Duty commitments sack USFJ-AFL title game again
For the second time in three years, no championship game will be played to complete the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League season.
With duty commitments facing regular-season champion Yokosuka and runner-up Kadena, Commissioner Joseph Howell called off the title game, scheduled for Sunday at Yokosuka Naval Base, and declared Yokosuka the league champion for the fourth straight year.
Howell, the outgoing commissioner, made the announcement Thursday in an e-mail to coaches of the league’s seven teams, after hearing from Dragons coach Glen Ballard and Seahawks coach Isaac Lee.
Ballard said Thursday he had just 14 players available to travel.
“There’s no way I’m going to subject 14 players to a road trip to Yokosuka to play a championship game,” Ballard said, adding that he would be without eight defensive starters and three offensive line starters, with one regular running back.
“They could be gone for as long as six months,” Ballard said. “They’re all heading out. It’s all real-world stuff. ... We can buck a lot of things, but we can’t buck a government.”
Sunday had been viewed as the last possible opportunity to play a title contest before year’s end, with the Seahawks “expecting a major deployment” of fleet vessels soon, Howell said.
“Therefore, we will not be able to decide our league championship on the field this year,” Howell wrote in his e-mail. “This leaves me with no other decision but to declare our regular-season champion, Yokosuka Seahawks, overall champion.”
Howell cited the 2001 season, which also ended without a league championship game in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“I know this decision is not popular with some of you,” he said, “but we were faced with [the] same conclusion after 9/11.”
The decision brings to a bitter end a season that began with the promise of a bright future for the league. Two new teams — Courtney-Hansen and Futenma — were added on Okinawa and Howell, a veteran player and coach of the Yokota Raiders, stepped into the shoes vacated by former commissioner Tim Buck, who resigned on April 1.
Through the season’s first 10 weeks, play went off without a hitch, with only one game pushed back because of duty commitments.
The season turned sour after Aug. 2. Eight games were called off, for reasons ranging from duty to transportation to lack of field space, and three were forfeited.
“It’s been that way all season,” Lee said. “Everybody has commitments. I have the utmost respect for Glen. If he says he can’t go, he can’t go. But any time something like this happens, it hurts the league as a whole.”
Only twice since the 2000 season has the league held a title game. Yokosuka beat Yokota 12-6 in the 2000 contest and Yokosuka downed Misawa 16-6 last September, both games played at Yokosuka Naval Base.
“I don’t know where we’ll go from here,” Lee said. “My big concern is, will we even have a league next year?”