Opinion: Finding Meaning

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East Meets West—On the Gridiron

By Skip Hellewell

American football is just that—American. Lists of sports rank it as low as ninth most popular in the world, tied with another local innovation, basketball. It’s a curious thing how our sports haven’t spread the way as, say, our music and movies have. Unknown to most, there’s an organization, Global Football, working since 1996 to share football to “develop better global citizens.” The innovation of former Notre Dame quarterback Patrick Steenberge, the organization claims to have 356 teams at schools in 28 other countries. Last week, the Panthers from Rits Uji High School near Kyoto, Japan, visited Laguna Beach. Here’s the story.

About six months ago, Laguna Beach High School was invited to host the Kyoto football team, which had made previous trips to the U.S. with Coach John Shanahan’s support. Laguna Beach Boosters Club President Nicole Bogdan organized an eight-day program, including homes to host the 28 players and support staff. It seems a Herculean task, but thanks to the generosity of Laguna families, it all came together to provide an incredible cultural exchange. Here are some highlights.

Laguna Beach football players and cheerleaders welcome the Kyoto, Japan Panthers for a week of football and fun. Photo/Beth Garlock

A reception for the arriving team was held at the high school, complete with cheerleaders, football players, Laguna families and a taco truck. After resting on Sunday, the visitors worked out with Laguna High’s football team during the week with activities in the evening. These included a party for 250 people, generously hosted by the Jason and Gorjana Reidel family, surfing lessons at Doheny Beach taught by a surfing pro, a sunset party and bonfire with s’mores at Three Arch Bay, and an Angels baseball game where the visitors bought everything Ohtani. On Saturday, the visitors visited USC, took in a Rams pre-season game, and prepared to return home. Though stranded in Los Angeles for a time while a typhoon cleared Japan, the week was a memorable experience for all.

The Lily and Michael Burdiek family learned so much about Japanese youth culture despite visiting the country many times. 

“The visitors loved shopping more than anything,” Lily said. “Though our boys work hard at school and football, it’s nothing compared to the Japanese who, with commuting, go from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.”

Hamburgers were also a big hit with the visitors. Steve and Jennifer Roop, who enjoyed an enriching experience hosting, didn’t let their guest leave without “experiencing the true joy of an In-N-Out double-double.” 

Tish and Lance Jensen said, “It was amazing to see our community come together to give these kids a true Laguna experience. Local favorites were burgers, breakfast burritos, gelato and Cronuts.” 

Jennifer and Sean Murray said their guests started to feel like family and, with several other host families, enjoyed traditional Japanese food prepared by the players.

“The Panthers were surprisingly well coached, had good technique and were big,” Laguna tight end Ryner Swanson said. “One thing that stood out was how attached we got to them. We became good friends, and it was sad to say goodbye. Laguna’s team is looking forward to a future possible trip to Japan.”

Coach John Shanahan summed it up as an incredible experience. 

“Our guests were outstanding and brought so much to our community,” he said. “Our host families and players were spectacular. Our community never ceases to amaze me. Laguna Beach is a special place. We’re all lucky to live here.” There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ’50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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