Arena football vets never saw anything like new Chinese league

The Guangzhou Power, in white, and Beijing Lions prepare to battle it out in Shenzhen during the inaugural season of the China American Football League. Beijing would win the Oct. 29 game 55-32. Courtesy China Arena Football League

J.J. Raterink has seen a lot in more than a decade of professional arena football.

The 35-year-old former University of Wyoming quarterback broke Iowa Barnstormers franchise records set by Kurt Warner and later played for the Los Angeles Kiss, a team owned by rock stars Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. In addition to two stints with each of those teams, Raterink has plied his trade with the Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings, Chicago Rush, Fairbanks Grizzlies, Kansas City Command, Las Vegas Outlaws, Quad City Steamwheelers and Spokane Shock over the years.

Still, Raterink wasn't quite prepared for the challenge that awaited him in the first season of the China Arena Football League, when he lined up alongside Guangzhou Power teammates who had begun playing the sport only weeks earlier. In addition to speaking a different language than many players, he learned that things can get lost in translation even with players who speak English.

"I would say something in practice like, 'Take the top off the defense,'" Raterink said. "We know that as someone who runs a deep route and backs the safeties up so we can throw underneath. But one player looked at me and took his helmet off -- because that's the top of their equipment."

Indeed, the CAFL was uncharted territory, and nothing Raterink learned in Alaska, Louisiana, Nevada or anywhere else in the football world could fully prepare him for it.

"Trying to balance everything while trying to learn a little bit of Chinese myself was interesting, to say the least," said Raterink, who also served as a commentator on broadcasts for other teams' games. "I had never been around a challenge quite like that in 10 years of arena football in the States."


Arena football is a high-octane derivative of its outdoor counterpart.

The playing field is roughly one-fourth the size of a regular gridiron, with dasher boards around the perimeter of the artificial surface. Each team fields eight players at a time, instead of the typical 11. It's a high-speed game of human pinball that lends itself to more passing and scoring, with no punting and far less emphasis on running backs.

Essentially, it's American football boiled down to pure, unadulterated high fructose corn syrup.

The CAFL was founded by Martin Judge, a minority owner of the Arena Football League's Philadelphia Soul, with the goal of bringing the sport to the untapped Chinese market. Close to half the 132 players on the six team rosters for the league's 2016 inaugural season were China natives, and rules required teams to use at least four Chinese players at all times. With just two weeks of training camp to prepare for the season, native players were thrust into a situation in which they had to navigate a language barrier with their American coaches and quickly acclimate to an extremely physical brand of sport.

Although quarterbacks and coaches used hand signals to supplement instructions spoken in English, it was a steep learning curve for Chinese players. Beijing Lions head coach Clint Dolezel said his team's native players were greatly motivated and improved rapidly. To help facilitate them, Dolezel said he strongly considered teaching ability when selecting his American players. With a shared love for the game -- and salaries typically ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 per game -- players from all sides were incentivized to make things work.

After suffering two key injuries late in the season, the Beijing relied more heavily on native players in the China Bowl championship game against the Qingdao Clipper on Nov. 6. The Lions won 35-34 with a field goal on the last play of the game to cap a perfect 6-0 season.

"I can't express how much we grew attached to our Chinese players," Dolezel said. "These kids wanted [to win the championship] bad, and we wanted to win it so bad for them. They were in tears after we won. Even if these kids never play another snap, they will remember this the rest of their lives."


By many accounts, Chinese fans were curiously receptive to the CAFL product.

The first games attracted a crowd of more than 11,000 in Beijing, and most games drew approximately 5,000 to 7,000 people. Spectators initially cheered the loudest on kickoffs and field goals, but before long they were booing the officials just like American fans -- though they also came to appreciate touchdowns and the elaborate celebrations that followed. While the NFL is restrictive in regard to jubilation, the CAFL wholeheartedly embraces it.

That identity really began to take shape when the Shanghai Skywalkers beat the Shenzhen Naja 61-48 in Week 3.

Shanghai quarterback Shane Austin threw nine touchdown passes. Five of them went to former University of Hawaii and AFL teammate Mike Washington, while the other four went to wideout Shane Kauleinamuku. Not only did the Skywalkers light up the scoreboard in Qingdao, but Washington and Kauleinamuku stirred up a buzz on social media with some inspired celebrations. The duo conjured up a fencing match, took a page from the WWE with a DDT pantomime and added some 1980s break dancing for good measure.

"After that stuff went viral, I think we set the bar for every team to get creative," said Washington, 30, who led the league with 47 receptions and ranked second with 15 touchdown catches -- one behind Kauleinamuku. "There were no penalties whatsoever. The refs were cool with it. [The fans] loved that stuff. It made the audience more engaged in the game."

The genie was out of the lamp, and other teams soon followed suit. It wasn't just American players who got into the act. Raterink said Guangzhou wide receiver Qiu Xun Da made the most of his opportunity when he scored his first touchdown of the season.

"He was bouncing all over the end zone," Raterink said. "He did like four different touchdown celebrations that he had seen."


Instead of organizing a traditional home-and-away schedule for its six teams, the CAFL opted to promote a "Super Series" tour over the course of six weeks. Three games were played each weekend as the teams made their way to each of the six CAFL cities. After a two-week training camp in Beijing, the first games were contested Oct. 1, also in the nation's capital. The tour made subsequent stops in Dalian, Qingdao, Guangzhou and Shenzhen and culminated with the championship round in Shanghai.

In order to expedite the Chinese players' football learning and the Americans' cultural growth, each team paired imports and natives as roommates. The tour format was also unique in that all six teams stayed in the same hotels and traveled and ate meals together. It created a brotherhood of sorts among the athletes, regardless of team affiliation or nationality.

"It was unique in that you might be eating breakfast on game day with the enemy," said Austin, 27, who led the league with 1,436 passing yards and 35 touchdown passes.

Many players have stayed in touch across the Pacific since the season ended. Washington said his roommate, wide receiver Jong Yu Jeong, has sent messages asking about equipment, strategy and technique. Several Dalian Dragon Kings teammates still joke around together in a WeChat group.

Dolezel said he made it a point to give his players a day off at each stop on the tour in order to see the sights and learn about the culture of each locale. "You went to a new city and kind of got refreshed and got to see what they had to offer," Dolezel said. "Every city was unique in its own way."

One of the biggest cultural differences American players noticed was in regard to food choices. Washington, for instance, came away stunned and dazzled by a cook at a Beijing street market.

"The guy had a duck, took it out of the cage, chopped it, skinned it, [and threw it] right there in the fryer in under a minute," Washington said. "That is the craziest thing I've ever seen."

If you aren't in the mood for duck, countless other new choices were available to American players, including goose, shark, yak, monkey brains and fried varieties of scorpions, seahorses and beetles. It's not unusual for food to be prepared and served immediately after an animal is killed -- something extremely rare in the United States. Although Washington primarily eats a plant-based diet at home, he was more than willing to try some of the various native Chinese cuisines.

"The most exotic thing I ate was cow stomach and cow eyes," Washington said. "That was, uhhh, challenging."


Dalian defensive end Yan Siguang has already seen American football make significant strides in China.

The native of Chengdu began playing the sport six years ago when he moved to Shanghai. He wanted to compete recreationally in a team sport, and a web search of the Chinese word for football incorrectly led him to rugby. He briefly tried the venerable English game, but it didn't captivate him.

Yan then discovered a group that played tackle football without pads in China's most populous city. Fortunately, he avoided injury and subsequently joined a team with an American coach that used the proper equipment. He learned the three-point stance and began playing defensive end. Before long, he was hooked.

"When I play football, I feel a lot of passion," said Yan, a 6-foot-1, 209-pounder who also goes by the American name Owen. "Football has taught me a lot that I bring to my life. You can get beat down, but you've got to get up and keep going. Never give up. Keep fighting. I bring that to my life. I feel it makes my life easier, makes my job easier, makes me stronger and tougher. In football, the team is like a big family. They've got each other's [back]. They protect each other."

Yan serves as a captain for the Shanghai Warriors, who captured the outdoor American Football League of China championship earlier this year. He learned about the indoor variety of the sport by word of mouth from teammates. He tried out for the CAFL but didn't expect to be selected. As it turns out, he underestimated his ability. Not only was he drafted, he turned out to be one of the top Chinese players in the fledgling league.

In addition to playing defensive end, Yan also saw action at fullback and on special teams. Although the Dragon Kings went winless in the six-game season, he considers the experience a dream come true. Yan, who is 33 and still works his day job in pharmaceutical sales, would like to explore coaching and broadcasting opportunities in football down the road. But he wants to play as long as possible and draws inspiration from 40-year-old Dalian teammate Steve Tang.

Given his enthusiasm for football, it's no surprise that he sees great potential for the sport in the Far East.

"I hope it can grow bigger and bigger," Yan said. "In China, we welcome new things. Football is a magic sport. If people can understand the rules, then it's easy for them to get into it and learn to love the game."


The CAFL plans to add four teams in 2017 and utilize a traditional home-and-away schedule. Given the opportunity to come back next season, each of the Americans interviewed for this article said he would be interested in returning:

Washington: "Definitely. China was amazing. I enjoyed every bit of it."

Austin: "I'm 100 percent on board. I had a great time, and I'm looking forward to see the sport grow there. I think the fans are going to eat it up."

Dolezel: "I'd love to go back and see those guys again. They're only going to get better, and the [exposure] they had this year will bring a bunch of new players. I don't think we've even touched the tip of the iceberg as far as the amount of talent there."

Raterink: "As long as my health stays up, I would love to go back. It was the greatest two months of my life."