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."

2020-21 Made in Michigan

August 5: Herremans' Focus on 'Dadding,' Giving Kids Similar Small-Town Childhood - Read
July 29: 
Loy Norrix Career Prepped Crocker for U-M Success, Law Degree Pursuit - Read
July 19: 
Top PGA Pro Finish Latest Greatest Highlight as Cook Continues Climb - Read
July 16: 
TC West Standout Renews Ties to Titans, Cheers Past Teammates' Gold Pursuit - Read
July 8: 
Caro Champs Find Common Ground Again as Mental Health Providers - Read
June 28:
Michigan's Minor Leaguers Making Up for Lost Season - Read

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.) 

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)