Photo: Ken Sato with Upway Tigers coach Dain Howe
06 June 2020
We are in the height of the AFL season.
Even if you are not a fan of AFL, you would have seen or heard something about the AFL stars performing their best in front of tens of thousands of fans in the premiership league.
But, did you know, there are also many semi professional and amateur leagues located in local regions?
Up until the 1960s, before it became the great sport that it is today, AFL was very much a community-based game, where local youths would play in between breaks from work. This community feeling is still very much alive within the local league.
If you go to a local league game, you can see the players’ raw power, the scale of league and team as an organization, and the abundance of supporters. Even without just one of these aspects, the exceptional level is still astonishing. Some of the larger teams have up to 60 players, so they can’t all play in the matches. There are also several coaches and trainers, as well as a strong fan base through memberships.
In Victoria, the birthplace of AFL, there are many leagues spread all across Melbourne’s suburbs and regions, totaling almost 50. Within these leagues are between 6 to more than 10 teams, and during the winter season from April through September, exciting games unfold at the local sports grounds. The proof why this sport is so loved and played by many is in the local leagues. And playing in the Yarra Valley Mountain District Football League is a young Japanese boy.
Listening to the coach after the first quarter of the match held on May 4th. Playing as the reserve starter.
Ken Sato, 22 years old, graduated from Tokyo’s Komazawa University this year, and joined the prestigious Upway Tigers in March, where he chases his football dream.
Ken is the oldest of four, son of a Japanese father and an American mother. He would often play baseball and basketball with his friends in primary school and high school, but never pursued them further.
First encountering ‘footy’ at university, he played for the Komazawa Magpies in the AFL JAPAN league. At the time, a friend who was also working hard to play in the league said Ken’s power was outstanding. He also participated in the 2011 International Cup as captain for Japan’s national team, the Samurais, which was held in Melbourne and Sydney. With the Samurais achieving a respectable result of 12th out of 21 teams, Ken was also picked as a player for the World Team. The World Team members are recognized as the best AFL players who are chosen from countries outside Australia.
Even before all this, there were people who recommended that he try out for the Melbourne season. It was from the experiences of the 2011 International Cup that Ken decided that he would return to Melbourne again. In Japan, he met with affiliates of the Upway Tigers, and decided to play for this team after graduating from university.
Ken’s physical size, stamina and speed compare favourably with the local players, and his coach says he has lots of energy.
Ken wanted to test out his own power in the AFL city of Melbourne. What exactly was it about AFL that infatuated him?
Ken expressed, "…everyone comes together to win. I don’t think any other sport has such a need for team work." AFL is usually described as “physical” or “rough”, but for Ken, AFL is a sport that focuses on “team playing”.
"The coach also emphasises the need to support the team when playing. Even if the players don’t directly have the ball, they should perform small defensive plays such as blocking".
The spectators are too busy watching the ball to notice the play, but the team mates sure notice.
“When the back defense tell me that I had a good play, it makes me happy that I am supporting the team.”
By compiling all these plays, trust among teammates can be achieved. In the 3 games that Ken has played, the ball has come to him more and more. Each time, his skills have been improving too.
Coach Howe spoke very highly of Ken. “Kenny (Ken’s nickname) has been leading the plays in all 3 matches, and is supporting his team. From the moment he was added to the team he was performing at the same level as the other players, and he really suits the style of the team. Plus, he had the highest number in the beep test (fitness test). He is a first class player.”
"Actually, for the game on the 4th, a senior player could not play due to injury, which gave Kenny the chance to play. However, the position available was different to the position that Kenny plays".
Right now he plays in the reserves, but there is a high possibility of playing in the seniors.
“He’s a beauty.”
Kenny’s teammates also regard him highly as “a great guy” or “a great player”, and he is loved by his supporters. Even though he receives all these words of encouragement, Ken still humbly considers that he has a long way to go, and shows enthusiasm about aiming towards playing as a senior.
This marked the day when the Upway Tigers beat the number 1 team, to become top on the ladder. They had won 4 out of 4 matches.
For now, Ken is going to try the best until the season ends in September. His future after that is not yet decided. Will he stay here; will he continue their footy careers? The future is unknown.
“Unsure about my future? Of course. But I’m doing what I want right now. I have no regrets.”
Ken is working hard to do the things that he wants. Even if the future is unclear, he is dedicated to footy, and wants to see how far he can go.
“I will keep going until I can go no further. If I have to stop, then I have to stop.”
He has stoic passion, as well as the calmness to view himself objectively.
How far can this 22-year-old Japanese player go in the home of AFL, Melbourne? The season has just started so only time will tell.
Ken Sato’s blog: ken-sato.doorblog.jp
Support Ken Sato on his crowd funding site (WESYM): wesym.com/project/kensato
Article/Photography: Noriko Tabei
Translation: Adam Feldman