The sport that comes so easily to Haruki Nakamura — the one that fuels his passion, paid for his college education and that could someday soon earn him an NFL paycheck — was at one time outlawed by his mother.
Nakamura, a senior free safety at the University of Cincinnati and an Elyria native, was strictly forbidden to play football growing up. His family, of Japanese descent, raised him to excel in judo. But in the sixth grade, Nakamura’s older brother, Yoshi, enrolled him in a youth football league at St. Jude’s.
For a while, Haruki tried hiding his newfound hobby. But after his third practice, Nakamura’s mother grew suspicious by the sight of her son lugging home shoulder pads and a helmet from school.
So began the promising career of Nakamura, whose eye-popping hits and infamous discipline in pregame preparation have made him a cornerstone of the Bearcats defense.
Nakamura is hoping to close out his college career in memorable fashion, as 20th-ranked Cincinnati (9-3) takes on Southern Mississippi (7-5) in the PapaJohns.com Bowl on Saturday afternoon in Birmingham, Ala.
Nakamura’s tale of sneaking football practices behind his mother’s back is told with hearty laughter. He comes from a tightly woven family, with Haruki proudly referring to himself as, “the world’s biggest mamma’s boy.”
But that apple pie demeanor belies a razor-sharp competitive edge that cherishes the chance to plaster a wide receiver lunging to make a catch.
At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Nakamura has proven that his modestly-sized frame is capable of unleashing some devastating licks. In fact, it’s a point of pride for him.
“A lot of people assume that because I’m not that big of a guy, I wouldn’t be a physical player,” said Nakamura, who attended St. Edward High. “It’s true. I’m not 6-2 and 225 pounds. But in my eyes, that’s part of the fun. I like surprising people.”
Nakamura, while athletically gifted, approaches the game like a classic underachiever: consuming any and all information about his opponent, tirelessly devoting himself in practice to refine his skills.
Haruki was only 5 when his father passed away. Though Ryozo Nakamura might only be a distant memory to his son, his legacy is stamped onto his family like strands of DNA: never be outworked, never lose focus of the task at hand and never stop forging ahead until your goals are accomplished.
It’s an approach Yoshi says comes from their father.
“That definitely started with our dad,” said Yoshi, who was a two-time U.S. National Freestyle Wrestling All-American, placing sixth at the 2004 Olympic trials. “He instilled in us a sense of work ethic and taking pride in what you do. Our whole family believes in it.”
Nakamura’s family excelled in judo — where his father was an eighth-degree black belt, his mother, Karen, was a fourth-degree black belt and his siblings combined for 10 national judo championships.
The same disciplines that Nakamura grew up devoting to the art of judo transfer seamlessly to football, he said.
“When you train, you have to be focused alone on training — nothing else,” he said. “You want to have fun, but you’ve also got to make sure you’re doing quality work. Just because you’re out there on the field and running around doesn’t mean you’re really focused. That’s something I really take to heart.”
Nakamura was named a senior captain for the Bearcats this year and helped lead them to a 6-0 start, including a pair of signature victories which skyrocketed Cincinnati to its first nine-win season since 1954. The Bearcats beat Oregon State in the season’s second week, followed by a 28-23 victory over No. 21 Rutgers on the road — the first ranked opponent Cincinnati had beaten away from home since knocking off Southern Miss back in 2004.
For the second time in his career, Nakamura was the team leader in tackles with 86, and added four interceptions.
“This is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve gone through as an athlete,” said Nakamura. “This program has really come of age — you could see it every year since I’ve been here.”
Nakamura will finish his degree in criminal justice, with a minor in communications, this March — graduating a full quarter early.
But a 9-to-5 job will be on hold for a while. After all, his prospects for a career in the NFL have never looked brighter.
Last month, Nakamura was received an invitation to attend the Hula Bowl, a college football all-star game NFL scouts use to evaluate draft prospects. Nakamura will play for the East Squad, set for Jan. 12 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Scouts have compared Nakamura to other undersized safeties that have thrived in the NFL recently, such as former Ohio State standout Donte Whitner, who was drafted in the first round in 2006 by the Buffalo Bills, and Bob Sanders of the Indianapolis Colts.
For now, though, Nakamura’s eyes are trained solely on Southern Mississippi and somehow finding a way to slow down the Golden Eagles’ explosive passing attack. As he talked about the Bearcats’ defense, he described its transition into a cohesive unit and the values he holds dear.
“It’s become a family,” he said. “That’s something very important to me. And you learn to grow together as a family.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7135 or at email@example.com.
THE NAKAMURA FILE
WEIGHT: 190 pounds
POSITION: Free safety, punt return specialist
KEY STATS: Team-leading 86 tackles, four interceptions
FAST FACT: As a junior at St. Edward, Nakamura nearly quit football after growing frustrated being relegated to the team’s third-string quarterback. In 2002, St. Edward was loaded with two quarterbacks that went onto considerable fame: Troy Smith, who later won a Heisman Trophy at Ohio State, and Sean Carney, who had a standout career at Navy. Torn between football and wrestling, Nakamura eventually chose the gridiron, where he found his niche on defense. Quarterback, apparently, was not meant to be.