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U.S. Marine Corps Camp Fuji Headquarters Battalion honor guard members, from left, Private 1st Class Anthony Garcia, Cpl. Edoardo Castillo, Cpl. Nicholas Sanders, Sgt. Jose Zamudio and Lance Cpl. Robert Hynes prepare to present colors during Saturday's American Bowl in the Tokyo Dome.

U.S. Marine Corps Camp Fuji Headquarters Battalion honor guard members, from left, Private 1st Class Anthony Garcia, Cpl. Edoardo Castillo, Cpl. Nicholas Sanders, Sgt. Jose Zamudio and Lance Cpl. Robert Hynes prepare to present colors during Saturday's American Bowl in the Tokyo Dome. (Roger Harnack / S&S)

TOKYO — While the Buccaneers kept piling on points in Saturday’s American Bowl, Brian Watkins kept up a steady stream of cheers.

In the upper-level stands of the Tokyo Dome stood the 21-year-old petty officer second class assigned to the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge. He cheered throughout while waving a large garnet and claret-colored flag adorned with Tampa Bay’s swashbuckler mascot.

“It’s the first NFL game I’ve seen in my life,” said Watkins, a native of Tampa, Fla. “And look who’s down there but the Super Bowl champions. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I might never get to do this again.”

Watkins was part of 43,601 at the 12th NFL preseason American Bowl staged in Japan since 1989. Roughly a third of the crowd were Americans, with close to 2,000 GIs, DOD civilians or family members.

Louis Carneskie, a 28-year-old petty officer third class, took the bullet train from Sasebo Naval Base, some 700 miles southwest of Tokyo, to cheer the Bucs, who routed the New York Jets 30-14.

“I really feel lucky, really happy the NFL does this,” said Carneskie, an Augusta, Ga., native assigned to Sasebo security. “This gives me a chance to not only see football, but my team.”

Things didn’t look good for the Bucs early. They fell behind 7-0 on LaMont Jordan’s 1-yard first-quarter TD run, and a group of Jets fans from the Marine base at Camp Fuji couldn’t have been happier.

“New York represents to the fullest!” exclaimed David Merizalde, a 23-year-old corporal and Brooklyn native. “You know how us New Yorkers are.”

He was part of a group of four who traveled with a bus full of Marines from Fuji. They each paid an extra 5,000 yen (about $43) to exchange their “nosebleed” seats atop the Dome for lower-level seats.

“It’s worth it,” Merizalde said. “It’s a one-time experience. You get to be at a football game, be on TV, I’ll never forget this.”

While the Jets clung to a 7-6 lead after a pair of Buccaneers field goals, Merizalde was already making post-game plans: “We’ll go out and celebrate the Jets’ victory in Roppongi after the game tonight. They [Jets] are the real champions, we know that.”

Up in “nosebleed” territory, their fellow Marines sat in a section adorned with a Camp Fuji flag. A couple of them said the trip to the Dome was worth it regardless of where they were seated.

“We got to take pictures with the cheerleaders of both teams,” said Richard Lord, 21, a corporal from Foley, Ala. “That alone was worth it, right there.”

As the Bucs’ defense smothered the Jets and the offense piled up points, some New York fans found their plans for the evening going up in smoke.

“This isn’t turning out like I wanted it to,” Merizalde said, slumping in his seat. “We’re losing. I can’t cheer anymore.”

Such wasn’t the case for Will Badillo, a Zama American High School junior who accompanied a tour of 25 from Camp Zama’s youth center and marveled at the Bucs’ defense, which includes star lineman Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks.

“They’ve got the best defense,” said Barillo, who felt fortunate to see an NFL game so close to home.

“It’s great that we’re getting recognized and that the NFL is thinking about us over here,” Badillo said.

Besides the game, the entertainment included a halftime performance by rock group Cheap Trick.

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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