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Nakamura goal-oriented, team-oriented

Posted May 23, 2012

CHARLOTTE - As a sixth grader, Haruki Nakamura went behind his mother's back to play football for the first time.

Nakamura's days of sneaking up on people are behind him.

After backing up surefire Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed for four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Nakamura is seeking a bigger role in his first season with the Panthers.

"When you come into the NFL, your ultimate goal is to make a football team," said Nakamura, signed by the Panthers on March 16. "Then each year, you take your goals and bump them up."
 
The Panthers return starting safeties Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin, but after ranking in the bottom quarter of the league in pass defense and passing touchdowns allowed last season, they improved their depth by adding Nakamura and San Francisco 49ers veteran Reggie Smith via free agency.

Reed taught Nakamura a lot about being a starter but was simply too good to give him any opening to become a starter. So Nakamura made his mark as a special teams stalwart, something he'll continue in Carolina while hoping to earn more chances in the secondary as well.

"I've always been the guy where if you ask me to do something, I do it," Nakamura said. "Special teams or defense, I'm willing to do whatever it takes.

"I know it's for the team, to make the team better. I'm a very unselfish player. That's just who I am, the way I was brought up and the values I learned from my family."

Nakamura grew up in the Cleveland area. His father, Ryozo, was an eighth-degree black belt in judo who moved from his native Japan to the United States in 1960 to coach the U.S. national team. His mother, Karen, was a fourth-degree black belt from Rhode Island who met Ryozo through judo.

Ryozo died of lung cancer when Nakamura was five years old.

"I still remember to this day him in our two-bedroom apartment with a hospital bed in the bedroom," Nakamura said. "As a kid you don't really realize that you were giving your father one last kiss, but the next morning I walked into the room to see how he was doing, and he was gone. He left me his brown blanket and his aftershave that I always used to steal from him.

"We grew up with basically nothing, and it was hard, especially after my dad died with my mom raising four kids by herself basically. When you see that as a kid, you don't really understand it, but as you get older, you begin to realize the struggles that your mom went through just to keep the family afloat. It was an amazing thing to see. A lot of my work ethic comes from what my mom taught me."

Nakamura said he and his three siblings were raised with the idea that they'd become Olympic judo champions, and all four did win national championships at various points. Their mother maintained her husband's rule of no football in the house after his death, but one of Nakamura's older brothers took matters into his own hands when Nakamura was in sixth grade.

"My brother saw that I had an aggressive attitude that he thought would fit good with football, so he snuck me into a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) program without my mom knowing," Nakamura said. "My mom found out a couple of weeks later when I brought shoulder pads and a helmet home. She just said, ‘Well, if you're going to play, you're not quitting.'

"I fractured my wrist a couple of weeks after the first game. Instead of being the mom that says, ‘You're done playing,' we got it casted and she went to the store, bought two soccer shin guards, taped them on my wrist and said, ‘You're playing football.' "

Nakamura hasn't looked back since. He played collegiately not too far from home at the University of Cincinnati, then the Ravens picked him in the sixth round of the 2008 draft.

Now, he'll do all he can to make the Panthers a better team.

"In Baltimore, we stressed that every player was a starter because it's the next-man-up philosophy in the game of football," Nakamura said. "I'm having fun here. This is a good group of guys, and I'm learning a lot from them."