Babson Park, Florida. Three years ago, Soslan Gagloev was on top of the sumo wrestling world.
A prodigy in Japan’s celebrated sport, the 19-year-old Russian was rising in the country’s premier sumo division. But then he was banned from the sport for life after he was arrested for marijuana possession in August 2008 and made allegations of match-fixing against other wrestlers, causing him to leave his adopted home of six years.
Now he is at Webber International University, a small school in Florida, finding both solace and redemption in a new sport: American college football.
Last month, Japan’s sumo association began questioning dozens of top wrestlers in a growing investigation into the 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 professionally in the National Football League. “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 sacrificed my family just to come to this country and go to school and learn the culture and learn football and do the best I can.”
Entering his second year at Webber this fall, the 1.93-meter offensive and defensive lineman has already undergone a major physical transformation from when he arrived in 2009.
Back then, he knew only of football through television, 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 quickly clear the 193-kilogram former wrestler was nowhere near ready for professional football. His 40-meter dash time? An unflattering nine seconds.
In his first season last year, Gagloev shed more than 45 kilograms and now weighs around 127 kilograms.
Webber coach Kelly Scott says he still has a long way to go before he makes it to the NFL, but his sumo skills make him unique.
“I think the fact that one, he trained as a professional athlete for so long in the sumo. We knew he had a work ethic,” Scott said.
As for the sumo scandal in Japan that had reached feverish levels before the country was crippled by the earthquake and tsunami, Gagloev still maintains everything he said 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 confess, he would almost certainly face five years in jail.
Gagloev said that though he’s recently received apologies from the Japanese media about how his sumo career ended, he’s ready to move on. “Whatever happened to me in Japan, it was the best school of my life,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Japan, I would not be here, people would not know about me.”