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Japanese-U.S. football matchup strengthens ties of Sister Cities

Nearly 7,000 miles away from home, on an entirely different continent, one thing remained the same. As the Tuscaloosa heat poured onto Central High School's football stadium, Sugawara Shun buttoned the chinstrap on his gold Obic Seagulls helmet and ran out on the field — exactly the way he does in the Seagulls' hometown of Narashino, Japan.

The Seagulls of Japan's X-League faced the Amateur to Professional Developmental League Blazers, a team of developmental league all-stars from across the Southeast, in the first ever Sister Cities International Bowl on Thursday.

“This is my first time in America,” Shun said through an interpreter. “It was good to come here and play football, real football. We came here to challenge ourselves and see how we would do in the U.S. I really felt the toughness.”

Though the Blazers ultimately came away as 16-12 victors, Seagulls players said they enjoyed the opportunity to soak up the football culture in perhaps the sports' most passionate region.

After arriving late Monday night, Seagulls players toured Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama, making sure, of course, to stop by Bryant-Denny Stadium. Wednesday night, the team even had the chance to meet up with the Crimson Tide and watch a practice.

“They have so much power,” Shun said of the Crimson Tide. “They have the power that Japanese teams lack. Our goal is one day to have that and put at least one player in America.”

Obic, a powerhouse in the X-League, is the four-time defending champion of the Japan Bowl, Japan's equivalent of the Super Bowl. Despite the Seagulls' overwhelming success, football has yet to generate the same following as baseball or soccer in Japan. However, players are starting to see a steady growth in interest.

“It is growing somewhat,” said one of the Seagulls' five American players, defensive end Kevin Jackson, who played college football at Hawaii. “Baseball is so big in Japan, and soccer has been pretty big the last few years. But, I mean, after those two sports there is room to grow. Things like this and a little bit more media exposure will help us grow a lot.”

Obic came to Tuscaloosa as part of the partnership with Sister Cities International, a connection established in 1986 to promote person-to-person relationships and citizen diplomacy between Tuscaloosa and its sister cities.