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TOP > What’s New > Soga’s saga: Ex-Fujitsu cheerleader defies age, serious injury to take 2nd shot at NFL

What’s New

Soga’s saga: Ex-Fujitsu cheerleader defies age, serious injury to take 2nd shot at NFL



Two years ago, it was all going according to plan when Sayuri Soga suddenly felt something wrong with her right knee, although she would not immediately know nor even imagine the extent of the damage. Nor the extent that her life plans would be so dramatically altered.


It would be several days later, when she was within sight of achieving her dream of becoming an NFL cheerleader, that she was hit with the harsh reality that the journey was over. The emotional pain was as intense as the physical.


“I had been selected as a finalist, putting me one step [from my dream], but I had to drop out before the final dance test. I was absolutely devastated, and cried and cried,” recalls Soga, who is currently in Tennessee, where her persistence has taken her for a second attempt to make the NFL.


Soga of course is not the first Japanese cheerleader to take a shot at making it onto an NFL squad. Handfuls of Japanese have made the cut annually over recent years, and at least two have already secured spots for the 2017 season.


But what makes Soga’s venture unique is that she first took up the challenge in her 30s, at a time when most have already hung up their pom-poms, and that she never abandoned her dream even during a grueling two-year rehabilitation, which followed the reconstructive surgery on a torn ACL that scuttled her first attempt.


Through sheer will, determination and hard work, the 34-year-old Soga has put herself back within grasp of the prize. Trying out for the Tennessee Titans earlier this month, she was chosen among the 57 women who will vie for 27 places at the final audition on May 3 in Nashville.



For her first attempt two years ago, Soga gave up everything to pursue her dream. A cheerleader for the Fujitsu Frontiers for eight years, she quit both the squad and her full-time job as a licensed nutritionist. She bore the vast expenses of flying to various cities in the United States, attending pre-audition workshops as well as the tryouts.


It was at one workshop, where the participants learn the dances to be used at the tryouts, that Soga felt pain in her knee. Afterwards there was swelling, but she could walk and move around, and did not believe it to be serious.


But it was while warming up for an audition that her knee gave way on a jump, and she realized how grave the situation was. It left her with a dilemma.


“While I was warming up, I made just the slightest jump, but I collapsed to the floor when I landed. That was the first sign that something was seriously wrong,” Soga recalls.


“Not knowing what had happened to my own body, I started to panic. What happens if I fall during the dance portion of the audition? I broke out in a cold sweat and I’m sure my face turned pale.”


Still, she was hopeful that the injury would heal with time, and remained optimistic. But it was before the final audition for one team that she had to make a tough decision.


“At that moment, I still did not know what the actual condition of my knee was,” she says. “If I kept dancing, could it make it worse and maybe have some life-altering effect on me, such as not being able to walk again? What would I do? Let’s say I made the team. If I couldn’t fully participate in all activities for the year, that would inconvenience the team. There was so much conflict in my mind.”


So close yet so far, she was forced to abandon the quest. Given all she had gone through to get to that stage, amid the expectations of friends and family back home, her grief was immeasurable.


“I gave up my job as a nutritionist that I had held for many years, and quit the [Fujitsu cheerleading] team that I loved. I had gone against the objections of my parents. But most of all, everyone in Japan had supported me and expected me to succeed.”


But as anyone acquainted with the spirited Tokyo native knows, if Sayuri Soga is anything, she’s an eternal optimist.


“Naturally, the shock was tremendous. But I told myself I could just try again and be even better. That allowed me to change my outlook quite quickly and keep [the disappointment] from dragging out.


“I have always kept a positive attitude, while those around me had always given me tremendous support. In fact, it fired me up to overcome this adversity and attain my dream for sure!”


Soga’s enthusiasm has never waned, since her first encounter with cheerleading at her entrance ceremony for high school, where the school’s squad put on a performance.


“It was love at first sight,” Soga says. “The sight of their bright smiles, the way they had fun dancing, the energy flowed right to me. The upper-grade cheerleaders immediately become my idols.”


Soga had studied classic ballet as a child from age 3, and was quite athletic, playing a variety of sports such as volleyball, basketball, tennis and swimming during her school years. But dancing became her calling, and she tried out for the high school cheerleading team. Only six members from each class year were selected, and she was among them.


She continued at Nihon University and, after graduating, became a cheerleader on the Nissan team of the X-League. It was at that time that she first became aware of the NFL.


“The director at that time was Ai Yasuda, a former cheerleader with the 49ers,” she says. “I dreamed of becoming an NFL cheerleader like her through her actions and teaching.”


After Nissan disbanded its football team, and with it the cheerleading squad, Soga moved to Fujitsu, where she would be influenced by another 49ers cheerleading alumnus, Keiko Saito. Her dream of the NFL grew more fervent.


“From that year, 2008, I went to watch the Pro Bowl and participated in an NFL cheerleaders dance clinic held at the site. Such an experience on American soil only strengthened my desire,” Soga says.



“I had wanted to take a shot at the NFL in my 20s, but with my activities at Fujitsu, I had many things to learn, and it presented me with the environment where I could grow as a cheerleader and as a woman.”


After her ill-fated attempt to make the NFL in 2015, Soga returned to Japan and underwent tests on her knee, where she was informed that she had torn her ACL and would require surgery. During her time in the U.S., she had consulted with sports trainers and physical therapists, and had been resolved to the inevitable outcome.


The surgery was successful, but she encountered a bump along the road to recovery and had to give up on trying to make the NFL the following year.


“I went through post-surgery rehab and resumed dancing in December [2015],” she says. “But I started feeling pain in March and became to feel anxious and impatient.

More than I imagined, I was unable to move, I couldn’t dance, there was a difference between right and left, and there was the fear of tearing the ligament again.


“I became incredibly aware of just how difficult it was to recover from ACL reconstructive surgery. Even so, I was still clinging to a dream. I believed that by making an effort, I could still achieve it, so I couldn’t give up.”


In her final season at Fujitsu, the Frontiers captured their first-ever league and national titles, and the cheerleaders, known as the Frontierettes, were named the Cheerleaders of the Year. It marked the perfect way for Soga to go out and launch her NFL quest.


While Fujitsu games draw in the low thousands, as many as 30,000 fans turned out to the championship games. Soga relishes the prospect of performing in front of crowds more than twice that size during the regular season.


“Being able to perform in front of a crowd of 30,000 at Tokyo Dome is something I will be proud of my whole life and regard as a wonderful experience,” she says. “Even with that experience, I’m sure it will be even more emotional to perform in front of a sellout crowd at an NFL stadium. Whether I get to make it onto that field of my dreams will depend on the total effort I make at the audition.”


Confident that she has regained the dancing ability required to make the NFL, Soga has taken measures to overcome a barrier that her compatriots often face abroad—the language problem. Since this winter, Soga has been enrolled in an English language school in the States, balancing classes with dance lessons and training in the gym.


“The biggest hurdle is the cultural aspects such as English ability, much more than dancing,” Soga says.


Soga also sees a difference in the place sports holds in the U.S. compared with Japan.


“Sports are popular in Japan, but in America, it is a part of everyday life and is firmly embedded in the culture,” she says. “American football is a part of American social life, part of the culture, so it is one aspect that is difficult to grasp for a Japanese who was born and raised in Japan.”


It will be the Japanese trait of persistance to overcome adversity that will earn her a place in that most American of cultural settings.


—Ken Marantz for the X-League