Five years ago, Long Ding was a teenager from Qingdao, the Chinese coastal city facing the Yellow Sea. He had played some soccer and rugby, but couldn’t recognize an American football.
Nowadays, he’s booting those oblong objects through the goal posts, and getting looks from NFL teams. If he were to make a roster, Ding would be the first Chinese-born player to suit up in America’s top sports league.
Ding, 24, made it to the U.S. through a football diplomacy program of sorts. The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) / USA Football International Student Program offers football training clinics for foreign teens, and funds educational opportunities in the States for promising players. Ding participated in this program back in 2007. Kicking off a tee, or off the ground with the help of a holder, felt natural to Ding. “It was not that hard,” Ding says. “I was a kicker on my rugby team, and the technique was similar.”
(MORE: Holding Their Own In The Super Bowl)
A USA Football rep informed David Perfield, then the football coach at the New Hampton School, a boarding school in New Hampshire, that he had spotted a talented kicker from China. New Hampton offered him a spot, and on a whim, Ding flew 7,000 miles from his family’s modest two-bedroom apartment in Qingdao to the New England campus. “When I first talked to Long, it was a chore to understand what he was saying,” says Perfield, who is now the director of development at the Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire. “His English was really, really poor.” Did he at least know the rules of football? “Oh, no, Jesus no,” says Perfield. “It took him awhile to understand that stuff. He knew you kicked off to start the game, but he didn’t know why you punted, or why you kicked a field goal.”
But Ding was a fast learner. His English improved, and he wound up playing for Norwich (Vt.) University. This past season, his senior year, Ding did not miss a field goal inside 40 yards, and booted a 51-yarder. He wasn’t drafted, but this past weekend, he attended the Jacksonville Jaguars’ rookie mini-camp. “I was very pleased with where he’s at,” says John Bonamego, the special teams coach for the Jaguars. “He has a legit chance to kick in the NFL. When he came out here, he didn’t act like it was too big for him. It wasn’t ‘hey, I belong.’ He has a wonderful demeanor.”
The Jags are far from committing to Ding. The team placed a franchise tag on incumbent kicker Josh Scobee for this season, locking him up for the coming year, though Scobee and the Jaguars are still haggling over a long-term contract. Matt Stover, the former NFL kicker who c0-founded the Players’ Philanthropy Fund, which assists pro athletes with their charitable giving, agrees that Ding has NFL potential. But like many young kickers, Ding needs to improve his technique. In particular Stover, who has worked with Ding, thinks Ding needs to square his shoulders better as he approaches the ball. “In kicking, the upper body is as important as the lower body,” says Stover. “If you turn your shoulders before you get to the ball, it throws you off balance.”
So Ding might have to bounce around the Arena Football League, or the Canadian Football League, to prove he deserves an NFL shot. He plans on making that effort. “I like the pressure, you know?,” Ding says about his kicking craft. “You make it, and you’re a hero.” And if he makes it to the NFL, he’ll become an icon back home – an in the C-suites of the NFL, for which international expansion is a priority, and for which the Chinese market is a top prize.