EDMONTON — A combine environment is by design a place of optimism.
It’s where teams can allow themselves to fall at least a little bit in love with a player’s upside. It’s where they can take the numbers that are landing on screens in front of them and try to project their future.
Sometimes even in a world where optimism can be the currency, you see something that’s especially eyebrow raising.
That happened on Wednesday, after Japan’s Hidetora Hanada had exited the flexibility measurement station at the CFL Combine presented by New Era. A league official marvelled at what they’d just seen.
All six-foot-one and 280 pounds of Hanada shifted into yogi mode, twisting and turning his body in a way that most of us lost touch with as toddlers. Flexibility isn’t measured at Global combines or the Invitational Combine, but Hanada’s numbers were in the record-setting range.
On the hamstring test, which is measured in terms of either how far an athlete’s hands can get from their toes (resulting in a negative score) with each inch equalling a point, or how far they can go past their toes (for a positive score), Hanada scored a positive 9.5.
On the groin test, where an athlete spreads their legs and leans forward, Hanada was able to touch his head to the ground.
The 21-year-old isn’t leading yoga classes in his spare time in Wakayama, Japan. He’s an amateur sumo wrestling champion three years running. Looking for a new challenge before the window for him to go pro as a sumo closes when he turns 25, he’s turned to football.
CFL COMBINE presented by New Era
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Greg Dick, the CFL’s chief football operations officer, got his first look at Hanada at the Japanese Global Combine earlier this year.
“We knew we had a big man coming. In my head I thought, ‘OK, is he going to be really big?’ Because you see some of the sumo wrestlers. He’s not like that. He’s like a round piece of muscle.”
At the Japanese combine, Dick watched Hanada reel off 36 reps on the bench press. At one point he got closer to him to make sure he was lowering the bar all the way. He was; his chest is just so big that the bar didn’t have that far to travel. Dick was impressed with how Hanada moved on the field, especially given that his football experience has consisted of practising with a team in Japan’s X League. There’s still work to be done, but Dick sees a ton of potential in him. The league decided to invite him to the Edmonton combine and has listed him as a 2024 prospect.
Hanada will by far be the least experienced player on the field this week at the combine. His athleticism has been eye-popping though and falls in line with previous accounts of his pursuit of this dream so far. He was reportedly dominant at an X League open tryout just over a year ago, where he “drew audible gasps” from coaches as they watched him work on the field for the first time.
In that article, Hanada told X League officials he’d long incorporated football training techniques in his sumo regiment.
Depending on how this week goes — Dick said confidently the Canadian talent and fellow Global prospects would be Hanada’s toughest competition to date — that 2024 classification isn’t written in stone.
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“We knew we had an athlete, a potential athlete that could play professional football,” Dick said of his impressions of Hanada after the Japanese combine.
“He’s a bit raw from a football technique perspective, a little high playing as a d-lineman,” he continued. “Just the athletic ability, the pure power and strength and the potential explosiveness that he could have on a football field were all part of why we wanted him to come.”
Hanada went through the measurements and meetings that all of the prospects went through on Wednesday. He had a translator with him, but only turned to him for longer answers. He was relaxed when talking with teams and league officials, referencing Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, channeling their dual sport abilities, but doing it with sumo and football.
“It’s exciting and an honour,” Hanada said of the opportunity for him here in Edmonton.
When asked what he’d like to accomplish this week, Hanada took his time trying to find the right words before turning to his translator, Hiroshi Ikezawa, who works for the X League.
“He wants to dominate,” Ikezawa said.
He may not dominate immediately, but if Hanada were able to find success in the CFL he could be the player that the league had hoped for when it launched its Global initiative in 2018. A recognizable face in Japan, his football career could be of great interest to a nation of over 125 million people, providing tremendous exposure to the CFL.
First, though, Hanada has an important few days to work through. A strong showing this week could lead to his name being called on May 2 at the CFL Draft. If his rawness wins out, he’ll have another year to continue working with the X League and could be invited back to the CFL Combine in 2024.
“The sooner we get him in our league, the better,” Dick said.