Yesterday, though, the latest contingent to stop in China’s capital was a little different. It was somewhat of a homecoming for Ed Wang, who became the NFL’s first player of full Chinese descent to play in the NFL after the Buffalo Bills drafted him last year. Wang (whose Chinese name is Wang Kai, or 王凯）visited Beijing along with Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice, and retired players Barrett Green and Jack Brewer.
As the players mixed it up in a flag football game with local college students, and tossed balls with a group of kindergartners, I had a great chat with Ed’s parents, Nancy and Robert, who were taking in the scene together with some of their former teammates and friends.
The Wangs were on China’s national track and field team in the 1970s and 1980s, and played a big role in Ed’s development as an athlete, as detailed by this excellent article from The Buffalo Story Project (The Rookie: Chinese, and in the NFL). “Nancy was in charge of his speed training, and I took care of weightlifting,” Rob says. Ed loves the game himself, but his parents did encourage him to play football, based on his size and athletic gifts (he now stands 6’4″ and weighs over 300 pounds). Robert adds that he wishes he had had the chance to play the game himself; he was an accomplished high jumper, and most of his team sport experience was in handball.
Football, American-style, only has a tiny fan base in China. But Robert Wang is a ready evangelist for the sport, and believes it has a good chance to catch on in his birth country. “There is no question about it. Football is the best game in the world,” he says. “It’s the ultimate team sport, and it teaches kids discipline and toughness. These are things Chinese parents want for their kids today.”
Can football really catch on in China? It’s a question I hear often, and there are certainly some characteristics that make the sport a difficult sell in this market. The game is violent, and people here seem to show a general preference for games with less contact. It’s also a complex game, not easily understood by the casual viewer, which has yet to catch on outside of North America.
Ed’s parents, much more familiar with China than their son, don’t think that either of these are deal-breakers for the sport here. “Injury is part of sport,” says Nancy, whose hurdling career was plagued by injuries. “Just because the percentages are higher in football, that’s not a reason not to play.” As for the game’s opacity, the Wangs have fielded questions about rules and strategy from their old friends throughout their son’s career, and say that, once people learn a little, the game’s intricacy adds to its appeal.
After a losing season in which he saw limited action, Ed’s offseason focus needs to be on his own game, not the future of the sport in the country where his parents grew up. But at the end of the afternoon at Beijing’s Shijingshan Gymnasium, he said what he had seen Tuesday made him optimistic. “To be honest, I had no idea there were organized groups playing here,” he says. “If you understand the game, of course you start to enjoy it more.”
If you want to know more about Wang’s path to the league, the above-mentioned The Rookie: Chinese, and in the NFL, from The Buffalo Story Project, is an excellent profile.
Tags: Ed Wang, football, NFL, 王凯