You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Year of the Pigskin

My hilarious, heartbreaking, triumphant season with the American Football League of China

Matthew Niederhauser

The day of the first game of American football ever played in Chongqing, China, Fat Baby held court in the locker room at the stadium of Chongqing Southern Translators College. “Stadium” would be generous, actually—it was a soccer field with stone bleachers. So would “locker room,” in reality a pile of clothes and equipment strewn across the benches. Even “football team” was arguable, come to think of it, but that’s what the Chongqing Dockers were there to prove.

Fat Baby and his teammate Bobo had just returned from a trip to Japan, where they’d bought matching Under Armour skullcaps. “You can’t find these in Chongqing,” he said proudly. One of the team’s founding members, Fat Baby (his real name is Zeng Xi, but like most of the teammates he goes by his online nickname) juggled the roles of wise elder (he was 29) and class clown. He first got into football after watching movies like The Longest Yard—the 2005 Adam Sandler remake, not the 1974 original.

As game time approached, Fat Baby slipped on his favorite pink cleats. It didn’t look easy—he called himself Fat Baby for a reason. Later, I asked if the pink cleats were meant to scare his opponents. “Yes,” his wife, Yangyang, interjected, “they’re scared he’ll fall in love with them.” Yangyang, tall and matter-of-fact, wasn’t a football fan. “I hate sports,” she told me. But as a nurse, she supported Fat Baby’s passion to the extent that it would help him lose weight.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

Marco, the Dockers’ captain, scurried over, looking anxious. He was smaller than average, especially for a former personal trainer, and his facial expression tended to hover between pensive and pissed off. When he got excited, his voice plunged from alto highs to baritone lows. He wasn’t typical captain material, but he had mapped out a meticulous plan for the team’s development, and media was key to his strategy. The more people knew about them, the more players they’d attract, the better they’d get. Today’s contest, against the Beijing Cyclones, was their first home game, a chance to show everyone that they weren’t just a bunch of posers in uniform, but an actual American football team in southwestern China. Unfortunately, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake had hit Sichuan Province that morning, so only a couple of news outlets had showed up to see them play.

Marco took the referee microphone out to the middle of the field to test its range and to show off his football English: “Holding, defense, number twenty-seven, first down.” On the opposite fence, a red propaganda banner hung: “UNITED, WE PROGRESS, BREAKING BOUNDARIES, WE INNOVATE, STRIVING TENACIOUSLY TO BE FIRST.” Behind it, a strip of Chongqing skyline: identical-looking office buildings next to skeletons that would soon be identical-looking office buildings. From the air, Chongqing resembles a Sim City created by a ten-year-old off his meds. Perched between two rivers, fringed with ports, Chongqing has exploded economically in the past decades, with an urban population of seven million and the second-highest GDP growth rate in the country. All this development makes Chongqing the urban incarnation of China’s modern identity crisis. It’s a city where the Liberation Monument dedicated to the 1949 communist victory is surrounded on all sides by Cartier, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Starbucks, KFC, and Häagen-Dazs; where Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party secretary, is both reviled for his corruption and beloved for his populist policies; where you can be late to dinner because, when someone said to meet at the Walmart in your neighborhood, he meant the other Walmart in your neighborhood.

Chris McLaurin, the team’s 26-year-old American coach, wanted badly to win. He didn’t let it show, exuding the air of calm authority the teammates had come to rely on. But ever since he had arrived in Chongqing the previous fall, the Dockers had dominated his life, nights and weekends spent coaching, planning, promoting, recruiting, all on top of a full-time job at a government-run investment firm. Without McLaurin, Fat Baby told me in English, “We would be a piece of shit.”

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

The Beijing Cyclones rolled in an hour before game time, 50 Cent serving as unintentional entrance music. Mike Ma, a Cyclones captain and Beijing native who had spent his teenage years in Los Angeles, greeted McLaurin with a purposeful thug hug. “Damn, you guys are deep, dog,” said Ma. Since many Beijing players couldn’t make the trip, Chongqing outnumbered them almost two to one. This made McLaurin cautiously optimistic. Beijing had more experience and stronger athletes, including a professional parkour practitioner. But between their home field advantage and numbers edge, he thought the Dockers had a shot.

Fans, mostly friends and family, gathered in the stands. I asked a student named Liu Zhiyue if he understood the game. “A little,” he said. “The quarterback is the most important.” Beyond that, he wasn’t totally sure. By the sidelines, a small squad of refs, all expat friends of McLaurin, put on the pinstripes they’d ordered online. One, a densely built Californian named Jeff, who had played semi-pro football in Poland and had “never again” tattooed in Hebrew on his shoulder, was getting nervous. “I don’t know the rules, that’s my thing,” he said to the head ref. “You should have, like, taught us the rules before, dude.”

Queen’s “We Will Rock You” came on, the international sign that a sporting event is about to occur. The Dockers lined up along the sidelines and made war whoops, as McLaurin had instructed. A smiley player named Kang had affixed masking tape to his helmet to form , the character for “kill.”

Beijing kicked off. The ball sailed deep, spinning backward, and bounced off the Chongqing receiver’s chest before he chased it down. If the crowd was already confused about the game of football, what happened next didn’t clarify much. It almost looked like the Dockers were trying to lose the ball. The Chongqing quarterback, Seven, fumbled a snap, then recovered it just in time to get sacked. Not long afterward, he passed to a receiver who wasn’t there.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

“Settttt, hut!” growled Leo, the Beijing quarterback. As soon as he took the snap, a Chongqing tackle drilled through the line for the sack. “There you go! There you go!” shouted James “Fitz” Fitzgerald, another assistant coach. The euphoria was temporary. Second down, Leo saw an opening on the left side, threaded through it and ran, as if alone on the field, all the way to the end zone. He celebrated by chest-bumping one of his teammates and miming a graphic strip tease.

The Chongqing players looked at each other. They’d been practicing for months, running and sweating and studying the playbook, rebuilding their bodies and reprogramming their brains, learning this weird foreign game from scratch. For many of them, football had not only become the center of their social lives, it had become their identity: Fat Baby had a custom-made bumper sticker on his car that said “CHONGQING DOCKERS FOOTBALL FATBABY.” Marco wore his Dockers t-shirt everywhere. Football was already more than a game to them—it represented a whole set of stories and values and attitudes that these young Chinese men had hungrily absorbed and now wanted to project. And for what? So a Beijing quarterback could gyrate his crotch in front of their loved ones. Fitz shook his head: “We’re about to get our ass kicked.”

“American football in China” is a sport/location combo that at first sounds like a joke, like “Jamaican bobsled team.” But according to the rule that, in a country of 1.3 billion people, everything is happening somewhere, the existence of Chinese football should come as no surprise. Unlike basketball, which missionaries brought to China in the late nineteenth century and which has long enjoyed government support (Chairman Mao was a fan), football is a recent import. It doesn’t come close to breaking into the country’s top ten sports. Even the term in Mandarin—“olive ball”—sounds awkward. But it is here and growing fast. The NFL first set up a China office in 2007 and started a flag-football league that has grown to more than 36 teams. Meanwhile, a raft of amateur tackle clubs has materialized, including, as of summer 2012, the Chongqing Dockers.

The Dockers started when Fengfeng, a 19-year-old freshman at the Chongqing Electronic Engineering University, created a QQ group dedicated to American football. (QQ is one of China’s most popular online chat programs and, along with WeChat, the way most of the players keep in touch.) He named the group “Rudy,” after the 1993 movie about a five-foot-six-inch steelworker who dreams of playing for Notre Dame, which Fengfeng had seen ten times. Marco saw the message and reached out. They and a handful of others, including Fat Baby, arranged to hold a practice. Marco also invited a journalist friend, resulting in a full-length write-up in the Chongqing Economic Times. Marco received more than 200 inquiries, and 30 guys showed up to the next practice.

The problem was, they came expecting to learn how to play American football. Marco had studied some instructional videos he’d found online, but had never played himself. “It was truly terrible,” Fat Baby recalled. That didn’t stop them from accruing the trappings of a football team. They named themselves the “Dockers,” a reference to Chongqing’s armies of longshoremen. They bought jerseys before buying pads, designed a logo before getting a playbook, recruited cheerleaders before doing anything cheer-worthy. Nana, the squad captain, choreographed a few routines based on scenes from the Bring It On movies, employing dance moves Chinese girls don’t learn in school.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

None of this translated into actual skill. One day in the fall of 2012, McLaurin showed up to a practice. “It was like a bunch of guys who’d heard of the sport trying their best to imitate what they’d seen on TV,” he said. No one had pads, so hits were more like careful hugs. What had inspired them to pick up this strange game with an unwieldy ball that had no connection to local culture, he hadn’t the slightest. But they were eager to learn, and McLaurin, who’d just arrived in Chongqing, needed friends.

McLaurin was immediately made head coach. He assigned positions based on size and speed. Quarterback was tricky, as the job requires a combination of height, athleticism, intelligence, and leadership ability. Seven was tall. He got the job.

At the first practice I attended, in February of 2013, the team was preparing for its debut game against Chengdu. In one drill, McLaurin told the linemen to hit him head on, but they kept slowing down just before making contact. “Really hit me,” said McLaurin, who enjoyed the warm feeling that ran down his spine after a hard strike. “Don’t think too much.” But the players kept hesitating. After 30 minutes, they ambled over to the sidelines, where half the guys swigged water and the other half dragged on cigarettes.

The following Sunday at 9 a.m.—only in China are football practices scheduled for Sunday mornings—a few team members showed up after a late night of drinking and fiery Chongqing barbecue. “My asshole is burning,” Fat Baby announced as he waddled onto the field. Rock, a railway employee who was wearing a Michael Vick jersey and a jock strap over his tights, put one teammate in a WWE-style figure-four hold. I asked if he knew that Michael Vick was famous for torturing dogs. “China has a lot of people like that,” he said, grinning. McLaurin had Seven run a simple passing drill. Not a single throw reached its target, and McLaurin grew frustrated. He made everyone run sprints, which he won. As the players headed to their cars, McLaurin walked over to the benches, braced himself against a wall, and spilled the contents of his stomach onto the ground.

Coaching the Dockers was like coaching a peewee team, McLaurin told me, only harder. Sports aren’t built into the average child’s life in China as they are in the United States. Instead, athletics and academics are separate tracks. If a kid has potential, he gets siphoned into a special school dedicated to producing the nation’s finest athletes. Most of the Dockers hadn’t played organized team sports past grade school, and if they had, it was basketball or soccer. The core skills of football—throwing, catching, hitting—were as foreign to them as curling.

McLaurin, by contrast, was a specimen of the American scholar-athletic complex. Born outside Detroit to a white mother and a black father, both police detectives, he was a star football player at a Catholic high school that emphasized sports as part of a well-rounded character. He went on to play tight end for the University of Michigan and might have made it to the NFL if it weren’t for a career-ending shoulder injury. He was able to fall back on a stellar transcript, going on to get a master’s in social policy and planning at the London School of Economics and to score a White House internship. He eventually came to Chongqing on a Luce Fellowship. After years of competing, McLaurin couldn’t not go 100 percent. Between drills, he’d coil up and jump high into the air as if clearing an invisible hurdle. When his players didn’t match his intensity, he got annoyed. 

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

But the greatest cultural gap between McLaurin and the team seemed to be the willingness to draw up every last bit of oneself and smash the person opposite. Size wasn’t a problem; the Dockers were a strapping bunch. They just weren’t willing to use their size. Part of it was fear of injury: In the Dockers’ first six months, seven players had been hurt, including Bobo, who had broken his leg at practice. But habit played a role, too. Life in China is plenty physical—just try riding the subway during rush hour—but you don’t often see kids rough-housing in the park. Figo had to get used to the idea of crushing another man. “The first time, I didn’t dare tackle,” he said. Fat Baby, too, was no natural destroyer. “You have to imagine the other guy is your enemy,” he told me. “It’s like in The Waterboy [the 1998 Adam Sandler movie], where you pretend they’re the person who bullied you.”

By the day of their first game, they’d at least learned to talk the talk. “Kill Chengdu!” the team chanted as their coach bus pulled away in the pre-dawn light. Six hours later, they arrived at the soccer field of Chengdu Technology University, where bamboo poles tied to the goalposts served as uprights. “I’m very worried,” Marco had confided to me. “I worry we’ll fail. I worry our players will get injured. I worry about all these things.”

On the field, everything that could go wrong, did. Chongqing’s first three downs went nowhere. The Chengdu Mustangs scored twice early on. Seven threw a perfect interception. “That’s why we don’t throw the ball,” McLaurin said to nobody in particular. The Mustangs scored again. When they went for an extra point, Chongqing blocked the kick. But instead of ignoring the dead ball, one of the Dockers grabbed it and started charging madly upfield. The Chengdu offense, not sure if this was allowed but not certain it wasn’t, took off after him. The crowd on the Chongqing side screamed, “Go! Go!” The Chongqing player ran the ball all the way to the end zone and spiked it triumphantly. The coaches were laughing. “Just let them have this one,” Fitz said to the ref. The final score: Chengdu 31, Chongqing 6.

On the sidelines after the game, Metal, the largest player on the team, still in uniform, took a knee and proposed to his girlfriend, who was one of the cheerleaders. She accepted. On the bus ride home, everyone hoisted bottles of watery Harbin beer. During one raucous toast, I noticed Marco sitting quietly at the front of the bus, eyes forward, unsmiling.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

For McLaurin’s birthday, two weeks later, a few of the playerstook him out to KTV—Chinese karaoke—in downtown Chongqing. To say that the team worshipped their coach is only a slight understatement. They repaid his dedication with free rides to and from practice, and regular invitations to dinner and drinks. One teammate even offered to pull strings to make his boss give him a raise. And they admired more than just his athletic skill. In their eyes, McLaurin was emblematic of some imagined urban American authenticity, with a love of hip-hop and a swagger that they’d previously seen only in movies. He looked good, too. Marco described his first impression of McLaurin in English: “It’s a pretty boy.” Many of the cheerleaders agreed, as did the Chongqing women who on occasion walked up to him and wordlessly typed their numbers into his phone.

I was still struggling to understand why the teammates had chosen football, of all sports, and their admiration for McLaurin provided the first hint. When I asked them what they liked most about the game, the most common response was that it’s “man”—a slangy use of the English word to mean “manly.” “Violent,” “aggressive,” and “exciting” were all runners-up. In Chinese media, the masculine ideal tends to be smart and slim, with coiffed hair. Yet here these players were bumping chests and slapping asses like Skoal-dipping American males. I questioned Joker, the team’s lothario, about what Chinese ladies look for. Physically, they want “clean, skinny” guys, he said. “Chinese girls aren’t really interested in sports.” Marco had a more cynical take. “Right now,” he said, “they only like one kind of man: rich man.”

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser
Head coach Chris McLaurin (No. 95)

When we got to the bar, the men were sitting on one side of the rented room, the women on the other. Soso, who worked at a design firm, crooned earnestly to a Chinese pop ballad, while her friend Tina, a saleswoman and the team’s official photographer, told the story of how a creepy Russian client had tried to seduce her the night before. Fat Baby took the mic and launched into one of his favorite songs, “Ghetto Superstar,” by Taiwanese rapper MC Hot Dog. The chorus: “I’m so, so, so, so ghetto/I’m so ghetto/I’m so ghetto.”

For a lot of Chinese, such revelry would be an indulgence. But as McLaurin quickly discovered, these guys liked to party. On a typical day, Fat Baby would wake up, go to work—or, if he felt like it, not—at the government construction office where he was an assistant engineer, and meet up with friends for dinner (such as hotpot, Chongqing’s blindingly spicy culinary staple) or a drink. Yangyang preferred to stay in and play games on her phone. Fat Baby’s job wasn’t especially strenuous, except for the occasions when an enraged citizen whose house was marked for demolition stormed into the office carrying a knife or, in one instance, a bowl full of feces. “These people just wanted more money,” he explained.

As the son of a logistics officer at a military university, Fat Baby is on the comfortable end of the football team’s economic spectrum. Marco explained that about a fifth of the teammates could be considered wenbao, which means “warmly-dressed and well-fed,” about three-fifths are xiaokang, or “comfortably off,” and the top sliver might be called either “middle class” or straight-up rich. After all, football requires at least 3,000 yuan ($500 or so) of imported equipment, as well as significant leisure time. Fat Baby has both, plus a Paladin SUV, a wide-screen television, and an arsenal of video games. In short, he is not especially ghetto. 

But he is increasingly normal. China has no strict definition of “middle class,” partly because prices swing wildly from place to place and partly because the concept barely existed until recently. Under Mao in the 1960s and ’70s, social classes were relatively equal, more because of a pushing-down of the elite than a lifting-up of the poor. After Deng Xiaoping’s open-market reforms of 1979, earnings exploded, with a tenfold increase in per capita disposable income from 1980 to 2010. But the gap between rich and poor widened dramatically, too, and in the early years of Deng’s reforms, there was no strong “middle class” in the way Americans think of it: a basic level of comfort, plus the occasional vacation to Paris.

That is rapidly changing, particularly in the cities. A 2013 report by McKinsey projected that China’s urban “upper middle class,” defined as households that make between $16,000 and $34,000 a year, will grow from the current 14 percent to 54 percent by 2022. Alongside that growth comes an expanded view of the world and a taste for conspicuous consumption. Unlike Chinese over 50, who still save nearly two-thirds of their income, this new middle class is spending—on travel, consumer goods, or, in Fat Baby’s case, an extensive collection of movie-star dolls, including Tom Cruise from Valkyrie.

This way of life differs, to say the least, from that of their parents. During the Cultural Revolution, Fat Baby’s mother and father were among the “sent-down youth” who at the party’s behest left the cities to work on collective farms. After returning to Chongqing, his father took a job at the military university where Fat Baby’s grandmother worked, and his mother went to work at a factory that produced machinery. Others their age were assigned jobs by the government. Most people lived in housing provided by their work unit and many met their spouses there. The country’s hukou registration system imposed tight limitations on migration within the country and even within a province, to the extent that farmers could be arrested simply for entering a city.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser
Fat Baby (No. 64) 

That system has since been dismantled piece by piece. Fat Baby lives in a comfortable high-rise apartment that he owns, travels when he wants, and met his wife on a volunteer trip to Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake. In other words, he chose his life. There are still limitations, but young people in China today inhabit a universe of choices that is unrecognizable to their parents. What exactly they do with those choices, though, a lot of them haven’t figured out.

Fat Baby handed the mic to Figo, who sported his trademark bandana-bead necklace / goatee combo and screamed along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Figo told me he regretted studying law instead of pursuing music. After graduating, he went to work for the local government’s anti-corruption office—a stable job in Chongqing if there ever was one—before transitioning to more laid-back administrative work. (I once saw him field a call from his boss, who wanted him to check that his daughter’s new license-plate number was sufficiently auspicious.) At 32, he still found time to strum his guitar at home on his parents’ couch—he plays a mean “Tears in Heaven”—but he felt like he’d missed a calling.

Marco wasn’t singing. He was thinking about football. Since starting the team, it had nearly consumed his life. He’d previously done marketing for China Unicom, one of the three national telecommunications companies, but quit once the Dockers got going. In college, Marco studied I.T. so he could learn to make video games (he took his name from a character in the Metal Slug series), but drifted away from it after graduating. He and a couple of friends had recently started a wedding photography business. He was hardly flush, but he worked constantly and made enough to live alone in a modest apartment. If football was his primary passion, second was Magic: The Gathering, the Dungeons & Dragons–inspired trading-card game obsessed over by children and man-children everywhere. Actually, the two hobbies weren’t all that different, he said: “You have to use your brain to enter the brains of others.” Like Figo, he wanted to get away from Chong-qing, only farther. “I’d really like to go to northern Europe, like Sweden or Switzerland,” he said. “A quiet place where I can buy a house, be with my wife, raise a dog.”

As he sat nursing a Corona, I asked Bobo why he played football. “Life is too short,” he said. “For our parents, every day was the same. They’d get married, have kids, and die.” His own father died of cancer in 2012. Even before then, Bobo’s goal had been to see as much of the world as possible. He kept using the word tihui, to “learn from experience.” After graduating from art school in 2006, he started a design company. When that failed, he opened a barbecue restaurant. That went under too, so he and a couple friends started three hotpot joints. Success requires risk, even if that means breaking one’s leg. Would he be more careful next time? I asked him. “Probably not.”

Uncertainty doesn’t seem as frightening as it once did; values that long dominated Chinese life—like filial piety, face, and financial stability above all else—have started to lose their grip. “I don’t want to stay in one job forever,” said Seven, the soft-spoken quarterback, who works at an I.T. company. “I want to explore, to focus on things that interest me.”

Not all young people are so unorthodox, but football seems to filter for Chinese individualists. Part of the reason may be that many of the teammates have led relatively comfortable lives and can afford to have aspirations beyond eating a square meal. But for most of them, the source of this philosophy seems to be Western pop culture. After Rudy, Fengfeng’s second favorite movie is Forrest Gump. “The moral is perseverance,” he said. “No matter what happened, he kept running.” Fat Baby echoed this idea using a phrase common on the Chinese Internet that translates roughly as “revenge of the losers,” but amounts to the American dream: “A person looks short, fat, ugly, but through hard work can become tall and rich,” he said.

Until very recently, Americophilia wasn’t an acceptable enthusiasm in China. Foreign powers have been resented for centuries, but during the cold war, the United States became the main icon of imperialist villainy, depicted in communist propaganda as a hook-nosed villain wearing aviator sunglasses. That attitude still lingers: In 2012, former President Hu Jintao wrote an essay warning his countrymen to resist Western attempts at “long-term infiltration” via popular culture. But talking to the Dockers, you realize it’s not a fair fight. I have rarely seen such pure delight as when Marco described a scene from the straight-to-video American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile in which a midget football player tackles the character Erik Stifler while yelling, “You’re still my bitch, Stifler!”

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser
Figo (No. 29)

Their parents may not actively approve of these obsessions, but they don’t get in the way. “We don’t understand America,” said Figo’s father, Jianguo, who was part of the Little Red Guards at age twelve during the Cultural Revolution and whose name means “build the nation.” We were talking in Jianguo’s apartment, a comfortable two-bedroom in a high-rise on Chongqing’s southern outskirts, where Figo also lived with his wife and baby girl. Over a lunch of twice-cooked pork and eggs stir-fried with tomatoes, Jianguo, 60, poured us shots of his homemade date-and-walnut baijiu liquor, and then Figo showed off the skull-shaped bottle of German absinthe he’d just bought online. “Our cultural level is too low, our thinking too closed-off,” Jianguo continued in his gravelly Chongqing accent. Since his parents retired, Figo has taken them to Hong Kong and Japan, but they draw the line at American movies.

Marco said he knows that the American movies he loves aren’t realistic, but he likes what they represent, such as the idea that anyone can achieve their dreams. President Xi Jinping often talks about the “Chinese Dream,” but has yet to define the phrase. Perhaps it’s because, for a lot of Chinese, the dream is to be somewhere else.

The loss to Chengdu didn’t hurt morale much. The Dockers had played a full game of American football; that’s what mattered. But over the following weeks, their unity started to show cracks. “Our team has many problems,” Fat Baby confided to McLaurin at a music lounge one night. Marco had initially enjoyed broad support as founder and captain, but lately he’d been alienating some teammates. His decision to start dating Nana, the head cheerleader, hadn’t gone over well. Everyone knew that Marco cared about the team, but sometimes he cared too much: He often yelled at people during practice and bossed them around in the QQ group. Some teammates thought it was time for a leadership change. “Everyone wants to be laoda, the big guy,” said Fat Baby.

In early April, the team made some organizational changes. Whereas Marco had previously been in charge of everything, Figo would now handle outreach and p.r., Tina would take care of the team’s finances, and Soso would be manager. Marco would still lead practices, but that was it. The redistribution of responsibilities wasn’t a straight-up ouster, but Marco got the message. “Every day, he is sad,” said Fat Baby.

At the same time, discipline was slipping. When McLaurin woke up for day one of the two-day “training camp” he’d organized, it was pouring rain. Only ten people showed up, and those who did show were only half there. During one drill, the guys walked unhurriedly from the huddle to the line, to McLaurin’s annoyance. Next they ran a pursuit drill, in which the players had to try and catch McLaurin. “Marco, why are you stopping?” he yelled. Instead of push-ups at the end of practice, Seven did a limp version of the worm.

The problem was, the players were struggling to balance football and their obligations off the field. Fengfeng commuted as far as 90 minutes from school to practice and back. Figo and others had kids and parents to take care of. Marco was trying to open a Korean barbecue restaurant with a friend. An hour spent clobbering other men was an hour not spent schmoozing at a work dinner or keeping a marriage together. McLaurin didn’t see it that way. Over the team’s complaints, he pushed to bump practices up to three times a week. “It’s no longer a democracy, that’s how I see it,” he told me.

And then came the game against the Beijing Cyclones—they of the triumphant mock strip tease. It ended with the Dockers getting trounced, 36-8. They’d been practicing for nine months, and they were still losing. Something had to change.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser
The Dockers recruited cheerleaders long before doing anything cheer-worthy.

The chauffeured car arrived at McLaurin’s apartment on time. He grabbed his giant equipment bag and helmet and climbed in. Weezy, a top-heavy, long-haired 20-year-old and the newest addition to the team, sat in the front seat. He told the driver how to get to the practice field, and put on his favorite new song, Drake’s “Started From the Bottom.” Weezy was from Xi’an, in the north, but had come to Chongqing since his dad started working for the city’s light rail system. Hence the personal driver. He’d been enrolled at Rutgers as a freshman the previous year, but dropped out because, he told me, it was too dangerous. “I got robbed by a black dude and he put a gun right to my head,” he said in English. “I heard gunfire on the school bus. I was like so afraid I was gonna die some day.” That must have been a tough decision, dropping out, I said. Weezy disagreed. “My life or my diploma?” he said. “Because you only live once. YOLO.” He broke off to sing over a verse—“I wear every single chain even when I’m in the house.”

When we arrived at the practice field, the Dockers were a different team. Not metaphorically—it was literally a new set of people. Over the summer, they’d recruited a dozen new players, including a few foreigners. There was Julian, a compact 38-year-old former boxer from Holland; Cherokee, 20, who had come to Chongqing after a tour in Afghanistan; and Eric, a 22-year-old Des Moines native with a goatee nearly as full as his mohawk. The new Chinese recruits showed promise, too. Alien, a college senior in a black leather jacket and pre-worn jeans, was the fastest player on the team, and could catch a ball even if it was covered in Vaseline. Tong Er, a former People’s Liberation Army soldier, loved getting hit almost as much as he loved hitting.

McLaurin, who had decided to start playing quarterback, gathered the offense together in a huddle. “I want a Pro-I Right blue 43 dive on 1,” he said. Someone translated, somehow. The players lined up. “Blue 14, blue 14,” McLaurin growled. “Set, hut!” McLaurin dropped back and launched the ball in a deadly accurate arc. Off to the side, Seven, demoted to backup Q.B., watched.

A lot had changed since the spring. The influx of talent brought a new energy to practices. The players were stronger and faster. “I lost twenty pounds!” Fat Baby told me. “You should lose another twenty,” Yangyang said. McLaurin had also imposed a strict attendance rule: If you wanted to play, you had to show up to a minimum number of practices. And on top of all that, McLaurin and Fitz had organized a league.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

The American Football League of China would have eight teams in all, four in the south and four in the north. Each team would play four games during the regular season, with a championship held at the end between the winners of each conference. There had been a contentious debate over the number of foreigners who could play on the field at once, but the teams had settled on a limit of five. Thus McLaurin’s new role. He wasn’t a natural quarterback, by his own admission, but he was a lot more natural than anyone else.

The first contest of the new season was a home game against the Dockers’ archrivals, the Chengdu Mustangs. At practice, McLaurin had the teammates line up and practice blocking. “Tell them this drill is about violence,” Eric said to Kang. Kang’s translation: “You need to use a little more power.” But the idea was starting to get through. The players crashed into each other like cars, no brakes. “Now that’s football,” McLaurin said.

They had 48 hours to prepare, McLaurin reminded the team at the end of practice, “Don’t eat hotpot,” Cherokee said.

On game day, McLaurin wore his old Michigan helmet, which he’d covered with Dockers-orange masking tape. Fitz was psyching himself up for his first game since high school. He’d had two steaks for breakfast. “I’m ready to just smash into people until I injure myself,” he said, grinning. Weezy took off his orange socks with a marijuana leaf design and put on regular orange socks.

The difference in the team was palpable from the whistle. At one point, Rock blew past two defenders, charged into two more, then dragged them along behind him, and flopped down just over the ten-yard marker. On a few downs, McLaurin just plowed through like a bowling ball.

Then the errors began: Kang fumbled the ball after a handoff (“extremely tragic,” said the announcer), Alien dropped a pass, and Rock, who hadn’t slept the previous night because he’d been on duty, ran the wrong way on a play, which led to a turnover. “Rock, you don’t know what you’re doing, get off the field,” McLaurin yelled. Later, as Chongqing was about to snap the ball, a whistle blew. The players looked around, confused. An old man had wandered onto the field for a better view.

At halftime, the Mustangs were up by a touchdown. “I know you have family and friends here,” said Marcus, one of the coaches. “We don’t wanna go home empty-handed. This is your house.” Weezy summarized: “Don’t play like a pussy.”

Chengdu scored again in the third quarter, putting them up 12-0. If things were already wrong, they started to go wronger. During one play, Fitz jammed his finger. He jogged off the field, held still while someone tied on a splint, and jogged back on. Tina sighed in admiration. “In America, when this happens, is it normal to go back in?” she asked. Fat Baby, playing defensive tackle, got in a fight—the most notable thing he did on-field all season. Rock got crunched and couldn’t move his head. A couple of teammates grabbed his limbs and carried him off the field. “That is not how you move someone with a neck injury,” McLaurin said under his breath.

It’s hard to say what happened in the fourth quarter. Maybe the Dockers finally realized they were about to be humiliated by Chengdu on their home turf. Maybe Chengdu started getting tired. Maybe Chongqing started getting lucky. But with about ten minutes left, McLaurin launched a bomb into the deep right corner. Somehow, Fitz was there, open. The ball fell right into his busted hands and he booked it into the end zone. “He got hurt and still got a touchdown?” Tina said. “He is perfect.”

As the game wound down, McLaurin came off the field clutching his stomach, knelt down on the sideline, and, as was becoming tradition, vomited. Minutes later he was back in and Chongqing was pushing toward the end zone until there were three yards to go and less than a minute left. Eric subbed in at running back, and McLaurin handed him the ball, which he muscled through the hole Tong Er had created and over the line.

The Chongqing side erupted. The Dockers now led, 14-12, with less than a minute on the clock. Seven subbed in as quarterback for the final play. “Hut, hike!” he said for the first time in a long time. The next moment, he got leveled, and came up limping. Seven’s season was over. And within seconds, the game was, too.

The teams lined up and shook hands, and the Dockers took turns posing with the Sichuan Bowl. Heads were cradled, butts were slapped. “This game changed my life,” Kang said in his first-ever post-win interview. “It made me more confident. Now I know that, in life, if I have some trouble, I should just push on and I can still make it better.”

More than any other sport, the players told me, football takes teamwork. Sure, soccer and basketball require cooperation, but those sports favor stars. “Argentina has Maradona, he’s the most lihai,” the most badass, said Fat Baby. “If they didn’t have him, they’d only have an OK team. ... Football isn’t like that; you can’t depend on one person.”

Historians and sociologists have long theorized about why football overtook baseball post–World War II as the most popular sport in the United States. Among the many explanations is that it emphasized cooperation and teamwork at a time when social ties were weakening. Now, China is navigating its own “bowling alone” moment, with an erosion of faith in public institutions and a sense that self-interest has replaced communitarian spirit. Not that the solidarity championed by the communist revolution was by any means ideal. But some Chinese remember that time with nostalgia, compared with the market-worshipping, corruption-tainted era that emerged post-1979, even if they enjoy the spoils of the latter. A whole genre of national news story has emerged about passersby ignoring strangers in need, which only feeds the sense that China has lost its collective soul. At the same time that youngsters want to declare independence from the crowd, they also have a craving for communion. If anything, one intensifies the other.

And to hear the Dockers tell it, nothing strengthens social bonds better than football. In addition to practices and games, they’d started holding team dinners, movie nights, hiking trips, and swimming outings. “I think of them as my big brothers,” said Fengfeng, who like most of the players, and most Chinese under the age of 35, is an only child.

The rest of the season flew by. Off the field, the players—to use Fengfeng’s words—kept running. Marco’s Korean restaurant opened. Figo and his wife moved out of his parents’ place, with their financial help of course. Kang, Alien, and Weezy all got into academic programs abroad and planned to enroll in the spring. Fat Baby got a new SWAT-team doll.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

And, at long last, they were actually playing football. In November, the Dockers traveled to Hong Kong to play the Warhawks and creamed them, 32-0. In December, they defeated their nemesis, Chengdu, in a game even McLaurin was proud of. They won not because of any spectacular runs or Hail Marys. They were simply finding the holes, getting the sacks, completing the handoffs, playing as a team. That win sealed it for the Dockers: They were going to the championship.

If you wanted to create a movie version of an evil Chinese football team, you couldn’t do much better than the Shanghai Warriors. They were big, they were foreign (almost half were non-Chinese), and that season they’d devoured their opponents one by one. So I was surprised when, one day over all-you-can-eat sushi, McLaurin said, “We’ll win.” Not I think we have a chance: “We’ll win.”

The Dockers cranked through into the new year, dialing the frequency of practices up to three times a week. This time, no one objected. McLaurin screened videos of Shanghai’s games for the team, pointing out the Warriors’ weaknesses.

When the team arrived in Shanghai, they dropped their bags at a cheap hotel, where escort services slipped business cards under the doors, and gathered at a sports bar downtown. Eric gave a short motivational speech, which Soso followed with her own dirty version of a Chinese children’s song: “Drop, drop, drop the soap / Everyone go quickly tackle him / Go fuck him in the ass.” In the cab back to the hotel, I asked Coach Marcus what he thought the championship game would be like. “Beautiful,” he said. “It has to be. Anytime something happens for the first time, it’s beautiful.”

On championship day, the stands of Shanghai’s Luwan stadium were empty—not because no one showed, but because the officials in charge of the venue were demanding an extra 11,000 yuan to open the bleachers. “Feel free to shit on the sidelines,” said Frank Schipani, a New Yorker who coached the Warriors. Spectators stood along the fence instead.

Chongqing started strong: an interception on its first defensive possession, followed by a quick touchdown. Patrick, the American quarterback who’d been out drinking till late the night before, found McLaurin in the deep right corner of the end zone. The two-point conversion made it 8-0, Chongqing.

Shanghai answered with a long touchdown of its own, and it quickly became clear how evenly matched the two teams were. This was the most brutal, physical game I’d seen in China. The hits looked like they hurt; there were fights, even an ejection. Chong-qing was able to pick up yards on the ground, thanks in no small part to Tong Er’s formidable blocking. Shanghai was disciplined, with a speedy quarterback, who helped them amass an eight-point fourth-quarter lead.

But with only minutes left, Chongqing surged. First, a pass from Patrick nearly fell short but still found its receiver, who booked it into the end zone. “We make plays, we win this game now,” McLaurin said, the score tied. A minute later, Fitz nabbed the ball after it bounced off a Shanghai receiver’s hands, for the turnover. “That’s why I love you, baby!” Fengfeng yelled as he jumped on Fitz. A few plays later, another bomb delivered to the far corner clinched the game: Chongqing 24, Shanghai 16.

The post-championship celebration was like a million before it, but also completely different. A local TV station interviewed McLaurin, who could barely move his arm after a hard hit had popped his shoulder out of its socket. A little boy asked for his autograph. The Dockers sang, “We Are the Champions.”

I found Marco changing back into his sweats, quietly satisfied. “My baby’s grown up,” he said, recalling their earliest practices. Weezy outsourced his post-game comments to Drake. “ ‘We started from the bottom, now we here,’ right?” he said. “ ‘Started from the bottom, now my whole team fucking here.’ ” On the way to the airport, the Dockers joked about who would play who in the inevitable movie about their triumph. Fat Baby picked Daniel Wu, the Hong Kong actor. Marco? Kung-fu star Ashton Chen. What about Fat Baby’s wife, Yangyang? “Sandra Bullock,” Fat Baby said.

Soso said the team’s story reminded her of the movie Alexander, in which Alexander the Great and his men were determined to “go east” at all costs: “ ‘What is ahead, I know not,’ ” she said, paraphrasing a speech from the movie. “ ‘I just want to go east. If some men want to return home, they may return home. The rest of us will continue east. ... We can’t give our true hearts to everyone, but to give them to our compatriots is enough.’ ... I don’t remember exactly, but it basically went like that.”

This, it seemed, was the real appeal of American football to the Dockers. Figo would go back to his job at the local government office, and Soso would go back to working long hours at her design firm. Fat Baby would go back to not going into work. But now, whenever they watched Any Given Sunday or Remember the Titans or Rudy, these stories weren’t just stories anymore.

Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

Marco (No. 55) holds the Sichuan Bowl trophy while Soso, the team’s manager, jumps on him.

The celebration continued in Chongqing the following week, but McLaurin had trouble enjoying it. He needed surgery on his shoulder, and his current job didn’t provide health insurance. He was also applying for new jobs, in China and the United States, as well as law schools. Chongqing was fun, he said, but it was starting to feel small.

The Dockers were having their own issues. Two weeks after the championship, they met at a teahouse. Marco and others criticized Soso for not doing enough to recruit new players. If they weren’t happy, she said, they could start a new team. Fat Baby almost stormed out of the room. “Chinese people don’t know how to come together,” he told me. “It’s deep in their bones.”

Starting a Chinese football team might have been the easy part. From the beginning, it was never a question of if McLaurin would leave Chongqing, but when. “No one else can lead the team,” said Fat Baby, and he included himself. That’s the way things tend to go in China: It’s simple to get a project off the ground. It’s hard to build something lasting.

After the final game, Figo posted a note on WeChat. It was a photo of McLaurin in full Dockers regalia, face all serious. Figo had added a caption: “The person in this picture, Christopher J. McLaurin, joined us in September 2012, became our head coach, and made us understand what real football is. From the beginning, he told me countless times, ‘I want to make you the strongest football team in China!’ Every time, I said, ‘Yeaaaaahhh!’ But in my heart, I had doubts. ... Then in 2013, he said, ‘I want to start a Chinese football league and play a tournament with the whole country!’ Again I thought, ‘That’s too hard, so many cities, they’re all amateur teams. There are rules, travel fees, so many other problems!’ But he did it. He did everything. He organized the league and led us to become the national champions! This guy, who’s six years younger than me, taught me: If you have a dream, you should protect it, work hard, and persevere to accomplish it.” Fengfeng left the first comment: “I love him.”

Christopher Beam is a staff writer at The New Republic.