For Japanese wide receiver Yoshihito Omi, international combine offers rare path to NFL

·4 min read

Yoshihito Omi grew up a diehard football fan.

But in Osaka, Japan, he was one of the few.

When he would watch NFL games on TV, or play catch with his father – a former college football player in Japan – Omi said he would think about what it would be like to play football in the U.S., against the sport's elite. But he didn't know how to get there.

"I wanted to be an NFL player," Omi said. "But no Japanese players played in the NFL before."

Now, he has a chance to change that.

The Japanese wide receiver is one of 44 international football players invited to participate in the NFL's international combine in London on Tuesday, as part of its International Player Pathway program.

The program, which was created in 2017, is used to both vet and train international players before allocating them to NFL rosters. Select combine participants will be invited to train in the United States for three months in the spring, and the top performers there will be allocated to NFL rosters for the 2022 season.

Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Jordan Mailata, who recently signed a $64 million contract extension, and Washington Football Team tight end Sammis Reyes are among those who have previously progressed through the program. Omi hopes to be among the next.

"This is a great opportunity for me," the 25-year-old said Friday. "I'm ready. I’m ready to get the NFL IPP ticket."

Leipzig Kings wide receiver Yoshihito Omi
Leipzig Kings wide receiver Yoshihito Omi

Though a number of Japanese players have graced NFL practice squads or participated in training camps over the past 30 years, none have ever made a 53-man roster, according to The Japan Times.

It's an indication of both how the sport is valued in Japan, and the lengths to which Japanese players must go to seek out elite competition.

Omi said the sport has grown in popularity in Japan since he was a child, fueled in part by an anime series called "Eyeshield 21" in which the main characters are members of a football team. But the infrastructure is still lacking. The country's top football league, the X-League, is still an amateur one. Teams are sponsored by companies, and the four international players allowed per team – typically Americans – are compensated with jobs, not a football-specific salary.

For Omi, who played collegiately at Ritsumeikan University, this meant working 12-hour days at an insurance company, in addition to playing for a team called IBM Big Blue.

"We only have practice on weekends, Saturday and Sunday," he said. "And the other weekdays, we work at the company."

This was Omi's life until early 2020, when he decided to quit his full-time job and go all-in on football. He signed up to play in The Spring League in the U.S. but said he didn't see much playing time before the season was canceled due to COVID-19.

When the worst of the pandemic subsided, Omi then shifted his sights to Europe and a startup league called the European League of Football. Six of the eight teams are based in Germany, including Omi's team, the Leipzig Kings.

Though he appeared in only four games this season due to a concussion and a knee injury, Omi said he loved playing in the ELF – like The Spring League – because it gave him a chance to go up against taller, quicker cornerbacks.

"My height is 6 (feet), and I was one of the tallest receivers in the Japanese league. But playing in ELF, playing in Europe, I was one of the shortest receivers in the league," he explained. "(Physically it) is different. Size, height and weight, it looks like the NFL."

Since the conclusion of the European season, Omi has spent the past five weeks in Germany, training for the NFL international combine. He hopes to turn in some of the best times in agility-centric drills, including the three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle, while showing off his quickness in wide receiver drills.

Omi is aiming to be the second Japanese player in two years to make it to the training phase of the IPP program, joining running back Taku Lee, who is now playing in the Canadian Football League.

When asked what it would mean for him to make it even further, all the way to a 53-man roster, Omi said it would be "dope." But beyond that, he said it would send a message to kids in Japan that might be wondering, as he did, whether or how it could be done.

"I’m so very excited," Omi said, "and I think I can be the one."

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Yoshihito Omi: Japanese WR hopes to take rare path to NFL