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House on the Hill: A Global Game

March 10, 2014

Sam Stuart '13 stands on the far right next to his semi-pro football team, the Beijing Cyclones.

With every play sketched on his clipboard and every blown whistle –- there have been plenty –- Sam Stuart '13 is reminded of four of the best years of his life: his days playing football at Lafayette College for head coach Frank Tavani.

It doesn't matter that Stuart is 6,827 miles away coaching the Beijing Cyclones and studying at Tsinghua University, writing plays in pinyin, doing his best to speak Chinese or sometimes rehashing the basics more than expected, he's always leaning heavily on his College Hill roots.

The Cyclones (white) playing the Tianjin Pirates.

“From the implementation of drills, to the pep talks and mottos, it's all Lafayette,” Stuart said. “I use a lot of [director of sports performance Brad] Potts' designs for warm ups and workouts; I use a lot of Coach T’s ideology and mottos; and I use a lot of [former defensive coordinator John] Loose's strategies and teaching methods.

“My team is basically becoming a Leopard offspring. Maybe Chinese football will significantly reflect Lafayette’s style of play someday, which I really hope, since we just won another Patriot League Championship.”

Stuart played linebacker and special teams from 2009-12 at Lafayette where, when he wasn't on the football field, he was drawn to learning about foreign countries and cultures, which stemmed from his experiences in the anthropology and sociology classes he took. Then he developed a particular interest in China when Lafayette classmate Chao Wang invited him to apply for Project Boma through International Studies Abroad (ISA). Not long after Wang's offer, Stuart found himself in Changchun, China, for three weeks, marking his first trip outside of the U.S.

“It really opened up my eyes to the international scene,” Stuart said. “Before coming to Lafayette I was extremely ethnocentric. I thought there was nothing outside the U.S. that I could possibly ever want or need.”

But Stuart, now 23, was totally taken by all the aspects of being abroad and it got him thinking about graduate school. He decided to take Wang's suggestion of getting his master's degree in China.

Just a few weeks after arriving, Stuart, who was living off campus with a host family, went for a walk in search of lunch at a campus dining hall.

An advertisement for the Cyclones'
against Tianjin. 

“All of a sudden, I rub my eyes and do a double take,” Stuart said. “Are those football players? I see a group of guys in full pads playing football amidst a crowded field of soccer and Frisbee players. I circle around in disbelief and get closer and closer. Eventually I find myself right next to them smiling and just taking it in. I never expected in a million years to ever see football being played in China. I couldn’t stop smiling.” 

Stuart also couldn't understand a word they were saying.

Finally, a fellow spectator, who turned out to be an injured player who spoke English, noticed Stuart's curious eye and gave him the team's rundown. Stuart, in turn, provided his football background before meeting the team's leaders, two of whom spoke English, after practice ended.

After hearing Stuart's story, they invited him to join them for their next practice. And with their coach seemingly out of town (that's what Stuart was told), the timing was right.

“They lent me pads, and I just fell in line with what they were already doing,” Stuart said. “Although I was out of shape, I still managed to impress the team with my skills. Afterward, they wanted to know if I would play the season with them. I said, 'Why not?'”

With one of the team's leaders missing during the second practice Stuart attended, the team asked if he'd be willing to take charge.

“I did, and they really enjoyed it, and we made some progress,” he said. “I was then told that their old coach actually was not coming back and he was coaching a team in Chongqing.”

That prompted them to ask Stuart to be a player-coach, and he gladly accepted.

“I took a very modest approach at first and basically just practiced with them and helped them when they had questions and gave advice when asked,” he explained.

That approach didn't last long, though. Stuart decided his team would be better off if he just coached and didn't play.

“They kind of had their thing going, and did not really need my help too much. They told me they were the top team in China,” Stuart recalled. “A few weeks later however, we played the Shanghai Titans and lost a very close game. Everyone was extremely upset. That’s when the team officially elected three captains and the captains and manager asked me to be the official head coach and to take care of all football-related team activities. So that’s when I really took over and implemented my practice schedule, defensive playbook, etc.”

Stuart learned quickly, though, that he'd have to move out of his comfort zone and make some adjustments to fit the Chinese style of play. He couldn't completely Americanize the game he'd grown to love, first in Kansas and then at Lafayette.

“When I took over, I wanted to scrap the offensive playbook and put in the traditional football that I am used to with I-pro formations and do simple, effective passing and power running,” he recalled. “But the style here is all about what I call 'the finesse run game.' The best thing I can do is keep players interested. I let them draw up plays and show me. I have seen some crazy stuff. I end up just compromising a little.”

So far, so good.

The team, which was established in 2011 as part of the Chinese American Football League, was .500 in 2013. It is the only squad with a roster made up of 100 percent Chinese players, Stuart said. The average age of his players is 25.5 with his oldest player topping out at 34. No one has more than five years of experience. A spring exhibition game in April will be followed by the regular season, which starts in September.

Although football isn't nearly as popular in China as it is in the U.S., Stuart sees a burning desire in his players to learn. He's also impressed with the respect they show one another and him as a coach.

“It's all passion and very little glory,” Stuart said. “Nobody gets lost in the lights, though, and definitely no one plays because 'everybody else is doing it' or because of pressure. It's all because of interest and passion. The only reward is the satisfaction that the game itself brings, and of course the brotherhood of team bonding, and knowing you are a part of something greater than yourself, which is especially big for the players in China. The idea of 'team' is one of the most attractive features of football in China. Sometimes we forget that in the U.S. and are more concerned about our individual roles.”

Stuart, who arrived in China on Sept. 1, 2013, will be making his first trip home this summer. He envisions staying in China not only to finish his master's and improve his Chinese more, but also to continue coaching. He's eager to watch the development of the league and his team –- he may coach the soon-to-be established Beijing Fighters this coming year.

And his Lafayette coaches are the biggest reason he wants to remain in China to continue coaching.

“Their commitment to coaching has inspired me as a coach,” Stuart said. “It’s a lot harder than it looks, and it really permeates your entire life. Seeing how they did it and seeing how much of an impact they had on players, including me, really inspires me to take this job seriously and do my best. I consider it a true honor to be in a position of influence in others’ lives as well as something to be handled with great responsibility and the utmost care.” 

By Mandy Housenick | House on the Hill