BABSON PARK, FLA. (AP) - Three years ago, Soslan Gagloev was on top of the sumo wrestling world.
A prodigy in Japan’s celebrated sport, at the age of 19 the Russian was rising in the country’s premier sumo division.
But a 2008 arrest for marijuana possession and his allegations of match-fixing weeks later eventually got him a lifetime ban and led to him leaving his adopted home of six years.
Three years later, at Webber International University, a private NAIA school just 45 minutes south of Disney World, Gagloev’s future is slowly straightening out. And he is finding both solace and redemption in a new sport: college football.
Last month, Japan’s sumo association began questioning dozens of top wrestlers in a growing investigation into the same bout-fixing charges that Gagloev made before his dismissal. He says it’s given him vindication, but also strengthened a dream to one day play in the NFL. It’s a long shot, he knows, but part of a larger healing process for a man that has already had one career taken away.
“I came to reach an American dream and I understood clearly at the time that I need time to do that,” Gagloev said with the aid of an interpreter. “I need time to get adjusted. I need time to achieve. … I sacrificed my family just to come to this country and go to school and learn the culture and learn the football and do the best I can.”
Entering his second year at Webber this fall, the 6-foot-4 offensive and defensive lineman has already undergone a major physical transformation from when he arrived here in 2009. He knew only of football through television then, barely spoke a word of English and was armed only with a handful of contacts, including California Sumo Association director Andrew Freund.
Freund used his connections to get Gagloev a workout in Chicago with then-San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary.
Gagloev said Singletary put him through a few drills, but it was clear quickly the 425-pounder was nowhere near ready for professional football. His 40-yard dash time? An unflattering 9 seconds.
“It was one tryout in stadium,” Gagloev said. “But my mind is so (naive), I think when I come ‘I’m sumo wrestler, trained in Japan. I think in 1 second I come into NFL.’”
In California, Gagloev also came across contacts that eventually led him to Webber and a chance meeting with Nodirbek Talipov, a fellow Russian.
Through his ties with Webber professors, Talipov had helped several international students get enrolled there. He immediately did the same for Gagloev, and the two became friends.
“When I met him he was a little disappointed by himself and he didn’t speak much English,” Talipov said. “All of that frustration got into him. I met him and I convinced him, ‘Give me two or three months. You can definitely be who you want to be in this country.’”
In his first season last year, Gagloev shed over 100 pounds and is currently around 280. He is still very raw on the football field, but Webber coach Kelly Scott said the passion he has is apparent.
Former Warriors safety Vince Anderson became Scott’s first Webber player to play in the NFL in 2010. Scott said Gagloev is a long way from doing the same. But he said his sumo skills are unique.
“I think the fact that one, he trained for a professional athlete for so long in the sumo. We knew he had a work ethic,” Scott said. “My evaluation of him was off of sumo film. And what I saw was a young man who had good feet, good balance and a lot of strength and power.
“This was a dream of his and I said, ‘You know what? Every now and then you take a project on.’”
As for the sumo scandal in Japan that was reaching feverish levels before the country was crippled by the recent earthquake and tsunami, Gagloev _ known as Wakanoho when he wrestled _ still maintains that everything he said previously was true.
He also maintains that he lost his wallet and when it was found by Japanese police it had the marijuana inside. He said his Japanese lawyer told him that if he didn’t take the rap for possession, he would almost certainly face five years in jail.
“I probably would have spent all of my money,” he said. “The sumo federation knew the logistics, they knew the details of how the law works and they played that card.”
Gagolev said his heart still goes out to Japanese people following the recent disasters and said that though he’s recently received apologies from the Japanese media about how his sumo career ended, he’s ready to move on.
“I was offered a few weeks ago, but I had to decline it because I’ve already transformed into a totally different athlete,” Gagloev said. “I’m here and I want to achieve what God’s given me here. I’m a football player and I want to continue living in this country.”
Scott said realistically Gagloev will need a full four years before he can get any serious looks. But for now, just the opportunity is enough for Gagloev.
“It was a good experience,” he said through the interpreter. “I thank Japan for the opportunity I was presented with. I took that opportunity and I did the best I could. Whatever happened to me in Japan, it was the best school of my life. If it wasn’t for Japan, I would not be here, people would not know about me.”
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