BY DAN BERNHARD
NANJING, China — Blood, sweat, tears and body pain for days is over…No, I’m not talking about a Justin Bieber concert! I am, of course, referring to American football. This, however, is not just any football team; this is the Nanjing Emperor football team (南京帝王美式橄榄球队) or “Diwangs,” the only one of its kind in Nanjing. Now coached by the HNC’s very own second-year MAIS candidate James Fitzgerald, who began playing pickup games at the age of six, the team has been going from strength to strength. Two games into the season, the “Diwangs” are preparing for future challenges over the course of the year, with players such as HNC students quarterback Grant Brown and running back Jeff Craig as well as locals lineman Adrubal Axel (Heilong 黑龙) and the fullback brick wall known as Tong Zi Hao 童子豪 (Tong Tong 童童; Supertight).
Created in 2014, the team, like most, has had its ups and downs. A conflict regarding what direction they should head in left the team in the managerial hands of Kang Jun 亢君 (Edward). Although very capable, the team was only four in number by the time Mr. Fitzgerald was appointed head coach. The “Diwangs” have been gathering momentum ever since, growing in both size and strength. With approximately 25 players, the weekly practice demonstrating their unbreakable determination has generated interest from both Chinese locals and expats alike.
With the increase of international players, the team is undergoing a significant change. Players from all walks of life have come together to take part in something that is generally unheard of in China. There are many difficulties that any team faces when training, perhaps even more so in China. Of course, there is the language barrier, but it could be argued that cultural differences pose a larger challenge. Even for those whose Chinese language is at a high level, a team still needs that bonding agent.
Who would have guessed that it would be American football that would serve as the platform for many of the relationships between locals and international students? “Recently, there has been an increase of international players on the team,” says Coach Fitz. “They bring a certain intensity and team experience that the Chinese could be said to be lacking.” There is a difference between international students helping the team develop and dominating the team in numbers and decision-making on and off the field, behaviors that might ostracize locals. However, this appears not to be the case with the “Diwangs.”
“A lot of the foreigners can speak Chinese (on the team),” Coach Fitz continues. “They are inspired to transfer their passion of the game to the Chinese locals.”
It is clear that there is a good amount of team cohesion, and as they move to face more obstacles in the future, this can only be considered an advantage.
In the second game this season played at home, the “Diwangs” had a shaky start, conceding two touchdowns within the first five minutes. However, realizing what needed to be done and with the support of the Chinese locals and HNC fans, the team clawed its way back to an even 18-18 by halftime. The second half saw a considerable change in the “Diwangs” attitude. The defense tightened up and lineman Heilong 黑龙, now a local legend, served up a string of tackles including three sacks. Both Craig and Supertight 童童 displayed exquisite skill, running over and around the defense like they have been doing it for years. Grant Brown achieved an unprecedented five rushing touchdowns. The game drew to a dramatic close as the first win in the history of the team, with the score 32-26.
Reflecting on the match, Brown, the quarterback, was cautious about the win. “It is safe to say that we still have a lot to learn, but throughout the game, I saw improvement from everyone and I’m confident about the future.
Though not the biggest team that ever roamed the land of China, with their first win in the bag, it just goes to show that it’s “not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” It is clear that the “Diwangs” show no sign of slowing down. If anything, the team grows bigger and stronger by the week. Coach Fitz for one sees no reason why this team cannot succeed, stating that he sees the “Diwangs” as “the premier representation of Nanjing in the football world.” With two more games in the next few months, the “Diwangs” momentum and progress will be met with anticipation by local fans and students alike.