What do American college baseball and Chinese professional football have in common?
Grant Brown, ’15, for one.
While studying abroad in Chengdu, China during the fall semester of his junior year, Brown was at a local bar with some friends when a mutual friend approached him and invited him to a practice for the Chengdu Mustangs, the local football team.
“About halfway through [the game], they ask if I want to sub in and play quarterback, because I told them I’d played quarterback before,” Brown said. “I come in and run a couple plays, and was immediately much better than their current starting quarterback, so they asked if I wanted to join the team.”
Though he hadn’t played football since sixth grade, Grant had played baseball while at DePauw.
“I was pitcher, so I guess I have a good arm for quarterback,” he explained.
His athleticism combined with a good working knowledge of football made him a prime candidate for quarterback, and in his first game, where the team flew to Guangchou, the Mustangs won 34-0. Brown had two rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown in the game. Besides starting quarterback, he played free safety and punter.
But Brown doesn’t pretend that he’s some sort of football prodigy. When he joined the Mustangs, it was in the first year of the American Football League of China (AFLC), which “consists of the highest level of American Football competition in China,” according to their website. American football in China had no real foothold until the creation of the AFLC, even on the lower levels, but there is growing interest in the AFLC—which currently consists of ten teams and is looking to expand.
“It’s a big opportunity for China to learn about football,” Brown said. “The NFL views it as a big market. If they can even capture one percent of the population to watch football that’s a lot of money.”
Now back in China at the Hopkins Nanjing Center to study international economics, Brown has returned to football, this time playing for the Nanjing Diwangs, translated as “Emperor Kings.” Though the Diwangs aren’t a part of the AFLC yet, they are hoping to be soon.
The team is a mix of native Chinese players and foreigners, including fellow DePauw graduate Jeff Craig, along with players from Australia, Norway, Russia and England. The AFLC has a rule that only four foreigners can play on the field at one time.
“They want it to be the Chinese playing,” Brown said. “A lot of us there can help them learn, but it’s really about the Chinese progressing and learning to play the sport.”
As the Chinese learn more about the sport, though, Brown thinks they’re getting more excited.
“My fullback, Tong Tong, initially he wanted to do MMA fighting in China, and people refused to fight him because he’s just a monster. So he’s our fullback now and just loves hitting people. He’s the best Chinese player that I’ve played with.”
While the hard part for the Chinese players is the game itself, Brown’s difficulties stem from the language.
“In the huddle, I’m calling all the plays in Chinese, so I’m giving them all instructions in Chinese,” Brown said. “It’s helped my Chinese a lot, but it’s been kind of a challenge teaching them football moves in Chinese.”
Luckily Brown and most of the other foreigners all have some degree of fluency, so there aren’t often miscommunications.
After joining the Diwangs, Brown helped the team to their first win with five rushing touchdowns. When asked if he felt that he’d missed out by not playing football in high school and college, Brown laughed.
“I think I was too small in high school and maybe even the early parts of college, but now I feel like I can hold my own,” Brown said. “It’s a lot of fun, I have a blast with it.”