Outside of the United States, the game of football commonly refers to players kicking a circular ball with checkered hexagons in hopes of putting it in the back of a net on either side of a field. However, on Jan. 22 in Tokyo, a completely different kind of football was played.
On that day, in Tokyo National Stadium — a 68,000-seat venue built for the 2020 Olympics — five Penn football alumni helped lead the Ivy League to a 24-20 victory over all-stars from the X-League, Japan’s national football association.
The five former Quakers were among 52 athletes led by former Penn and current Columbia coach Al Bagnoli. It is not the first time the Ivy League has traveled to Japan to play football, as the Ivy Epson Bowl faced Ivy League and Japanese all-stars against each other from 1989 through 1996.
Former Penn running back Isaiah Malcome was named MVP of the game after rushing for 45 yards and a touchdown while adding another 40 yards through the air. But while he feels proud of his performance, the adventure was also important, calling "the opportunity to play in the Tokyo National Stadium where the Olympics were held, it’s a once in a lifetime experience.”
Malcome wasn’t the only player from Penn to shine for the Ivy League. Former Quakers wide receiver Ryan Cragun and quarterback Ryan Glover linked up 10 times for 175 yards. Glover finished the day 18-28 for 274 yards and an interception. Tight end Shane Sweitzer added one reception for two yards, while cornerback Jason McCleod helped hold Japan’s quarterbacks to a completion percentage under 50%.
Despite these efforts, however, the Ivy League struggled against the Japanese team, trailing until late in the fourth quarter until Glover had an 18-yard rushing touchdown to give the Ivy League a 24-20 lead, which they held.
“It was definitely a hard-fought game," McCleod said. "I don’t think anybody expected to us win by only four points, but I won’t complain about that part. We definitely won.”
“Hats off to the Japan guys,” Glover added, “They were playing extremely hard in every level of the game, offense, defense, and special teams. I do think they caught us by surprise with their talent in a way and in their execution. I think they were a very disciplined team.”
Sweitzer was the only player to suit up for the Red and Blue in 2022, but all five said that when they heard about the opportunity from Penn coach Ray Priore, they were eager to put their name up for consideration to represent the Ivy League.
“It was pretty much a no-brainer for me,” Cragun said. "Right from the jump, I was pretty excited about the trip and ... was pretty adamant about going,” Sweitzer added.
For Sweitzer, who played his last season of Penn football this year, the Dream Bowl was a perfect way to end his career as a Quaker, calling the trip “a last hurrah to be able to use football this one last time to get to experience going to Japan. It was definitely something that I obviously have football to thank.”
Since the other four have not represented Penn for a season or two, the game was an opportunity to reconnect with former teammates. This was especially true for McCleod, who has several years of fond memories battling Cragun during practices at Franklin Field.
“My best experience through college, at least on the football field, is competing with him and seeing what’s working for me," McCleod said. "If I tried it on him and it worked, I’m like, ‘Okay cool, I can do it on the field.’”
Cragun enjoyed reconnecting with his former teammates and catching passes from his old quarterback, saying “it was awesome playing in that stadium and playing again with all those guys that I used to play with."
At the same time, while they reconnected with former teammates, they found themselves playing alongside athletes from other Ivy League schools — whom they had considered enemies for years.
“It was very perspective shifting; obviously, I see these guys in a different light," McCleod said. "I see them now as brothers and teammates, but before, I saw everybody in the Ivy League as just about the worst person that I could come across.”
The players were also able to forge bonds beyond their own team. According to Malcome, despite a language barrier and the game's competitiveness, both teams exhibited incredible sportsmanship.
The players were also grateful for the kindness of the Japanese people they met, with Sweitzer saying that "they appreciated us coming out there, and we also really appreciated the fact that they would host us."
“It was a life-changing experience for me. From even the first time we pulled into the driveway on the bus, they came to the entrance to greet us," Malcolme added. "The hospitality they showed us was second to none.”
In the days before the game, the team traveled around Japan — such as the U.S. Embassy, high schools, and colleges — where they met Japanese football players and ran training camps. As they worked to spread the game that many of them have played for most of their life, it gave the players a moment to reflect on their role as ambassadors.
“There were a lot of different people that I met that were curious and seemed very interested in American football," Sweitzer said. He said that it was an honor "to represent American football the best I could and help accelerate that process of growing American football in Japan.”