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.) 

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)