Joe Wang is looking for the Yao Ming of football. Photo: Casey Hynes
It was a scene that could have been from any American high school football field. A late summer practice, coaches milling about the field, calling out drills to the cluster of players arranged loosely in four rows. Even the atmosphere was reminiscent of the beginning of American football season.
But this wasn't the US. And this wasn't an organized football team. It was a summer camp for Chinese kids to learn how to play American football, held on the athletic field of Beijing International Studies University.
"This is a part of American culture the Chinese haven't seen yet," said Joe Wang, who runs SBYS, the Southern-California based youth sports group that initiated the camp. "They've got everything else here, except football."
Wang's personal background made him uniquely qualified to bring this camp to Beijing. He was born in Taiwan and has Chinese parents, but grew up in America playing football.
"This is a kind of cultural exchange," Wang said. "We represent not just football, but we're representing our country and sharing."
SBYS partnered with NFL China (a branch of American organization the National Football League) and Mashup Asia to stage the camp.
While the main activities of the two-day event were learning and playing football, everyone agreed that the overall goal was to encourage fitness among the students. "Kids here need this, to get active and fit," said Yoyao Hsueh, founder of Mashup Asia. "It's not about football itself, it's more about general fitness for the kids."
"I can just see the importance and need for more of an athletic presence in Beijing and in China in general," said Heidi Wang, the SBYS league secretary. "This is a lot for [the kids], but I definitely think they're enjoying it. We're definitely working them but I think they're learning a lot."
John Walker, NFL player for the Houston Texans, said he believed American football's greatest appeal to the Chinese would be the communal nature of the sport.
"You have to love your teammates. Every single play is an individual battle but you're fighting for the same goal," he said. "It's about being accountable to each other, and loving what you're doing and who you're doing it with."
Camp participants ranged in age from eight or nine years old up to late teens.
Joey Zhou, 16, has been playing for the past three years with a flag football league and with the Beijing Guardians. "I learned a lot of methods to prove myself and got a lot of friends," he said of the camp.
Alex Wang, 9, has a football at his home, but had never played the game before. "I had finished all my homework and it was a little boring staying at home and I heard I could come here and play so I wanted to come," he said. He said he was most looking forward to playing the actual game on the second day of camp, since the first day was spent learning techniques.
Joe Wang said he hopes to bring the camp back to China next summer, this time to four cities. "My goal," he said with a smile, "is to find the next Yao Ming of American football through these camps."