The San Diego Chargers went home with a victory, and three Japanese linebackers went home with memories for a lifetime as the first players from their country to play in an NFL game.
The cameo appearances by Takuro Abe, Shigemasa "Judge" Ito and Takahiro "Tank" Ikenoue in an exhibition game at Tokyo Dome on Sunday were part of the NFL's efforts to promote football in Japan.The sport is gaining in popularity, and football jerseys are a hot item among trendy teen-agers, but it still lacks mass appeal, largely because so few Japanese play it.
For the annual NFL American Bowl, in which the Chargers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10, Abe and Ito joined the Steelers on a few special-teams plays, and Ikenoue suited up with the Chargers and saw limited time on defense before 40,163 fans.
"I want to keep the helmet with me (as a souvenir), though they asked me to return the duffel bag," Abe said.
None of the three players is continuing in the NFL, but all three played in Europe this spring in the World League of American Football.
"It's the physical difference I have to overcome," said the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Abe, huge by Japanese standards but undersized for the NFL.
Coach Bill Cowher of the Steelers praised Ito and Abe.
"These two kids were very, very accepted by our team," he said. "Our players very much took a liking to them."
Cowher was far less pleased with the Steelers' ragged effort, marked by defensive lapses and an offense that had trouble getting in gear.
There were also two knee ligament injuries. Reserve linebacker Patrick Scott was lost for the year, while the extent of starting left end Brentson Buckner's injury wasn't clear.
After Mike Tomczak moved the Steelers smartly on the opening drive for a field goal, the Chargers took over with three downfield marches in the first half that produced a touchdown and two field goals.
San Diego put the game away late in the third quarter after Pittsburgh dropped a certain interception. Alvoid Mays was hit on the next play with a 37-yard pass interference penalty that brought the Chargers to the Steelers 10.
Third-string quarterback Craig Whelihan hit tight end Brian Roche with a touchdown pass on the next play to make it 20-3.
Kordell Stewart, the versatile wide receiver who's trying to become the Steelers starting quarterback, showed off his impressive scrambling - and his inconsistency when throwing.
Stewart seemed confused at ease directing the Steelers offense and several passes landed far wide of the mark.
"Mentally, I know the majority of what I need to do. But when you're under pressure ... I'm tempted to fake the ball and run," Stewart said.
Cowher gave equal time to Stewart and the other two QB contenders, Tomczak and Jim Miller. Tomczak was steadier, hitting 6 of 8 passes for 48 yards compared with Miller's 4 of 9 for 46 with one interception.
Stewart completed 6 of 13 for 53 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown, while rushing for 25 yards in five tries.
"All three did some good things," Cowher said.
Overall, he said, "We're certainly not where we need to be, but we're going to go back to camp and get to work."