FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The differences between Fort Collins, Colorado and Wakayama, Japan are stark.
“My hometown is very comfortable,” Hidetora Hanada, a transfer student at Colorado State University, said. “It’s very humid and low [elevation].”
Growing up in Wakayama, which is about 50 miles south of Osaka, young athletes with a propensity for strength and violence had two choices: sumo wrestling or sumo wrestling.
Hanada threw himself into the traditional art of sumo but kept one eye on the horizon.
“I watched the NFL since I was seven years old,” he told our Denver news partners.
In 2022, Hanada traveled to Alabama (of all places) for the 2022 World Games, where he dominated all four of his matches in the heavyweight division to be named the champion.
“[For me, becoming] world champion is easy,” Hanada said.
It was time for a new challenge, so Hanada sought out a scouting combine for the Canadian Football League. Hanada’s rare blend of size, speed, and flexibility he learned through sumo training made for quite a show.
“I didn’t know anything [about him] until I saw his highlight tape,” CSU defensive line coach, Buddha Williams, said. “He put together a highlight tape with sumo wrestling, combine stuff and football stuff. When I saw how explosive he was coming out of his stance, how flexible he was, I was like ‘he’s got some tools that can carry over and translate to this game.’”
Williams knew he had found a diamond in the rough. He connected with Hanada through social media, and eventually the 6', 1", 280-pound junior found his way to Fort Collins.
The first thing he noticed: no good Japanese restaurants (or at least none that stood up to his expert palate).
Next, he had to hurdle the language barrier.
“I started [studying] English eight months ago,” Hanada said. “The language is very hard; I study English every day.”
Even though he may not be fluent, he’s managed to find a love for American hip hop.
“I listen to Polo G every day,” Hanada said.
But this ex-sumo world champion isn’t in Colorado to listen to music or critique cuisine. He’s here to find a way to the NFL.
“I want to play football, but in Japan it’s a minor sport,” Hanada said. “I admire players like Aaron Donald. His technique, his quickness, and his height and weight are the same as me.”
As an apprentice defensive lineman, loving Aaron Donald is darn-near a pre-requisite. Donald is the prototype for the position, and since Hanada’s already in the right weight class, he’s decided to shoot for the stars.
“My goal is to be Aaron Donald,” Hanada said. “So, I need to improve my football skills.”
I know what you’re thinking right about now – this young man is ambitious and a little crazy.
But the crazy thing about Hanada’s dream is that based on his unique athleticism, it’s not really that crazy at all.
“We go all over the country looking for those traits,” Williams said. “Flexibility and strength. Football is all about pad levels, low man wins. To find that he has that, and he’s ultra-competitive. He’s always trying to learn and grow and he’s up to the challenge. Every day he comes out here trying to learn something, learn one thing at a time, and get better.”
He has the raw tools, and he’s learning the football technique, while sharing some of his wisdom with his new teammates.
“I teach [my teammates] sumo techniques and sumo stretches,” Hanada said. “On the other hand, they teach me a lot of football skills. I improve my football skills every day.”
Hanada is like the Japanese Liam Neeson: he has a particular set of skills. Skills that the Rams are keen to utilize this season.
“I can’t say it’s going to be Week 1,” Williams said. “But he’s definitely got a unique skillset that can help us.”
That is, if Hidetora Hanada can survive fall camp.
“I’m too tired, it’s too dry, and I’m a little bit dehydrated,” he said. “[It’s very different] from Japan. Every day [I’m so] tired and sore.”