St. Mary's Standout McLaurin Becomes Chinese Football Pioneer

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

August 19, 2021

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.

Made in MichiganWe'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.

Chris McLaurinWhat 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.

Chris McLaurin“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.) 

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)