The eight years Chris McLaurin spent in China not only changed his life, but they changed the perception of American football in China and elsewhere – and just may have opened the door to a whole new market.
We're talking “American football,” not soccer. Most of us are familiar with NFL Europe, but NFL China? Not so much.
When McLaurin went to China in 2011, the thought of teaching the locals American football never occurred to him. He went there to work for a private company, and circumstances just seemed to fall in place.
Some might say McLaurin was in the right place at the right time, but it can also be said he was the right person at the right time to lead this undertaking. McLaurin had the background, both athletically and organizationally, to take on such an endeavor.
“I met a lot of people who were interested in football,” McLaurin said. “I thought, football? I had a limited understanding of what they knew. I was very surprised they would reach out to me. I quickly found out they were hungry to learn.”
A 2005 graduate of Orchard Lake St. Mary's, McLaurin started at tight end and linebacker, and helped the Eaglets reach the MHSAA Division 2 Final in 2004 (where they lost to Muskegon). McLaurin went on to play four seasons at Michigan and graduated in 2009 with a degree in history and minor in urban and community studies. He had thoughts of entering law school when other opportunities interceded.
During his time in Ann Arbor, McLaurin worked with an organization that focused on disadvantaged youth in the area and helped open doors for them. They were allowed to attend lectures at the university as well as sporting events.
Upon graduation, the seeds that would blossom in Asia began being sown in other parts of the world.
McLaurin received a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Johannesburg, South Africa, to work with underprivileged youth as part of a program called Tomorrow Trust. During this time he worked with the United Nations Development Programme and Harvard Law School in their pursuit of promoting economic rights for the poor.
Following his work in South Africa, McLaurin began his post-graduate work at the London School of Economics. He earned his degree after working in the House of Commons and as a research assistant for the Runnymede Trust. Then came a six-month internship within the Obama Administration as part of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
And after that, he was off to Chongqing in western China to work for a private equity company as a project manager. Two years later, he started his own company in addition to a non-profit organization. Much of his work centered on the automobile industry and global technology.
During this time he learned to speak Mandarin and, in doing so, was introduced to more of the local customs – including American football.
What McLaurin found was a rudimental brand of football, what we would term a recreational type of competition. McLaurin began his involvement gradually, on weekends.
“After that first year (2012), I took it up a notch,” McLaurin said. “We started recruiting players and bought new equipment. They watched football on TV, but it's not an easy game to understand. You have to play football to learn it. You don't get that from watching TV.”
A year of training, recruiting and, yes, some frustration, led McLaurin to start a league, the American Football League of China (now known as the China National Football League). The rules are similar to those at the U.S. college level. There are 11 players a side, and when a ball carrier's knee touches the ground the play is over.
In the beginning “it was successful,” he said. “There were no leagues when I got there. There was no one to organize it. We went from (fewer than) 10 teams to, 3-to-4 years later, there are 80-90.”
McLaurin quickly learned he needed help if this adventure was to succeed. USA Football had a footprint in Shanghai, and McLaurin reached out to the organization. McLaurin contacted a handful of former teammates including Prescott Burgess and Morgan Trent for advice. Former NFL player Bruce Plummer and NFL coach and scout Jerry Hardaway worked some of the camps and clinics with McLaurin and added much-needed experience and expertise.
After playing at Southern Illinois, Hardaway’s first coaching position was at Memphis State as an assistant, and then he went to Grambling State to coach under the legendary Eddie Robison for six seasons. He also coached at the University of California under Joe Kapp prior to working in the NFL and then heading to China.
“I was told, through another guy, that (McLaurin) needed some help,” Hardaway said. “It was all about getting back to basics. That's what made it fun. They had no clue when you'd say to them, control the ground at impact when you're making a block. They had no idea of the terms that you'd use. To see the young kids, to see on their faces, they were absorbing everything.
“Yes, yes, yes, it was worthwhile. First of all, people had no clue about what it takes to do something like this. They were learning. Some of the parents thought it was a violent sport. That's what they heard. Then they switched. They saw me, us, teach the basics and they saw what we were doing. For me, it gave me a sense, like hey, you have to teach and you have to enjoy it.”
Soon after that first season, the NFL got involved as did the National Committee on United States - China Relations. McLaurin credits the NFL for advising him on the business end of starting a new league and structuring. After 18 months, McLaurin got out of coaching and became the commissioner.
“(The NFL) wanted to expand,” he said. “They saw how their brand was quite low (in China). China is a natural.”
Progress was slow, but it was still progress. The 2015 championship game was played in Shanghai, and McLaurin estimates it drew 3,500 spectators.
He continued to work with the AFLC through 2019 but then decided to make a career move. He returned to the U.S. and, this fall, is pursuing a dream he's held since leaving U-M. At age 34, McLaurin entered Harvard Law School.
“When I started, the last thing we wanted was a U.S. version of football,” he said. “We wanted it to be Chinese football. There were limitations on how many foreigners would compete. At first it was five (per team), then three. We wanted it to be a Chinese experience."
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PHOTOS: (Top) Former Orchard Lake St. Mary's standout Chris McLaurin started an American football league in China and remained part of its leadership through 2019. (Middle) McLaurin was a two-way starter for St. Mary's 2004 Division 2 runner-up team. (Below) McLaurin runs drills for one of the Chinese teams. (Top and below photos courtesy of Chris McLaurin; middle photo from MHSAA archives.)
Separated by 527 travel miles – whether over Mackinac Bridge or around Lake Michigan, the Novara family celebrated nearly parallel football successes this fall.
At Portland, John Novara completed his 25th season as head coach leading the Raiders to a 12-1 record – their best since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2018, and a second-straight Capital Area Activities Conference White championship on the way to reaching the Division 4 Semifinals.
At Kingsford, fifth-year coach Mark Novara led the Flivvers to a 10-2 record – their best since posting the same in 2004. Kingsford shared the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title and won a Division 5 District title, its first District championship since 2009.
John Novara graduated from Iron Mountain in 1989, and younger brother Mark graduated from Kingsford in 1993.
Similarly parallel, both teams were quarterbacked by Novaras. Dominic Novara directed the Raiders’ attack, and cousin Nic Novara led the Flivvers. Both are juniors. (Mark Novara was a Division III All-American at quarterback at Lakeland College in Wisconsin.)
One more connection: Portland athletic director Kevin Veale quarterbacked the Iron Mountain teams with John Novara as tight end long before they worked together downstate. Veale’s nephew Garrett Veale was a standout two-way lineman for Mark Novara and Kingsford this fall.
Small gesture, memorable connection
Dante DeGrazia’s senior season was sadly short-lived this fall, as he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of South Lyon East’s opening game against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium.
But an official provided a memory the DeGrazias will not forget.
Chris Curtis had begun his 16th season as an official earlier that day at U-M, and stuck around to watch the Lakes Valley Conference matchup. A month later, he was officiating the East/Warren Mott game, and made sure to check in with DeGrazia – a small gesture, but a meaningful one as well and another reminder of the interconnectedness of communities within educational athletics.
“When he heard my son wasn't able to play anymore, needed surgery and that he was a senior, he offered him kindness and a hug on the field,” Dante’s mother Dana DeGrazia wrote to East athletic director Greg Michaels. “As a parent whose son is going through a rough time dealing with losing his senior season, hearing this story from Dante means a lot to me and the support that was given to him and I wanted to reach out and tell him thank you.”
PHOTOS (Top) Kingsford football coach Mark Novara, far left, quarterback Nic Novara and Portland coach (and uncle) John Novara celebrate the Flivvers' District title. (Middle) South Lyon East's Dante DeGrazia (33) and official Chris Curtis meet for a quick hug during East's Week 5 game. (Photos courtesy of the Portland football program and DeGrazia family, respectively.)