Aslimoski, Pons and Wakisaka are statesmen for international football
By Brad Bournival
Football, like other sports, takes a physical toll on the body. It also can be poetic and provides a lifetime of memories.
Because of the physicality, the average NFL career is 3.3 years. That’s what makes what Brazil’s Rodrigo Pons, Australia’s Jason Aslimoski and Japan’s Yasuo Wakisaka are doing amazing.
Pons, 32, Aslimoski, 39, and Wakisaka, 46, aren’t just defying the odds at the International Federation of American Football World Championship, they’re setting new standards.
But many would be surprised to find out, it’s not about longevity as much as it is the love of the game.
An emotional Pons announced his retirement Wednesday after the Brazilian wide receiver came up short in a 16-8 loss to Australia. With a bye Saturday, his career ends with a loss – but it is a stretch full of memories.
And most of them had to do with things that came outside the lines.
“It’s the people, the travels, the friends that I made,” Pons said. “Friendship stays. I like playing, but it’s not a professional game in Brazil. I have to stick with my career (marketing).
“We created a family here. I have friends outside football and friends from football. It’s different because we care about each other in a way that other friends don’t because we have to protect each other on the field and we have to make them better every day. There’s spirit in football.”
The 6-foot-3, 199-pound Pons left his mark after picking the game up on the beach at the behest of a friend. It stuck, and eight years ago he played on his country’s first national team.
He’ll walk away knowing he was a big part of his team’s first IFAFWC win when Brazil knocked off South Korea, 28-0, thanks to his two touchdowns. He’ll also walk away knowing he made a difference.
“I have been on the national team since the first game in 2007,” he said. “This is like a dream come true for us. We never imagined we would be in the world championship one day.”
Introduced to the game two years earlier, the 6-4, 260-pound offensive tackle had to step away when a knee injury sidelined him after six years of competitive action. He came back in 2010, but family obligations kept him out of the 2011 world tournament.
That didn’t stop him from training for 2015.
“It’s about being around and experiencing the younger guys,” Aslimoski said. “It’s various characters and types of people. It’s not stereotypical to say the game fits one type of person. You have people from different backgrounds, from different cross sections of society that can play. It helps you grow as a person. It’s more than the comradery of the people.”
It’s why Aslimoski is already looking at 2019 and possibly playing in another championship at age 43.
“After being away, you miss the adversity of the training camps,” he said. “It can get a little monotonous, but it’s about coming together as a group. It’s 47 guys that drag each other through.”
No one would blame Wakisaka for stepping away after 31 years in the sport. The 5-10, 253-pound defensive tackle indicated that Saturday’s championship against the United States will probably be his last game.
But he took time to explain why the game stuck with him and why the passion in a 46-year old man to continue playing burns white hot.
“When I started playing football, it was after watching the NFL in Japan,” Wakisaka said. “The reason why I continued playing football was for the deepness of the game.
“You always come short of your goal, so you want to get better and better. I realized I could play against the U.S. To play against them is a goal. That’s why I’ve continued to play.”
Competing in the shadows of the Pro Football Hall of Fame where many of the players who got him hooked on the sport are now immortalized, Wakisaka is ready to make more memories.
A chameleon, who has morphed his game to keep up with the ever-changing sport, Wakisaka is counting the minutes until he can play the U.S. one more time in hopes of breaking the two-all tie the countries have in terms of IFAF world titles.
But when it’s done, don’t expect the elder statesman to just walk away.
“I will always have ties to the Japanese national teams,” he said. “I’ve been around so much, so I want to continue to help their missions.”