You Come At The King, You Best Not Miss

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers WR Donnie on top of Osaka's Sky Building — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, June 13, 2017
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers WR Donnie on top of Osaka's Sky Building — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, June 13, 2017

In the second of our series of interviews with XLeague players we talk to Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers WR Donnie King.

The former Rainbow Warrior is the longest serving foreign player on the Challengers roster and the only American holdover from last season.

He’s joined this year by QB Alex Niznak who has moved over from Brazil’s Recife Mariners.

It’ll be the first time for King to play in Japan with an American signal caller and he’s relishing the opportunity.

“I am a guy who likes to run and I'm a guy who likes to beat someone man to man. So having an American quarterback is a great thing for me. There's nothing wrong with a Japanese quarterback. But an American QB can actually throw it a little bit farther and a little bit harder. So for me being a wide receiver, it's a great opportunity and I'm very excited for it. I've actually got overthrown. That [hasn't] happened in a very very long time. Alex actually overthrew me in the Amagasaki Bowl cos I misjudged his arm.”

King and new QBAlex Niznak discuss a play — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, May 21, 2017
King and new QBAlex Niznak discuss a play — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, May 21, 2017

It’s not just arm strength either where Niznak makes a difference. The Central Michigan man is actively involved in the playbook. Work visa issues meant Niznak had to sit out the spring tournament but he was active on the sidelines calling plays and offering advice.

King is excited about that saying “he works very well with the Japanese Offense Coordinator, Fujii and also has input from last years quarterback so it's a really interesting offense. I'm telling you, you guys need to be excited. You guys are going to be entertained. It's going to be a Challengers side no one has seen.

That much was obvious in the games Asahi has played so far. King was heavily featured and used on some creative reverses against the Black Eagles. One went for a 44 yard gain.

"The reverse was really because, like Alex just wanted to be like, 'Hey, you know what we just gonna do this', I was like 'Okay'. But I was gassed because Alex decided to run the ball all the way from the 60-yard line. (Laughs) And I was just like, 'Are you joking'?!!

It should be noted that a few foreign players in Japan on certain teams like the Challengers regularly play both ways as well as on special teams so conditioning and gaining match fitness can be tough going early in the year. 

"I was actually supposed to play corner [last season] but the way things worked out...it just depends how the season goes. Even now I know how to play corner but it's more of the fact that they need me on offense. And I'm already playing special teams. So for me to play corner too would be like I guess you could say a little too much. I'm always down for the grind don't get me wrong, but we have good corners right now."

King featured heavily in Challengers preseason games — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, May 21, 2017
King featured heavily in Challengers preseason games — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, May 21, 2017

Of course King has spent several seasons in Japan so at this stage he knows what to expect and how best to prepare, but just how did a business major end up playing football in Japan?

"I finished college and I knew I wanted to play football so I was debating between China, Japan and trying out for Canadian football. China was actually starting an Arena Football League. One of my coaches had a connection through China. So, they sent me the email "hey we want you to try out" I talked to a few teams and they wanted me to come up but the deciding factor was, do I wanna learn Chinese or do I wanna learn Japanese?  Living in Hawaii, tourism you know. Japanese is the way to go. I actually really enjoy Japanese people. Y’know living in Hawaii you get a lot of tourists and most of them are Japanese. It was more of a future plan for me along with enjoying myself in the moment. I wanted to continue playing football but wanted to do something towards my future so I actually had contact with one of my former teammates [who] played in Japan the year right before I came and he was telling me a little bit about it then he got me connected with Challengers. [They said] 'we can’t promise you anything but we can give you a fair tryout' so luckily I was allowed to come up. I packed everything, I mean I got two suitcases and it was pretty much ‘you’re going to Japan, you don’t know anyone and you’re going to try out for this team’. I came to Japan and tried out for the team and Matsumoto our head coach said “you know what I want you part of the team” and we went from there.

Challengers WR Donnie King in front of an Asahi Soft Drinks vending machine — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, June 13, 2017
Challengers WR Donnie King in front of an Asahi Soft Drinks vending machine — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, June 13, 2017

For King the 2017 season comes after a difficult time personally. His mother passed away last month at the age of 58. He will honor her throughout the season by wearing his hair in the style she liked. "I have naturally curly hair I'm putting into kind of a Hawaii style. My mom always said she likes my hair when it's long. She didn't really like when I cut my hair into a fade. [To pay] tribute to my mom I'm actually gonna just grow my hair out for a while. That's why I've actually put it in the Hawaii hairstyle. My mom just always liked my hair curly cause I have naturally curly hair and, so, it's just something for her."

King, like many Hawaiians, places a great importance on 'ohana'. He even chose his jersey number because of a family member. "Number one was something special I believe to my dad as well, who's [had] the biggest impact in my life. One God. He's a very religious person. I'm not spiritually religious but I do believe in God. And it's just something that I could do for him. To him, [the jersey number] doesn't matter but to me, it feels like I'm giving something to him."

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers WR Donnie King on Osaka's HEP5 Ferris Wheel — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, June 13, 2017
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers WR Donnie King on Osaka's HEP5 Ferris Wheel — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, June 13, 2017

King as a veteran third year player also has added responsibilities on the team.

"I'm pretty much like sempai to the younger guys. For the foreigners I tell them this is how you catch the train. I mean it's very hard to catch the train in Japan especially if you [aren't used to] trains. I have to make sure I show up to the extra practice. We have an extra practice and the coaches like when I'm there. Off the field I have to make sure I'm working out, I have to make sure that the younger guys -just make sure everyone stays out of trouble, take them out things like that, just kinda have fun. Right now it's Alex - but Alex is Alex so I don't need to hold his hand - he has his own goals. So it's just things like that. I've actually taken in one corner and he's labeled as my one kohai. My first kohai. His name is Kai There's no one above him. He's just my first kohai cause when I first came me and him talked. And I took him with me to go do, I would say a DK work up (laughs) and he died. (laughs) He died but the best thing about him is he didn't quit."

Challengers WR Donnie King during his team's playoff loss to Fujitsu Frontiers — John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, Nov 12, 2016
Challengers WR Donnie King during his team's playoff loss to Fujitsu Frontiers — John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, Nov 12, 2016

That willingness to work hard and put the team and others first has ensured a smooth transition and been a big part of King's success in Japan. When asked about what kind of advice he'd give players preparing to come to Japan he said.

"The first thing is to learn Japanese, First reading. You can always pick up on speaking when you're here, but, learning how to read is pretty important. Second thing is you have to have the mindset of 'I'm going to do it for a long time.' Cause it's not just, for me. I've already committed that I'll probably be in Japan till I'm thirty. Maybe a little bit longer. If I can stay till longer then I plan on being here even longer, hopefully playing football until I leave. Or if I ever leave we'll see. I really enjoy the Japanese lifestyle I love ramen out here. But after that number three would be, be open minded. You're in another country, there's a different culture set, different core values. Japan is a bit different from America,  and that's just something you have to accept. But besides that there's nothing really, you gotta have the mindset of going out there to do my best. So as long as you always do your best in everything I don't think you can fail."

King is a big fan of ramen — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, June 13, 2017
King is a big fan of ramen — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, June 13, 2017

King hasn't completely acquiesced to the Japanese way of doing things however. "Well for me when I first got here, like I said, I love to talk smack. As practice goes I talk smack. At first, they didn't catch on to why I do it, but it's just to raise the competitiveness - not saying it's not competitive - it's [just] a different atmosphere because it's a little bit more friendly. Japanese people are really like quiet. But you realize now the teams that have Americans, there will be Japanese that are a little bit different than most other Japanese. And those are the guys who hang out with the Americans. Like I said my kohai Kai, I had to coach him up man, I had to coach him up on his style, he was dressing a little weird. (laughs) I'm like man, you can roll your socks up a little bit higher you can let it sink you know. You can tape up to here don't just be plain be different. Have your own style, have your own swag. So, Kai actually has his own swag now. It's funny cause someone actually made a comment like 'Kai dresses good', I was like 'oh yeah cause he's my kohai. He looks more American now right?' and they looked at him and said: 'yeah more American'. The way you carry yourself you can tell he's an American, or you can tell like he hangs out with Americans. Watch any game and you're gonna realize that there are certain guys that look different. And those are the guys that are influenced by Americans in a positive way cause it's about being unique."

When asked if he brought a little bit of an edge, a little of color to the game and to the team, King laughed and said.

"Oh man, me being me being dark skinned I definitely bring color." 

 - John Gunning: July 23rd 2017


Continental Drifter

Globetrotting QB Niznak Reaches Main Destination With Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers 

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak with his new jersey at a shrine in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak with his new jersey at a shrine in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017

When Alex Niznak eventually takes the field as the Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers’ new quarterback, he will not only be playing on a fourth team in a fourth country in less than two years, it will be on a fourth continent.

Talk about a well-traveled athlete.

Following his final season of college football in the U.S. in the fall of 2015, Niznak played successive seasons in Sweden and Brazil. Through all the globetrotting though his first choice of destination was always Japan, and after missing out on one team, he has landed with the Challengers and hit the ground running.

Challengers QB Alex Niznak with an Asahi Soft Drinks vending machine — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017
Challengers QB Alex Niznak with an Asahi Soft Drinks vending machine — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017

"It was kind of a situation where, when I sat down at the end of the year, I was looking for a way to get back to Japan," Niznak said in an interview with Inside Sport. "I did a lot of networking and reaching out to people I knew or were connected with the league through other people that I knew.

"Asahi was a situation where they were looking at the same time I was looking. In a league where there are only so many openings, and there's only so many people looking for this position, it just worked out that we were both looking at the same time."

The 24-year-old Niznak had come to Japan the previous year at the invitation of the Obic Seagulls to try out for the job that eventually went to Jerry Neuheisel of UCLA. Neuheisel left after one season to pursue a coaching career in the States, but by then, Niznak was already firming up his deal with Asahi Soft Drinks. Obic ended up signing Ikaika Woolsey of Hawaii University. "It worked out for both of us," Niznak says.

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak at a shrine in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak at a shrine in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017

Niznak, who at this point appears to be the lone American player on the roster of a team that had three last season, says that his adjustment is going well despite the obvious language barrier. Part of the reason, he points out, is that the route he took to Japan was different from most of the American quarterbacks who have preceded him, which he feels makes him more adaptable.

"For me to come here to Japan and have to...meet a new team and new organization and new culture and new language, that's the third time I've done that in a year," he says. "I've learned to be very flexible. I think the greatest advice I got about playing international football is you need to be very confident, and be comfortable being uncomfortable.

"It's true, it's great advice. But at the same time, I give [the team] all the credit in the world. They've done the best they can to keep me informed and give me things that I need in English. The rest of it I ask a lot of questions, and my Japanese needs to get better really quickly."

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak at a train station in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak at a train station in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017

Asahi Soft Drinks can only hope the 190-centimeter, 102-kilogram Niznak can throw his weight around and make a quick impact on the team. The Challengers only league championships came when they won back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001, and they haven't made the semifinals since 2003.

The Challengers, based in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, have long been a powerhouse in the X-League's West Division, but have been perennial bridesmaids to the rival and far more successful Panasonic Impulse. Prior to the revamping of the league format last season in which the top teams were grouped in a Super 9, Asahi Soft Drinks won the West Division title only once in the previous decade, in 2008.

"Panasonic is a quality team with a championship history, and the fact that we want to compete with them tells me that we're very interested in getting back to where we were as an organization in 2000-2001, and that's competing for championships," Niznak says.

Challengers DB Paul Porous retired at the end of 2016  — John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, Nov 12, 2016
Challengers DB Paul Porras retired at the end of 2016 - John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, Nov 12, 2016

Last season, the Challengers had three American players on the roster---defensive back Paul Porras, wide receiver Donnie King and tight end Darwin Rodgers---but finished the regular season 2-4 and lost in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Porras retired after the season, while word is that King and Rodgers won't be returning (the team would not confirm anything regarding foreign players, despite the fact that it plays its first game in a week).

Knowing the history between the two teams, Niznak looks forward to clashing with Panasonic, the 2015 X-League champions."First of all, it's great to have rivalries," he says. "At any level of football, rivalries make the game special. To me, I have the utmost respect for every team. It could be Panasonic, it could be Fujitsu, Obic, IBM. It doesn't matter to me. Obviously, we want to be 1-0 every week, and my focus is on our first game on the 5th."

Whether Niznak's first encounter with Panasonic, or any other team for that matter, comes this spring or in the fall remains to be seen. As of this writing, he is still waiting on the visa that would let him play. Asahi Soft Drinks has a game scheduled for May 5 against the Elecom Kobe Finies in the Green Bowl, the spring tournament for the top four West Division teams.

The Challengers and Impulse could meet in the final on May 21.

"Whenever I get to get on the field and play, whether that's against Elecom or against Panasonic, I'll be ready," he says.

In the fall season, Asahi Soft Drinks is slated to face Panasonic in the second week. The Challengers will also face the defending league champion Fujitsu Frontiers and the IBM BigBlue, both of whom are led by high-profile American quarterbacks.

Niznak looks forward to not only taking on such strong foes, but also meeting his American counterparts. He regards them, along with longtime stars such as Obic defensive end Kevin Jackson, as trailblazers whose success opened the path for players like him to follow to Japan.

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak with his new jersey at a shrine in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak with his new jersey at a shrine in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017

"For me, first of all, I want to meet those guys and build a relationship with Colby and Kevin and guys that have been here," he says. "Because I know that where I'm at today, I'm standing on the shoulders of guys like that. Guys like Kevin Jackson and (former Rise defensive back) Reggie Mitchell, who came here when not many other people had done it.

So, I'm thankful to them.  And then guys like Colby and guys like Kevin, are guys that came here, competed and played at a high level and proved that an American quarterback is what you need."

Niznak established his credentials when he led Ithaca (Mich.) High School to a 14-0 record and the 2010 Division 6 state championship, although his college career would be far less glamorous. One of the top recruits in the nation, he remained in state and went to Central Michigan. Having red-shirted one year, he finally saw action in his junior year, but appeared in just two games, completing 13 of 27 passes for 138 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Completing his degree in sports management and business administration in three years, he then transferred to Southwest Missouri, where he played while earning his masters in higher education administration. Injuries and other factors, however, limited him to four games in 2014 and one in 2015. He was a combined 6 for 14 for 42 yards with one interception.

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak at a train station in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak at a train station in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017

His collegiate career over, he was not ready to hang up his cleats. Asked what compelled him to continue, he replied: "Football, how could you walk away from it?"

When the Obic situation failed to pan out, Niznak accepted an offer to play for the Tyreso Royal Crowns of the Swedish league, one of the strongest in Europe but still well below the level in Japan. He led the team to a 5-5 record and took it as far as the semifinal.

That season was not even finished when he worked out a deal with the Recife Mariners in Brazil. Their season started the week after Tyreso's ended, but he was on the field for the opener of an experience that was quite eye-opening.

In Brazil, soccer and is the undisputed king and has a religious-like following in the South American nation. So it was a welcome surprise to Niznak that American football had managed to find a niche in the sports-crazed country.

"I think they're a little bit behind teams like Germany, Austria and Sweden, countries that have been playing a long time," Niznak says. "But I think they're catching up pretty fast. They just have such a passion for what they're doing, and then that paired with the fact that the country has hosted the World Cup and then the Olympics, there's just so many venues for them to play in."

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak at a shrine in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers QB Alex Niznak at a shrine in Kobe — Lionel Piguet, Inside Sport: Japan, April 25, 2017

Niznak said that games often drew 3,000 to 4,000 fans, with a high of 15,000. Those are numbers that X-League officials would love to have. With the exception of the championship games, which always attract crowds of over 20,000, regular-season games rarely exceed 2,000. And Japan has been playing the game since 1934.

Niznak said he was not only impressed with the crowd size, but that the fans in the country famous for its carnival often created a festival-like atmosphere that would last long after the games were over.

"We would come out of the stadium and they would be out there," he recalls. "There would be food trucks and they'd have all these tables set up and the fans would stick around and you'd do autographs and pictures. They didn't want to go. It was amazing. Nobody wanted to go home. To see how much they truly loved the game, I was excited by it."

For now, Niznak is finding excitement both on and off the field in his newest host country. With practices limited to weekends in the X-League, he takes every opportunity to go off exploring when he is not fulfilling his broadly defined employment duties, which mainly seems to consist of meeting sponsors and others in the Asahi group.

"Right now it's amazing," he says. "I just finished my first month, every single day has been different. I really love the cultural aspects here. I've done a lot of traveling. I've been to Kyoto, I've been to Nara. I've been to as many different places as I could go. During the week, that's when I can take a day or two off, and that's when I like to travel."

After all the mileage he has put in over the past year, Niznak would like nothing better than to put down roots for a while in Japan. It intrigues him the way that players like Jackson, who is starting his 13th season with Obic, "cracked the formula" and found a way to carve out of life here.

"Japan is where I've wanted to be for a long, long time," he says. "So to finally be here, I wake up every day excited about it, because it's like having a dream that finally comes true."

As he settles into his new home, Niznak is raring to get the latest stage of his career off the ground.

 - Ken Marantz: May 1st 2017