As you could imagine, going from the X-League — Japan's professional football league — to the CFL is quite an adjustment.
Luckily for Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker Les Maruo, he's had no shortage of mentors in training camp.
"Thank God I have guys like Adam Bighill, Kyrie Wilson, Jesse (Briggs), Shayne (Gauthier), all those guys," said Maruo, a former standout for the X-League's Asahi Soft Drink Challengers, after Saturday morning's training camp session.
"They're veterans. They've been playing the game for so long. I've just been following their lead, working hard every play, and then just learning all those tips and the playbook day by day."
But none of those veterans know what it's like to enter the CFL from the league's Global Draft. Maruo, a 25-year-old who was born in Japan but raised in Kansas and played college ball at the University of Texas at El Paso, was chosen fourth overall by the Bombers in April. There is, however, one person on the team that knows what Maruo is going through, and its German defensive end Thiadric Hansen. The second overall pick in the inaugural Global Draft in 2019, Hansen impressed as a rookie and is easily the program's biggest success story.
"Before coming to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, I actually sent him a message," Maruo said. "I was just asking him a bunch of questions like ‘What’s the training camp like? What kind of conditioning do you guys do? What do global players do in terms of roster spots?' and stuff like that. He was really nice about it and he was always helping me out. When I first got to meet him, he was a really nice person, and he always helped me out on things like special teams. He’s been helping me out with things like kickoffs, punts, kickoff returns, everything like that. He’s been really nice and very helpful."
With only two global roster spots required and Hansen being a lock for one of them, Maruo finds himself battling it out with fellow Japanese player Tomoya Machino, an offensive lineman who happens to be his roommate, linebacker Ayo Oyelola out of the United Kingdom, and Mexican defensive back Sergio Schiaffino Perez for the other. After hearing what head coach Mike O'Shea had to say, it sounds like Maruo could be the favourite to land the spot.
"He’s been pretty good," O’Shea said. "He certainly is very active, he finishes plays in good body position, he knows the game of football, he reads well. He’s a good football player and it’s exciting to watch him. Every practice he’s doing something good that catches your eye. It’s very pleasing. I’m sure he’s not satisfied but he should be happy with the way it looks because he’s doing well."
Making the team would give Maruo — who posted 86 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries, and an interception in 12 starts as a senior at UTEP — a platform that could help grow the sport back home.
"It’s big for me to be here but it’s really big for a country like Japan. The X-League is just getting bigger and bigger every year but still, not many people know about football in Japan," he said.
"I would love to go out there and play and perform my best in the CFL so that football in Japan will start getting bigger and bigger. All the Japanese players can look up to me and maybe there will be more and more global players from Japan."
But for Maruo, it's not just about Japan.
"Growing up, especially when I was in middle school and high school, Asian athletes are kind of looked down on," he said.
"They just kind of say 'There's not many Asian football players' so they (think) Asian guys can't play football. But with me, I've always wanted to break that stereotype. Asians aren't just good at math. We can play sports, too."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.