Saturday, September 4, 2010

PEELER: QB of the Rising Sun

1898 graduate Teisaku Sugishita

Japanese-born Teisaku Sugishita, starting quarterback on the football team from 1895-97, was the first Asian graduate of the North Carolina School for Agricultural and Mechanic Arts (later NC State).

Sept. 1, 2010


RALEIGH, N.C. - In the long history of NC State football, which dates back to 1892, who is the most interesting quarterback to ever take a snap from center?

Is it current starter Russell Wilson, the two-sport star who wants to be an ESPN broadcaster one day?

Is it NFL star Philip Rivers, the Alabama native who wanted so badly to come to NC State that he waited out the school's 44-day coaching search and became Chuck Amato's first recruit when the coach was hired shortly after New Year's Day in 2000?

Is it Erik Kramer, who never started a game in his two years at junior college, yet came to NC State, earned the starting job, was named ACC Player of the Year in 1986 and had a long NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers?

Is it Jim Donnan, offensive leader of the 1967 Wolfpack, who was an ACC champion tennis player who went on to have a Hall of Fame college football coaching career?

Is it Roman Gabriel, the Wilmington, N.C., native who was recruited here to play football, basketball and baseball? On his recruiting trip, the football coaches deliberately refrained from taking him to crumbling Riddick Stadium. Instead they wowed him at Reynolds Coliseum with three consecutive days of the Dixie Classic.

Is it Artie Rooney, the nephew of NFL founder and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, who played for Doc Newton's Wolfpack in the late 1930s?

Don't cast your ballots until you know a little bit about one of the first quarterbacks in school history: Japanese-born Teisaku Sugishita, the first international student to graduate from the North Carolina school for the Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and one of the first Asians to ever play college football.

Just how this native of Kofuku, Japan - a tiny town in the central Gifu Prefecture, about 100 miles from Tokyo - made his way to Raleigh, N.C., in the late 19th century is a mystery that is lost to the vestiges of time. Perhaps he fled the region following the devastating Mino-Owari earthquake of 1891, the largest earthquake to ever hit central Japan.

Or perhaps he was part of the Japanese government's attempt to modernize during the Meiji period of industrialization on the island nation.

"One of the ways Western technology was imported was by sending Japanese students abroad and supporting their study in American and European universities," said John Baugh, director of the North Carolina Japan Center and an NC State professor of civil engineering. "While British railroad engineers, Dutch civil engineers and other foreign advisors were hired by the Japanese government, providing scholarships for Japanese engineers to study abroad was seen as a more cost-effective way to gain access to the best ideas and technology.

"Between the 1860s and `80s, about 20 Japanese had been sent to the United States to study in various fields of engineering, with most of them returning to work in government positions, as did Mr. Sugishita, who worked for the Imperial Railway of Japan immediately upon returning."

The sparse school records of the time show that Sugishita enrolled in the civil engineering program in the fall of 1894, as part of the fourth freshman class in school history.

Shortly thereafter, he joined the football team. He clearly wasn't scared away by the less-than-virile school colors of pink and blue that the football team wore at the time, or the brown and white it switched to for the 1895 football season. Sugishita surely liked it, though, when students voted in the fall of 1895 to change the colors yet again, this time to the same red and white that adorned the famous flag of his native "Land of the Rising Sun."

How he learned the game of American football - which didn't become popular in Japan until about 40 years after Sugishita migrated to Raleigh - is a bigger mystery still. Likely, he learned the game like all the other farmers and engineers enrolled at the North Carolina School for Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, on the plowed agricultural fields surrounding the campus.

Like all students at the time, he was proficient enough in English, mathematics and North Carolina history to gain admittance into the land-grant university on the west edge of the state capital. He probably complained, like most of the other students of the day, about the three hours of military training and marching he had to do every single day and the 12 hours of manual labor he was required to do every week (probably in the blacksmith shop). But he paid his $38 a year for tuition, room and board, and in four years earned his degree.

Not much is known about Sugishita's playing career, though the Atlanta Constitution referred to him as "the young Japanese, who played such a good quarter back and made a number of beautiful tackles throughout the game" in its story about NC State's 42-6 loss to Virginia Military Academy on the grounds of the Cotton States and International Exposition on Oct. 25, 1895.

Two years later, he was teammates with Edwin Bentley Owen and George Frederick Syme, two future NC State leaders who have on-campus dormitories named in their honor. That team lost to Guilford, 18-0, and North Carolina's scrub team, 40-0, but beat Davidson, 19-0, in its third and final game of the year.

At most, Sugishita played in 12 collegiate games while at NC State, two fewer than Rivers played in his junior season of 2002 alone.

Of course, the quarterback was hardly the same kind of leader of the offense he is today. It was one of four backfield positions in the earliest days of football. The fullback - the deepest back behind the line of scrimmage - was the most important player on offense. The halfbacks lined up halfway between the fullback and the line of scrimmage and the quarterback lined up a quarter of the way between the fullback and the line of scrimmage.

Football at the time was a violent sport, and Sugishita would have been a ball carrier in the offensive schemes of the day. Using brutally effective military tactics like the flying wedge was hard on unpadded and unhelmeted players of the day. Four players were crippled for life in the 1894 game between Yale and Harvard, leading to the suspension of several popular rivalries. But NC State has never missed a season since it began sponsoring a varsity team in 1892.

Sugishita earned his degree in civil engineering as part of the 16-member class of 1898. His senior thesis detailed the design of a steel highway bridge.

Soon afterwards, he returned to Japan and began working in the lucrative silk trading industry. After he was drafted into the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), his life took many twisting and tragic turns, and he stopped communicating with his friends back in North Carolina.

In 1923, former teammate Sydeham Brevard Alexander Jr. of Charlotte began a quest to find his long-lost friend, after a full two decades without hearing from him. Through Alumni director Tal Stafford, Alexander contacted the American Embassy in Tokyo and received the following letter, dated May 19, 1923, from Charge d'Affaires Hugh Wilson:

With reference to your letter of April 13, 1923, regarding Teisaku Sugishita, a Japanese who was graduated from the North Carolina State College in the Class of 1898 and has not been heard from by the College since the Russo-Japanese War, I beg to state that the Embassy has been informed that Mr. Sugishita's present address is No. 11, Kawata-cho Ushigome-ku, Tokyo, Japan.

After his graduation from the North Carolina State College, Mr. Sugishita became a member of the Survey Department of Tokyo, then a director of the Hida Industrial and Products Bank, and later president of the Silk Yarn Company of Gifu Prefecture. At present time Mr. Sugishita is suffering from paralysis, but according to Mrs. Sugishita is gradually improving.

A letter that followed from Sugishita's nephew, S. Hara, on August 24 told a much sadder story.

I am very sorry to say that he is now in bed, being suddenly stricken by `cerebral-hyperaemia' - congestion of the brain - last December. He had been at one time very critical, fortunately got narrow escape of his life, but can't speak nor write a letter to you.

Since he had graduated from the state university of North Carolina and then returned to Japan about 15 years ago, he engaged in agriculture and raw silk trade. He recently came up to Capital and located at No. 11 Kawadacho, Ushigome-Ku, Tokio. He like the liquor very much and this is really the cause of his present disease. In Japan where there is no legal prohibition of alcoholic drinking, there is a great many liquor intoxicating people. I earnestly hope that Japan will soon be a `dry country,' following the example of your country.

Sadder still was what happened next: Before Alexander had a chance to respond, shortly before noon on Sept. 1, 1923, Tokyo was rocked by the deadliest earthquake in Japanese history. The Great Kanto quake, as it was known, registered more than 8.0 on Richter scale and lasted nearly 10 minutes. The devastating disaster hit right around lunchtime, when residents and street vendors were cooking over open flames, and deadly fires swept through a good part of central Japan.

In all, an estimated 140,000 people died in the natural disaster, a number greater than the single-day death tolls at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

In the November issue of the NC State Alumni News, a short update was included about Alexander's successful quest to find his old friend, followed by this editor's note: "It is very probable that both Sugishita and his nephew perished in the Japanese fire and earthquake."

Wednesday is Earthquake Prevention Day in Japan, established as a memorial to the Great Kanto Earthquake 83 years ago in which one of NC State's most interesting football players perished.

You may contact Tim Peeler at

1 comment:

  1. Hunter Hale - Tokyo and HendersonvilleNovember 8, 2010 at 4:25 AM

    This is a truly amazing, if sad, story. Sugishita-san would probably be happy to know that "American Football" is now a well-established sport here in Japan, especially at the University and industrial league levels. May his memory live 10,000 years, as we say here in Japan, both as an inspirational and a cautionary tale. Banzai! Thanks to Tim Peeler for this interesting recount of a remarkable life.