Far From Sunday's Super Bowl, A Football Championship In China : Parallels A grass-roots league is gaining fans in China; last month, Shanghai's Nighthawks and Warriors vied for the championship. The players learned about football via Hollywood movies and online NFL games.
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Far From Sunday's Super Bowl, A Football Championship In China

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Far From Sunday's Super Bowl, A Football Championship In China

Far From Sunday's Super Bowl, A Football Championship In China

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Today, we're going to focus on the big football game, no, not the Super Bowl, but another recent contest, the championship of the American Football League of China.


In the past few years, a league has emerged in China. Chinese people have learned about football by watching Hollywood movies like "Waterboy" and watching games online. Now they've built their own teams from scratch and given them names like the Combat Orcas and the Pandaman. NPR's Frank Langfitt was there for the league's championship game.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So here at a stadium in the Pudong section of Shanghai, it's a smoggy day. It's the Nighthawks and the Shanghai Warriors, two Shanghai teams, and they're about to kick off.


LANGFITT: So he picks it up at the 5-yard line, and he's heading left around, and, oh, there he goes. Oh, not bad, he's up to the 30, the 35, the 40, not bad.

More than 3,000 fans have come out to root for the crosstown rivals today. Many are friends of players, like Wei Li. She's a neuroscience professor from Shanghai's Tongji University.

WEI LI: I have no idea about this game, and (laughter) this is the first time I watch the football.

LANGFITT: Well, what do you think so far? I know you don't know, but what do you think so far?

LI: I just found two bunch of people just like (laughter) crashed together and grab this ball something (laughter).

LANGFITT: That's not an inaccurate description.

If some spectators are perplexed by the game, the Chinese players are as passionate about it as any you'd find in the U.S. Like the nine other teams in this league, the Warriors are majority Chinese, though they also have many foreign players. After a wild first half, the Nighthawks are up by a touchdown. Back in the locker room, quarterback Tim Gomez from Florida speaks, followed by Chinese defensive tackle Mike Li.

TIM GOMEZ: Hey, as much as you're hurting, they're hurting even worse. So don't even think about quitting. Let's go.

LI: No quitting, we fight. We fight to the last minute, last minute.

LANGFITT: Wide receiver Chris Gardner from Minnesota urges everyone to stay cool.

CHRIS GARDNER: Do not sink to their level. They're losing. They're angry. They're going to get chippy.

LANGFITT: Owen Yan, a 6-foot-3 Chinese defensive lineman, picks up some of the translation for his teammates.

OWEN YAN: (Through interpreter) Guys, pay attention. We now have the lead. They've got more injured players. They are more nervous we are. Keep a good mental attitude. Don't let them provoke you. Don't argue with them, and don't fight.

LANGFITT: Like other players, Yan has a day job, in his case, as a pharmaceutical salesman. He said his first experience with the game came through videos.

YAN: First time I watch a football game is a website from Internet. I was like, wow. This is a game I want to play.


YAN: I don't know. It's exciting. It feels the team like family.

LANGFITT: Some of China's most popular sports are individual and don't involve physical contact, like pingpong and badminton. Players say football provides an opportunity to let out their aggression. Yan's American friends taught him how to play.

So what position do you play?

YAN: Defensive end.

LANGFITT: Oh, that's a fun position.

YAN: It is, my favorite, 75, Deacon Jones.

LANGFITT: Deacon Jones.

YAN: Deacon Jones.

LANGFITT: How do you even know who Deacon Jones is?

YAN: From Frank, my friend, show me the video. I was like, wow, this old guy was amazing.

LANGFITT: For non-football fans, Deacon Jones was one of the great defensive players of the '60s and '70s. He played for the San Diego Chargers, the LA Rams and Washington. And he coined the term sack, as in sack the quarterback. That a Shanghai salesman has modeled his game on an African American Hall of Famer, well, that's globalization these days. As Yan heads out for the second half, he explains that his parents have flown in for today's game from Chengdu, a city more than 1,200 miles away in southwest China. Yan says when he first took up football, they were worried.

YAN: The beginning, they feel this is dangerous. Don't hurt yourself. But after the first time they watch a game, just go, boy, just go. Keep fighting.

LANGFITT: Not every player is as dedicated as Yan. Vladimir Emilien, a former safety at the University of Michigan, coached the Beijing Iron Brothers this season. He came to China on a fellowship that combines coaching football with business internships. Emilien said some players joined the team just to stand out from mainstream Chinese society, buff their image on WeChat, China's biggest social media platform.

VLADIMIR EMILIEN: I mean, I have the positive guys who are very interested, but there are guys there who would possibly come there to just try to take pictures and, you know, just to try to show it off.

LANGFITT: They weren't interested in playing.

EMILIEN: No, they weren't interested in playing. They were just interested in the social media aspect of the game. So that was...

LANGFITT: I didn't know there was just a social media aspect of the game.

EMILIEN: So they would just come to wear the jersey, come to just post it on their WeChats and stuff like that.

LANGFITT: Developing football players at a young age here will be challenging. In the stands today is a civil servant named Zhang who's brought his 5-year-old son, Ziyan. Zhang said he tried to get his boy interested in football but couldn't get anywhere.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Most kids in China are single children, so they resist team sports or sports that are physical and aggressive. When we went to the first football class, he didn't even want to experience it with the other kids.

LANGFITT: Zhang doesn't expect football to catch on here because it doesn't fit Chinese temperament. Football, he says, emphasizes physical force in a sports culture that puts more weight on skill and finesse. But, Zhang says, he believes the game could help toughen up Chinese boys.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Today's boys aren't manly. They should have a pioneering spirit and drive.

LANGFITT: It's now late in the fourth quarter. Time's running out. The Warriors are up by a touchdown, and the Nighthawks have the ball. I watched the final play with the league's commissioner, Chris McLaurin, a former tight end at the University of Michigan who helped build the league.

Whoa, hail Mary.


LANGFITT: The Warriors have the ball, and he's still going. He's still going. He's to the 30, 40, wow, wow. That was an interception and, like, a, I don't know, 50-yard run back.

MCLAURIN: Game over.

LANGFITT: Owen Yan, the Warriors' defensive end, he and his teammates rush into the end zone. They fall on their backs and soak in the victory.

How you doing, Owen?

YAN: So good.

LANGFITT: Congratulations.

YAN: Thank you. This is the best day of my life, the best day of my life.

LANGFITT: The best day in Yan's 32 years, and after three seasons, the Warriors are league champs. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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