Aaron Ahner

by Dave Ornauer
Stars and Stripes

It is often said that in the Japanese culture, the nail that sticks out gets hammered in. While Aaron Ahner’s ability on the gridiron made him attractive to the Panasonic Impulse of Japan’s X-League, it was the beard and the hair – oh, the hair! – that had to go.

The choice was clear, said Ahner, a 2011 graduate of Kadena High School and former University of Louisville defensive tackle who last month interviewed for and got a spot on the Impulse roster. His dream of continuing to play football was thus set. The season begins in October.

“I have a great opportunity to work for Panasonic and also play football for them,” Ahner said. “It might have been a wasted opportunity had I not agreed to their standard office look.”

Therein lies the difference between being employed by a strictly professional football team and holding a roster spot in the X-League; indeed, to be employed by most any Japanese company means to fit in.

The teams are corporately sponsored; players are hired to work for the company, and playing football “is something extra,” Impulse coach Nobuyoshi Araki said. The Impulse plays in the X-League’s top tier.

Ahner was hired for Panasonic’s global marketing section and is working in international sales. Araki didn’t say it was the right thing to do, but when he told Anher that his hair and beard might not be appropriate, Ahner cut his hair and shaved right away.

“He and the team have respect for each other. I can see it from his attitude,” Araki said. “He said he is willing to take on the challenge” of understanding the difference between the American and Japanese working environments, Araki said.

Ahner has lived in Japan most of his life, growing up on Okinawa and starring as a football player, wrestler and soccer player at Kadena.

His left leg was what set him apart on the gridiron and pitch. Kadena football won two Far East Division I titles with him on the roster; 75 percent of his kickoffs would either result in touchbacks or pin opponents deep in their territory.

In soccer, Ahner could boot the ball 75 yards and even on throw-ins could make the ball go from midfield to the far post. “Every set piece is a scoring opportunity for him,” said Chris Eastman, a Kubasaki teacher who coached against Ahner du ring his high school days.

Ahner initially attended and played football at Division III Dubuque before joining his brother, 2012 Kadena graduate Gabe Ahner, at Louisville. After graduating Louisville, Aaron sought other opportunities to play football, even in Canada and Europe, before being recruited by Panasonic.

“I thought football was over for me and I’d decided to hang up my cleats” before Panasonic got in touch, Ahner said. “I’m really excited about this opportunity.”

He joined the team Aug. 1, and has already showed some good signs, Araki said. “He is smart and is a fast learner,” he said. “He has already memorized the (signals). He has already learned team strategy and has been able to play with that understanding.”

Araki also praised Ahner for his character, saying he has not acted as though he’s important, even though the level of football in Japan is not that of the United States.

“He has already gotten used to the team,” Araki said. “He is devotedly working very hard. He has made a great influence on the team.”

Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

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