It was the day of his first football practice, and Ed Wang remembers the conversation well. Like any six year old, he was excited to run out onto the field and play organized football for the first time. Naturally, Mrs. Wang had her concerns.
Most football moms are worried that their sons will fracture something or get hurt on the field. That wasn’t the concern of Mrs. Wang; rather, she was afraid of a broken spirit and not broken bones. A former track Olympian who represented China as a hurdler, she knew that more than just physical contact was coming her son’s way.
You see, Ed Wang was going to be the only Asian player on the field.
“She told me that I was going to go out there on the field, and that I was going to be different than everyone else,” Wang recalls. “She was telling me to get ready.”
And sometime this fall, Wang will step on the field as a member of the Buffalo Bills and will once again, be different. He is set to become the first ever, pure-blooded Chinese football player in NFL history.
Wang remembers growing up and watching college and professional games, unable to find an Asian football player to call a role model or look up to. Now, Wang might become that hero for the next generation of young Asians with dreams of the NFL. But as a six-year old in pads for the first time, playing on Sundays wasn’t even a dream.
He remembers his first game when the kids on the other team went up to him and pulled their eyes back in an effort to slant them, a derogatory attempt at his Chinese heritage. Wang can recall hurtful words and imitations of his speech pattern coming from opposing teams, mimicking a “Chinese accent.” But always, always, Wang kept his attention focused on the task at hand and not what others said. Just like mom said.
“She would always tell me to focus on what I needed to do, and not on others,” Wang said.
He bristles at the idea of being called the Yao Ming of his sport – in high school while playing for the basketball team, opponents would often call him “Yao” because he was the first Chinese player they had ever faced on the court. Wang doesn’t have dreams of taking over China for football in the same way Yao has for basketball - he says he is merely focused on the task at hand. The NFL on the other hand might be dreaming a bit.
In 2007, the league opened its office in Beijing to help grow the sport in the world’s most populous nation. The league claims just fewer than 26 million fans in China, an estimated 54% growth in the sport as the NFL gets more and more television coverage in the country. The league estimates that nearly 28 million people watched the last Super Bowl live in the land of Mao and Yao.
“Ed is a gifted athlete with tremendous potential and we look forward to seeing him play his first NFL game,” said Michael Stokes, managing director of NFL China. “We will eagerly work with Ed on growing the game of football in China.”
Wang’s roots in China are deep. His father, Robert Wang, came to this country in 1984 after a storied career as an Olympic high jumper. Mother Nancy, also an Olympian, followed shortly thereafter. They instilled in him a work ethic and desire to always improve. He says they pushed him hard to become a better athlete, even if it wasn’t always something he wanted to do.
“Yeah, my parents would get me up on Saturday morning and have me down at the track at like 7 A.M.,” Wang recalls. “My dad would have me out there running sprints and working out. Not exactly what you want to do on your Saturday morning when you’re a kid.”
Those track sessions, sometimes several of them a week, produced not just a football player but also an athlete. Wang was one of the most nimble and athletic linemen at the NFL Combine in February. Those Saturday morning and afterschool sessions with his father on the track helped make him one of the most intriguing players available in the draft physically but embedded in him a mental discipline that made him a natural pick from Buffalo’s perspective.
“He’s never out of position. You don’t see mental mistakes from the kid,” said Doug Majeski, coordinator of college scouting for the Bills. “He finishes blocks. Everything about his play is good but there is another level that he can take and another step he can take.”
He was a bit under the radar coming out of Virginia Tech, a bit of a sleeper pick. But his potential is nothing to sleep on.
“He’s got loads of athleticism, he’s a real talented player with good feet,” said one NFL talent evaluator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he can’t speak to the media. “He’s also a lean, powerful player for someone his size. His teammates called him ‘Godzilla’ and there right, he’s a monster. He could be a very good left tackle in the league.”
Wang conceded after his second day of mini-camp that there were plenty of areas where he needed to improve. With 26 million potential fans in China and just as many potential “Ed Wang” jerseys ready to be sold in his parents’ home land, it would be easy for Wang to get overwhelmed by it all. Not so, says the rookie, who laughs at the idea that he might become the Yao Ming of football in China.
“I always was told that you can only focus on what you need to do and what you can control,” Wang said.
And the Bills are hoping that their new left tackle will be a “Great Wall of China” for their offensive line for years to come.
“He’s been a three year starter at Virginia Tech. He’s got size. He’s got strength. He’s really a good athlete as far as his quickness and body control,” Majeski said. “He’s gotten better each year.”
And maybe someday, somewhere, a young Chinese fan will watch Ed Wang and be inspired.
“I hope that they will look up to me over there,” said Wang. “That I will be their role model.”
Want more in-depth coverage on your favorite NFL team? Click here and get started today.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the NFL for FoxSports.com and Scout.com. He can be reached for questions, comments and crude remarks at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012