ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Some 45 years ago, Wade Phillips started his coaching career as the defensive coordinator for a high school in Orange, Texas. A lot of ground has been covered in his football life since.
And yet in this training camp with the Denver Broncos, Phillips has been reminded there is always room for something new and unexpected.
“I’ve seen a lot of things, and if you’re around this game long enough, you’ll see some things," Phillips said. “But I can say I probably never thought football would bring a guy like Keita to come work with us, to come all that way to try to do something he wants to do."
Keita Iizuka is a 31-year-old coaching hopeful 5,800 miles from his job as an assistant football coach at Tokyo’s Hosei University. He is spending the summer refining his craft with the Broncos.
Iizuka is a coaching intern in training camp while 41-year-old Takeshi Hasegawa, who also works at Hosei University, is an intern with the team’s equipment staff. The two will spend much of training camp embroiled in the hour-to-hour flurry of training camp.
“He’s a football coach, and by that I mean it’s what I grew up as, a football coach," Phillips said. “I got a lot of help from a lot of people to be able to be where I am. People were kind enough to talk to me about football, let me be around football. Of course, my dad was a coach, so that impacts that, but those football people always have let me be around the game. I've always tried to do that too."
“I would like to try to be a head coach," Iizuka said. “But I am a youngest guy among the coaches, by a lot maybe, but I want to try. So this is a great thing, because I don’t think many Japanese coaches could get this kind of opportunity. And [Hasegawa] is going to be the first professional equipment guy in Japan for football, I know it. There isn’t a full-time professional guy, I don’t think, so he’s going to be the first."
The long and winding road was first carved for the two by Hasegawa, who was an intern for the Broncos' equipment staff during training camp in 2008 -- Mike Shanahan’s last season as head coach. Hasegawa also has spent time with the equipment staff at the University of Colorado as well as the Quad City Steamwheelers of arenafootball2.
“This is my second time with the Broncos, and I hope to make them happy with our work," Hasegawa said. “Right now, our team at Hosei, they have summer camp, but our head coach told us to come to Denver. Everybody has been so good to me, I respect all of them very much, they are all hard workers, and you can see they have great feeling for what they do."
Iizuka has attended staff meetings with the coaches and has been on the field during practices and walk-throughs. And his own history in the game can be seen in his gait as he works with the staff on the field.
Iizuka was a kicker for the Amarillo (Texas) Dusters in arenafootball2 for two seasons, and in 2009, as he tried to make a tackle on a kickoff return, he broke his neck. He said this week that he was paralyzed for weeks following the injury and wondered for a time whether he would walk again.
“I was running, trying to save a touchdown, I was a kicker," Iizuka said. “[I was] paralyzed like three or four months, no feeling in legs, was in the hospital in Houston for two months. I went back to Japan like six months after I got injured. [It’s] still difficult to move some of my right side, my leg, my fingers, but I should be OK. I still feel I’m getting better, but I think [the doctors] were a little bit surprised I even get back like this, maybe."
Phillips said Iizuka has been a quiet presence in the coaches' meetings but will leave with no shortage of information.
“He learned a lot about teaching, I think he’s really been interested in the drills, how to teach," Phillips said. “He’s always taking notes."
Iizuka and Hasegawa said Hosei University has about 110 players in its football program -- “We’re the Tomahawks, our colors are orange and navy, just like the Broncos," Iizuka said -- and there is a semi-pro league some players participate in after college.
“The game is getting more and more popular right now," Iizuka said with a smile. “At least I hope so, because I want to coach it."