from a different country… you kind of get to leave the world for a bit,” marveled Kennedy. Sharing the sport in that way is truly a kickstart to gaining traction in Japan.

When I asked him about the facilities in Japan, Laboy had only positives to describe: “I didn’t think the fields were gonna be as good as they were. They were very on point with providing treatment and the necessary equipment. The jerseys were great too.”

It was also fascinating to note that despite each Cornellian being surprised at the advancement of football in Japan, each player cited a favorite moment as something beyond the hundred yards. Instead of tales from the stadium, I heard about the memories they made with the Japanese players, conversations they had with guys from the other Ivy squads, or experiences meeting the locals. They were there for football but naturally came away with something much more.

Almost instantly, Laboy found value in an interaction with a Japanese player after the game. He remarked, “When we had the reception, the first guy I met was a college quarterback from Japan recovering from an ACL injury. Being able to connect with him about my injuries was great.” It was a connection he had never expected to make going in.

Raymond described how the group befriended a local tour guide who took them to an authentic wagyu steakhouse for eight elaborate courses, a peek into Japan’s vibrant culinary scene. (Even if they hadn’t played any football, that meal would have made the trip.)

Kennedy told me about the time the team spent working with Japanese high school and college football players at a camp: “I got to work with six or seven other kickers, and I’m starting off doing small drills.” 

It was then that the high schoolers asked to kick some field goals. “We’re backing up 45, 50 yards. To me, football is such an American thing, and to see that it goes across to other countries… it really is a bridge,” Kennedy said.

Image: Cornell Athletics

As just the second delegation, many of them were in a place they had never been before, a foreign stadium crackling with energy. All four members of Big Red football described the air as clean and crisp that day, and Japan’s new National Stadium was their first hint at what American football meant to Japan. First, they saw it in the fans, then the facilities, and soon enough, they’d see it in the players.

Even during warmups, Raymond noted the size differential of the matchups. And yet, it was the Japanese defense that held the Ivy Leaguers to just 5 points, bringing the final score to 10-5 and revealing, if just for a moment, that football is expanding faster than we’d thought. The critics might say that it’s just one game, but I prefer the optimistic what-if. American football really is becoming a self-sustaining global phenomenon, and we’re lucky to be able to watch in real time as it reaches its worldwide potential.

It was also my impression that each of the four Cornellians saw the Dream Japan Bowl from a new angle after having participated. Before the trip, the idea was generally to share the game they love with new people. And so they did, but the takeaway quickly became something altogether larger than that.

“It gives a little insight to the two countries showing that they appreciate each other’s customs,” Labbe reflected. “Obviously I’m biased, but I think football is a very exciting sport… bringing it over to Japan shows our favorite thing with them.” He couldn’t be more right that sharing a pastime is one of the best ways to build a connection. It’s hardly a romanticization to say the bowl was a connector of entire cultures.

“To put it bluntly,” Raymond told me, “I don’t think this is something we should ever go without again. It was incredible.”

Although the Dream Japan Bowl is just in its second year, I say we should all have reason to believe that it is on track to gain popularity and become a staple of the emerging global football culture. The proverbial steam it gains is effectively a win-win-win—for football, for the U.S., and for Japan. It’s time to witness the rise of the gridiron on the world’s stage.


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