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Friday, Sep. 14, 2012

Tsukuda having fun in German League


Staff writer

Up until a year ago, Germany wasn't even an option to for running back Soichiro Tsukuda.

News photo
Living the dream: Soichiro Tsukuda (right) enjoys playing football in Germany. DUSSELDORF PANTHER

But now that he's on the gridiron there, he's pleased with the way things turned out.

Tsukuda is currently playing in the German Football League, which he initially learned about from American players while trying out for a pro team in the United States after graduating from college.

Actually, when he first heard about the league, he didn't think about it too much, because he didn't know a single word of German.

But later he realized there were many American players and coaches in the league and that English was used most of the time during games.

"It's fun to be playing in the German league," Tsukuda, a Dusseldorf Panther running back, said in a recent phone interview.

Outside the U.S., Germany is one of the top nations for football. Germany has finished third twice in the last four IFAF World Cups. There are also several American players, many of whom have experienced training camps in the NFL and Canadian Football League, and many American coaches on each GFL team. So the overall level of the league is fairly high.

In the midst of it, Tsukuda, 29, found a way to bring his own game to the competitive circuit. He said that although the German and American players are physically huge, he can take advantage of it.

"Because they're big, I can move faster by a step or two," said the 157-cm Tsukuda, who led collegiate powerhouse Ritsumeikan University to four Koshien Bowl national championship games, winning three of them. "And I feel that advantage more than I did in Japan."

Tsukuda doesn't just capitalize on his small stature with his opposing players, but also with the fans. He said that because his size stands out, he gets more attention from the local supporters.

"Many fans come to ask me to take pictures, sign autographs and shake their hands after games," Tsukuda said. "And many of them are children that are as tall as me. I am so happy to be treated like that."

Tsukuda, who racked up 251 yards rushing with two touchdowns in the 14-game regular season, has been embraced by his team, but it's not just because of his diminutive size.

"Soichiro is an excellent player," said Panther head coach James Jenkins, who played for 10 seasons as an NFL tight end for the Washington Redskins, via email.

"Yes, he is small, but his quickness and speed makes him very exciting to watch. He has great vision and excellent lateral movement when he has the football. He also has good hands for catching the football.

"Overall, I think Soichiro can be a No. 1 running back for many teams in Germany. Soichiro has a great attitude and always wants to do more."

The Panther ended their season with a 7-5-2 record (GFL games can end in ties) and made the eight-team playoffs as the GFL North's fourth seed. They will square off against the GFL South top seed and reigning champion Schwabisch Hall Unicorns, who were 11-2 in the season, in the quarterfinals on September 22.

As much as he's enjoying life in Europe, Tsukuda hopes Japanese football will continue to grow and become more competitive over time.

Unfortunately, the Japanese corporate-oriented X League doesn't allow import players with professional experience. But Tsukuda insisted that it is time for Japanese football to take further steps and incorporate foreigners, well, to be more specific, more Americans, in order to raise its level.

"It'd make a huge difference to simply practice alongside the Americans,"said Tsukuda, who is also a member of the Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers in the X League. "I think that if they can create those kind of circumstances, the level of the game in Japan will be much better."



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