Stories of student-athletes that truly excel both in the classroom as well as on their respective playing field, never get old for anyone interested or involved in college sports.
Another great example of one can be found right here on the San Jose State University campus. His name is Hiroki Akiyama, and in addition to being arguably the top scholar-athlete in the entire 16-sport Spartan program, he has a rather unique tale to tell about the long, winding road he took from his native Japan, through the suburbs of Boston, to Spain, all the way back here to San Jose, and also about going from a walk-on tryout hopeful, to now being a two-time all-conference selection and senior team tri-captain on scholarship for the Spartan men’s soccer program.
Born in the quiet, rural Japanese city of Muroran, Akiyama has memories of picking up a soccer ball at a very young age. Fast forward to years later, and the high school graduate had put it firmly in his head that he wanted to pursue playing college soccer in the United States.
“I was looking for a place where I could play Division I soccer, and a university that had the major that I wanted, which was kinesiology,” explains Akiyama. “Coming from a part of Japan where it snows, I was also looking for a place that had good weather, where I could play soccer all year round.”
Arriving that summer in Bridgewater, Mass., at Division III Bridgewater State College, Akiyama observed one practice and quickly decided that it wasn’t for him.
He was a Division I player.
Joining a friend in Madrid, Akiyama spent what amounted to a year and a half in the Spanish capital, taking soccer coaching classes, playing in an adult league and learning the Spanish language, before discovering San Jose State on-line from afar.
“I had a Spanish friend in Boston, and he invited me to come to Spain to learn about soccer. From there, I had two choices. Either go to college in Spain, or go to college in the United States. In Spain, sports are not very big in college, so I would have had to find a club team. To do that, I needed connections, and I didn’t have any, so I decided to come back here. Universities in America have a great environment to play sports in.”
Now in San Jose as the fall 2004 semester neared, having had no contact yet with the Spartan coaching staff, Akiyama was told that it was too late to join the team at that time for that season. He proceeded to get his academics in order that year while leading his squads to a pair of intramural soccer titles.
That feat did not go unnoticed, and brought Akiyama one step closer to his goal.
Then-Spartans Nelson Diaz and Marvin Sorto had seen Akiyama perform on the intramural playing field, and gotten word to head coach Gary St. Clair and his staff. When he approached again about an opportunity to join the squad, they were already aware of his abilities.
Akiyama still had to try out, but made the team and walked on for the 2005 campaign. Having not played competitive soccer for over two years, the original idea was that he would redshirt the year.
“Obviously, I had to do some catching up. I had to adapt to the speed of play, but after a month, I did that, and (Coach St. Clair) asked me to be on the roster.”
Eight games into the season, on September 29, 2005, his number was called late in the first half against top area rival Santa Clara, and the journey was complete.
The holding midfielder has been a fixture in St. Clair’s lineup ever since, playing in all 57 games between then and now, with 52 starting assignments, including 45 straight heading into the Spartans’ 2008 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation opener at Sacramento State this Sunday, October 5.
Athletically, Akiyama has earned second-team All-MPSF distinction following each of the past two seasons, and has contributed seven goals, four of them game-winners, and five assists, for 19 total points in his career thus far. In this, his final season in a Spartan uniform, he is currently tied for second on the team points chart with six from two goals and a pair of assists. His first goal of the year was the first for the Spartans in 2008, the game-winner in a 3-0 shutout victory over Notre Dame de Namur. The second was a memorable bicycle-kick goal to open the scoring in a 2-1 home defeat of Seattle.
Looking back, Akiyama reflects on his on-field memories as such.
“This year, I am playing pretty well. I have the most control during a game, and I am enjoying playing with the team. Obviously, my best goal was the bicycle kick. It was unexpected. It was something I was dreaming about for a long, long time, for years.
“I’ve seen many good players in this program, and I’ve tried as hard as I can to be the best player I can be. Now in my senior year, I knew that I could be one of the best players and a leader on this team, so I’ve just kept working hard. I’m older than most of the guys, being that I’m two years behind, so I have the experience and the maturity, mentally, and just the ability to be professional about everything.”
“Hiroki is a warrior,” says his coach, Gary St. Clair. “He has been a wonderful servant in this program, and whatever he gets, in terms of all-conference honors, or team honors by being a captain, he justly deserves. He is an intelligent and hard-working player. I could play him in five or six positions, and probably improve those positions. This year, I’ve just been extremely pleased that he is having a good season, a good senior season, and I hope that he finishes as a champion.”
Akiyama has collected numerous academic accolades to boot. He produced the fourth-highest grade-point-average of any male Spartan student-athlete in 2006-07, earned National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA)/adidas College Scholar All-Far West Region honorable mention that year, and was a member of the 2007 CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District VIII Men’s Soccer First Team. He is a three-time Academic All-MPSF selection and two-time San Jose State University Scholar-Athlete. Akiyama is set to complete his degree requirements in kinesiology at the conclusion of this fall semester.
“My policy is to focus on both academics and sports,” says Akiyama. “It’s not that hard, because we only have two hours of practice a day. It’s tiring, but everybody else that isn’t a student-athlete, either has a full-time job, or has other things going on, so it’s basically the same for me as it is for other students. I just do what I need to do. That’s my policy.”
“He’s the epitome of a student-athlete,” adds St. Clair. “He is a kid that takes care of his business in the classroom. He understands what he has to do, and is extremely focused. The young man is going to be successful. I could use many more like Hiroki. He’s been a real find for us, and just a great player to have over the last four years.”
Having interned this past summer back home in Tokyo, Japan, for an agency representing professional soccer players, helping with organizing travel, among other tasks, Akiyama would like to try his hand at business, and has already begun to apply for jobs when finding free time away from his studies and soccer obligations.
Akiyama’s long-term goal includes starting a sports-related business of his own, but for the near future, as far as he has come, you would be hard-pressed to put a soccer career past him just yet. Before all else, he plans to give the professional combine circuit a whirl when his days with the Spartans are over.
“I would like to try to play professionally, but I know that it’s very hard. It’s a difficult thing to play in the pros, and usually, they wouldn’t be interested in picking up someone my age (25 in December). That is why right now, I am interested, but at the same time, I am looking for a job.”
Whatever he winds up doing, Akiyama is certain to succeed. Job number one at the moment, is helping Spartan Men’s Soccer to its first conference title and NCAA Championship appearance since 2003. That quest starts Sunday in Sacramento.
2008-09 Friday Features
September 19 - David Richmond, Football
September 26 - Yonus Davis, Football
October 3 - Hiroki Akiyama, Men's Soccer