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Touching Down in China

Max Westphal ’13 only knows a few words of Chinese, but among the translations he has learned was “xie xie,” meaning thank you, the sentiment he offers football fans in the world’s most populous country.

Westphal played for the Shenzhen Naja (The Cobra) during the inaugural season of the Chinese Arena Football League (CAFL), which ended in early November. The league, which featured six teams in 2016, is designed to introduce American football in China. Each 22-player roster is made up of 11 Chinese players and 11 imports (all players from the United States). “We quickly built friendships,” says Westphal, who was one of only 10 American offensive linemen to earn a roster spot in the league. “We were treated like kings. Every city, we were in five-star hotels. In two cities, we were in beachfront five-star hotels. Everything was above and beyond my expectations. We had gourmet buffets for three meals a day. The best that they could give us, we got.”

The CAFL headquarters are based in Beijing. The inaugural season featured a “Super Series,” where teams traveled together to play three games during visits to the six league cities. The Chinese players began football training five years ago. Westphal was impressed by their athleticism. “I didn’t know what to expect. A lot of the Chinese players were former track athletes and soccer players,” he explains. “We had an all-pro Chinese receiver who played basketball in the U.S. Physically, they are fast and strong. A few of them hadn’t been ‘punched in the mouth’ before, like we say here. They were not used to getting hit. Once they got used to the physicality and got a feel for the game, you could see them growing as players.”

The fans also grew in their understanding of the game, adds Westphal, who stands 6'4" and weighs 315 pounds. “At first, the most exciting part for the fans was kickoffs and field goals,” he says. “The league did a great job by making videos to explain the rules. The fans absolutely loved it. It was surreal watching them grow and understand the game. For example, they learned to cheer for a completed pass. The fans were buying into the game.”

Community outreach was an important part of season. Westphal regularly signed autographs and posed for photos with fans, including many who approached him on the street. A Shenzhen fan made a flag featuring his image along with the two other Naja offensive linemen. Westphal brought the keepsake home.  

The American embraced the culture during his two months in the country. Chinese teammates were excited to show the visitors the sites. He visited the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Great Wall of China and the Sailing City in Qingdao. “I ate a lot of weird stuff,” says Westphal. “One restaurant had a room with six crates with 500 live snakes. You pick out a snake for your meal. Ox, our Chinese center, held a snake and dropped it on the floor.”

Westphal, who was named all-pro, plans to return to CAFL for its second season, unless he receives an NFL invitation. Most of the Americans playing in China had spent time with NFL teams. “The talent level of the Americans is crazy good. I may be the only one who was not in an NFL camp,” he says. “Being named one of the three best linemen in the league is a great honor, considering the talent.

“When I was sitting on the plane on the trip home, I just thanked God for this experience. I had such an awesome time. You can see that the league is building something special and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

March 17, 2017