Edward Wang, who became in 2010 the first player of Chinese heritage to play for the National Football League in the United States. Photo: SMP Pictures

First Chinese player for NFL tackles sceptics of the game on mainland

Edward Wang, the son of former Chinese Olympic athletes, was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2010, becoming the first player with full Chinese ancestry to play in the National Football League. Now, he's trying to spread his love for the rough, aggressive sport to a new crowd

How did you get started playing football?

When I was six years old. Both my parents were track and field athletes from China, so I came from a sports background. Besides, I was a big kid, so everything just made sense. At that time, I was playing both football and basketball, and these are the two sports I really like. Actually I played basketball all the way to my sophomore year of high school. When I was 12, I travelled to Beijing with my parents. I spent three months training with the Bayi [Ningbo, Zhejiang] basketball team. I had a check performed on my bones to see how tall I would grow. It said only to about 1.96 metres, which didn’t seem tall enough to play basketball. So my parents said football might be a better choice. In fact, I really like basketball, and I always said that I wanted to be the first player with full Chinese heritage to play in the NBA. But then Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming came along, and I realised that I had no chance anymore. So I decided to change my goal to be the first full Chinese to play NFL and began to focus on football since my sophomore year of high school. I went to Virginia Tech for university, where I was given full scholarship to play football. I played for four year for the university team’s left tackle. I was the only full Asian playing at that time, not only at my university, but also the whole United States.

How did you get drafted into the NFL?

A lot of hard work I guess. I was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2010. It was of course my goal to be drafted, but at the time my dream team was the Washington Redskins, because that’s my hometown team. But Buffalo was also a good choice, because it’s a small city in upstate New York, so people are more focused on their football team. It’s similar to a college atmosphere. In big cities, there are a lot of things going on, so you might not be able to become the top priority. But in a small town like Buffalo, football is a top priority to the people. I spent four years in the NFL, including 18 months in the Buffalo Bills, a half year in the Oakland Raiders and one at a training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Edward Wang was drafted by the New York’s Buffalo Bills in 2010. Photo: SMP Pictures

What’s the difference between being a college player and a professional one?

There are a lot of difference. In college, your goal was to enter the NFL, and it’s more about the sport itself, but when you are in the NFL, it’s more like a business – you still have to play, but there are a lot of other business aspects involved. In college, when you are on a team, you are on for four years, but in the NFL, they are constantly cutting or moving people around based on money, so it’s more business.

How did you feel as the sole Chinese player?

At first you feel a little bit left out, because you are just different. When you first get there, people may just mimic you with jokes, like “hey you are Chinese” or other stuff, but eventually when you get closer to the team, and it doesn’t really matter anymore, because we are teammates and you become like a family. As far as I know, I was the only full-blooded Chinese descendant to play football at the university level and also in the NFL. Later in my career, there was another player with Chinese heritage, Patrick Chung, whose is a quarter-Chinese.

How did your career path take you to China?

I was in China in 2011 with the NFL for a two-week promotion in Beijing and Shanghai. At the time football was just starting to pick up. People were quite interested in it, but they didn’t really know what it was. In February last year, after I finished the 2013 NFL season, I travelled to Beijing to help with some training camps for indoor American football for students. The organiser, where I now work, started to talk to me about a possible full-time job here in Beijing to promote indoor American football in China, and I was convinced.

“In college, when you are on a team, you are on for four years, but in the NFL, they are constantly cutting or moving people around based on money, so it’s more business,” says Edward Wang. Photo: SMP Pictures

What’s the biggest challenge to promoting American football in China?

The lack of exposure of the sport. We have huge time zone difference between China and the US, so when games are played on Sunday, it would be Monday morning – a time when people have to work. And because of the lack of exposure, many people don’t really understand the game. Unlike swimming or track, football is a team sport so you are around people and you need to learn how to work with them. Through that, you develop who the leader is. Toughness is also important in the game, and it teaches kids be tough and strong. American football is not an Olympic sport, and as China is oriented around Olympic sports, that is a hurdle. But one day, when you really bring professional American football here, you will create more jobs for people. Eventually we will make the football an Olympic sport, in five to 10 years.

Who is playing football in China?

The market is growing faster than people expected. Especially in Shanghai and Beijing where there are huge fan bases, while in southern China’s Shenzhen, Guangzhou, even Hong Kong people have their own football teams. A lot of expats as well as local Chinese are playing. They are generally aged between 20 and 27. Actually in Shanghai, some teams have started to limit the number of expat players, to ensure the majority of the team is Chinese. For Chinese footballers, they pick up the game really fast, although some are not so familiar with the game because of the lack of exposure, and they are not scared. They are fearless when it comes to learning and training. We want to build a professional football league in China. Next year, there will be six professional teams in our league, with each team consisting of 10 Chinese and 10 American players. All six team will take part in a tournament. Our final goal is to have it as successful as the NFL in the US.