Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-winning performance in The Blind Side begins with images of Lawrence Taylor sacking Joe Theismann. In a gently lilting Tennessee drawl Bullock explains the moment’s great significance: the Washington Redskins quarterback would be so badly injured by the tackle that he would never play again.
For NFL coaches, she explains, the lesson was clear. The quarterback may be the star of the team but the physical menace of menlike Taylor meant a new position became vital. Suddenly, the second most important player in the team was the ‘left tackle’, whose job it was to protect the team’s quarterback. The Blind Side is the true story of Michael Oher, whose rags-to- riches tale hinges on his flair in this position. Oher was the top draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens last year.
Another left tackle was in the news recently – thanks to the drafting of Ed Wang by the Buffalo Bills. A graduate of Virginia Tech, Wang grabbed the headlines as the first Chinese to join the NFL.
There will be many who assume that the Chinese physique doesn’t lend itself to the burly world of American football. But Wang is six foot four and weighs in at 314 pounds, and according to the Buffalo News, just like Oher “has the prototypical body and right set of skills to play left tackle in the NFL.”
Most are drawing fewer comparisons with Oher and more with basketballer Yao Ming. As reported in WiC45, the NFL would love to replicate the NBA’s success in cracking the China market, where there are an estimated 450 million who now follow America’s basketball league. The NBA’s Shanghai-born star Yao Ming (see WiC52) helped lure a big chunk of this audience.
Could Wang do the same for the NFL? That’s what the league’s marketers are hoping. The NFL admits it has a long way to go to catch up with basketball – it estimates that there are only 1.5 million “avid” Chinese gridiron fans. But if Wang blocks well, there could be an uptick in interest in matches from Buffalo.
Xinmin Evening News has already referred to Wang as the “Yao Ming of American Football” and the player’s agent Octagon is hopeful: “The significance to the NFL is much greater than the impact on Wang himself.” An Octagon spokesman adds that “Wang feels proud of his Chinese descent”.
In fact, unlike Yao, Wang wasn’t born in China – but in Fairfax, Virginia. But his Beijing-born parents were both Chinese Olympians, which is enough to class ‘Wang Kai’ as pure ethnic Chinese.
Buffalo News agrees, acknowledging that there have been NFL players of ‘mixed’ Chinese descent before, such as Pat Chung and Kailee Wong. But Wang is the first “full-blooded Chinese descendant drafted in the NFL”. It quotes the young player as saying: “It means a lot to me that I was able to be the first one to do it, so I took a lot of pride in that.”
Of course, just being Chinese won’t be enough. He’ll need to become one of the league’s stars if the NFL is to make its China breakthrough. Is that likely? Wang was drafted in the fifth round (unlike Oher, who was a first round pick), which suggests his game will have to improve. The team’s general manager, Buddy Nix agrees that Wang is not yet the finished article, but adds: “He’s got size. He’s got intelligence and he’s got left tackle ability. He’s got balance, he can pass protect. The guy’s got a lot of things going for him.”
The Buffalo News is optimistic: “Wang has a long way to go to reach the level of celebrity in China that Yao Ming has. But the eyes of the country will be on Wang as he heads into the NFL. He may be able to attract more Chinese fans to the NFL, similar to what Yao has done for the NBA’s audience.”
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