Haruki Nakamura talks with head coach Ron Rivera during practice. (Chuck Burton / Associated…)
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Had he chased the dreams that his late father had for him, Haruki Nakamura might be in London about now, slamming Olympic judo opponents to the mat.
Nakamura is at Carolina Panthers training camp instead, securing his role as a special-teams standout and, just maybe, the starting safety.
Although he grew up near Cleveland and has never visited Japan, Nakamura embraces his Japanese-American heritage and the teachings of a martial art once thought to be his destiny.
"Judo has nothing to do with how big you are; it's about leverage, footwork and technique," said Nakamura, 26, the son of an eighth-degree judo black belt and backup to All-Pro safety Ed Reed in Baltimore the last four seasons. "As a defensive back, it's definitely gone hand in hand for me. I've taken a lot from it."
Nakamura, listed second to free safety Sherrod Martin on Carolina's depth chart, is relatively unknown in this country. However, he's starting to become known in Japan, where pro football is slowly gaining popularity. By the league's count, the country has 6 million NFL fans. Each season, a Los Angeles-based TV crew from NHK-Japan makes a special trip across the country to check in on Nakamura.
"Hard-core NFL fans know him in Japan," said Miyuki Iwasaki, a sports director for the network, adding many people became aware of Nakamura last year when he raised money for victims of the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the country.
NFL players of Asian descent are rare, though some are notable. The mother of former Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward is Korean, as are those of retired safety Will Demps and linebacker Ben Leber, as well as both parents of former lineman Eugene Chung. Former USC and NFL receiver Johnnie Morton has a Japanese mother; defensive tackle Dat Nguyen is Vietnamese; safety Kevin Kaesviharn's father is Thai; and the father of linebacker Kailee Wong is part-Chinese.
Proud as he is of his heritage, Nakamura said his name might have narrowed his college options when he was coming out of all-boys St. Edward High in Cleveland.
"I had a full-ride scholarship to the University of Cincinnati," said Nakamura, a first-team All-Big East safety for the Bearcats. "But let's be honest, when you see a 5-10, 180-pound kid, and then all of a sudden you see Nakamura, the last thing you're going to think is football."
That's not an issue anymore. After establishing himself as a reliable special-teams player with the Ravens, he signed in March as a free agent with Carolina, where he has a much better chance of earning a starting spot on defense.
"He's savvy enough now, he's been around enough winners, he understands the game in a different way than a lot of players," Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said. "He understands it almost from a coaching perspective. Some players ask you, 'Why am I doing this?' like they don't want to do it. He wants to know the tactical reasons and big-picture philosophies."
Like all NFL special-teamers, though, Nakamura also has a screw loose. That was evident as a 3-year-old child, when he quietly hoisted himself onto the roof of the family's one-story apartment in Elyria, Ohio, and began running back and forth, inching ever closer to the edge.
"There was a bike leaning on a fence, and the fence led to the roof," recalled his older brother, Yoshi, who was supposed to be watching him. "This happened in a matter of six seconds when I wasn't looking. He was fearless and obviously athletic. You knew right then and there, it was either going to be great or disastrous with this kid."
Academics and athletics were paramount in the Nakamura household. Father Ryoko was a judo master and onetime coach of Japan's Olympic team who came to the U.S. in the 1960s to teach the sport. While visiting Rhode Island, he met his future wife, Karen, a fourth-degree judo black belt.
They raised four children, three boys and a girl, the youngest being Haruki, or "Ruki." Yoshi was the most adept at judo, winning eight national championships as a junior before switching to wrestling. In his final two years of high school, he won consecutive Ohio wrestling championships and went on to become an All-American wrestler at the University of Pennsylvania. He now works on Wall Street.
"Yoshi's two inches shorter than me and probably 30 pounds lighter, but he could probably still take me," Haruki conceded. "He's just wise. I'm still a young bull."
It was Yoshi who opened the door for 10-year-old Haruki to play football. Their father, who had died of lung cancer five years earlier, did not want his sons playing the sport because it put their knees at risk.
"School was first, but sports was right there on the heels of school," said Karen, who was 17 years younger than Ryoko. "My husband would have had the children in judo were he alive today."