Ibuki Ogasawara ’17 first got the notion to play American football when, as a newly arrived first-year, he saw Grinnell’s team eating together in the dining hall. “I wanted to be a part of that,” he says. “That was my motivation.”
Coach Jeff Pedersen ’02 regarded Ogasawara’s request to join the team with understandable caution. The student from Takasaki-Shi, Japan, had obvious athletic ability — at home he’d played baseball, soccer, and finished sixth nationally in a 110-kilometer bicycle road race — but he was a bit undersized for football and completely unfamiliar with the game.
“There is a very limited amount of high school football in Japan,” Ogasawara says. “College football is not even close to the scale of what it is in the United States, so I wasn’t exposed to that culture when I was growing up. I would say most people in Japan don’t know the rules of football or how it works.”
Pedersen first observed the enthusiastic prospect in a beginning weight lifting class. Ogasawara worked out with the Pioneer gridders during his second semester and stayed in Grinnell during his first summer to lift weights and train. Favorably impressed, Pedersen allowed Ogasawara to participate in pre-season practices. In the fall of his second year, Ogasawara was playing cornerback on Saturdays.
“At every step I had reservations about whether he’d ever be able to contribute, and at every step he’s proven me wrong,” Pedersen says. “He brings an energy and excitement to practice every day that is a great example for all our guys, and he’s filling his role very well this year, as a kicker and a defensive back. We’re fortunate to have him on the team.”
In his senior campaign, Ogasawara is Grinnell’s starting kicker. Halfway through the season he’s logged a respectable 53 yards per kickoff and has not missed an extra point. His one missed field goal was blocked.
Not bad for someone who had never booted a football before the 2016 season. “I started from zero,” Ogasawara says. “I’m surprised at how complicated it is. There are so many factors. It’s a very sensitive process to kick the ball straight.”
Mastering the more aggressive aspects of football is a significant challenge, Ogasawara says, but it’s the team play that he finds most appealing. “It’s assignment football,” he says. “If you do what you’re supposed to do, it works out as a team. I really love that ultimate teamwork.”
Pioneers defensive back Joe Galaske ’17 says, “Over the last three years I have gotten to know Ibuki very well both as a teammate and as a friend. He is one of the most hardworking, intelligent, and talented people I have ever had the great fortune to meet.”
Ogasawara’s achievements attracted national attention in September when he was named a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation’s William V. Campbell trophy. Open to players at all levels of college football, the award cites athletic performance, team contribution, academics, leadership, and citizenship.
It’s a rapid ascendancy in only three seasons, but then, when Ogasawara focuses on a goal it seems destined to become manifest. As a high school student, he’d already formed a preference for going to a liberal arts college in a rural setting rather than a big city. He learned of Grinnell in the process of being accepted for a scholarship from the Grew Bancroft Foundation, which specifically aims to help Japanese students attend liberal arts colleges in the midwestern United States.
When his counselor at Chuo Secondary School turned out to be Douglas Emmett ’98, Ogasawara says, “I couldn’t believe that was the case. He helped me a lot.” If that wasn’t serendipitous enough, when they called Grinnell’s Office of Admission, “it was like a coincidence, but Jon Edwards [Grinnell’s coordinator of international admission] was in Japan at that moment. We met outside Tokyo, and that sealed my intent,” Ogasawara says.
Big Opportunities, New Challenges
In addition to having fun with football, the mathematics major is celebrating a recent internship that produced “an incredible offer” to work for Amazon after graduation. He plans to return to his home country as an area manager for Amazon Japan operations after a six-month training period in the States.
But not so fast. Track season is coming and Ogasawara is focusing on yet more athletic challenges at Grinnell. “I never pole-vaulted before last year,” he says. “My goal this year is five meters. I’m aiming at the school record.”
Ogasawara’s personal high is 13 feet 6 inches. The school records for indoor and outdoor pole vault are 15 feet 3 inches and 15 feet 3/4 inch set by Lee Kraemer ’92 in 1992. Considering Ogasawara’s trajectory over the past four years, no one is discounting the possibility.