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On a picture-perfect football Saturday at venerable Harvard Stadium, the video cameras were out in abundance. Pennants flapped in the cool breeze off the Charles River. Alumni in crested blazers, wielding their sophisticated electronic equipment, exchanged business cards and warbled fight songs. The teams bowed to each other before the ceremonial kickoff and then played their hearts out for dear old Keio and Waseda.
Now wait a sushi-pickin' minute. Video cameras? Players bowing? A ceremonial kickoff? Keio and Waseda? What in the name of Walter Camp was going on here?
Only the best game Harvard and Yale never played. Even weirder: Harvard coach Joe Restic was dressed in Yale blue as he nervously paced one sideline. Across the field, Restic's longtime nemesis, Carmen Cozza of Yale, exhorted the excited underdogs while decked out in Harvard crimson.
As in origami, the symmetry couldn't have been more perfect. Keio and Waseda, both in Tokyo, are two of Japan's oldest private universities. They're often compared with Harvard and Yale, for their sports rivalry as well as for the collective ego of their graduates.
What better schools to stage the first Japanese college football game in the U.S.? And what better coaches than Restic and Cozza, who will face each other for the 21st time this season?
The deal was struck last December, when Cozza coached a group of Ivy League players in a game against Japanese college all-stars in Yokohama. Representatives of Keio and Waseda tossed out the idea of a summer exhibition game in New England; they would find a sponsor. Cozza conferred with Restic, with whom he's actually quite friendly, and the two agreed not only to stage the game at Harvard but also to coach the teams during their stay in America.
So that's how the Waseda Big Bears happened to spend a week training with Cozza at Yale in June, while Restic worked with Keio's Unicorns at Harvard. Both coaches enlisted the help of assistants and players from their respective varsity teams. Keio's and Waseda's coaches, all volunteers, were also on hand. For the game—or should we say, The Game?—Cozza and Restic donned their respective Japanese school's colors. "Never thought I'd be wearing crimson," said Cozza with a sigh. Restic practically looked like a Yale man in blue.
And what a game it was. After a Japanese politician squibbed a kick to conclude the pregame festivities, Keio quickly rolled to a 14-0 lead. But early in the second quarter, Unicorn quarterback Kenichiro Onishi went to the sidelines with a partial separation of his left shoulder. Waseda got a lift from Onishi's absence, scoring 19 unanswered points on three touchdowns. The Big Bears flubbed an extra-point attempt and a two-point conversion, but no one really lost face. Waseda, which trailed 30-8-1 in its series with Keio and lost 38-17 to the Unicorns in the final week of last season, seemed on the verge of a major upset.
But with less than two minutes remaining, Keio recovered a fumble at the Waseda 36. Restic turned to Onishi, who had not reappeared in the game. A 19-year-old sophomore, Onishi proceeded to lead his teammates on a drive that would have impressed the New York Giants. Ignoring the pain in his left shoulder, the righthanded Onishi completed passes on two consecutive fourth downs. The latter was a 22-yard touchdown toss with 38 seconds remaining that put Keio back in front, 21-19. The TD touched off a raucous celebration, and a number of players on both sides burst into tears.
"I have to get a touchdown," a grinning Onishi said in staccato, breathless English, after Waseda's last-second 50-yard field goal attempt fell short and the teams took their bows and finished singing their fight songs. "My shoulder doesn't ache right now, because I won. When I get back to Japan, ow!"