Union alumnus brings football to China

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Football and China are two terms that are not often paired together in the mind of an average American. However, Union alumnus Danny Zhang ’16 is working to change that.

Zhang, who studied economics at Union, is currently living, working and playing football in the cosmopolitan Chinese metropolis of Shanghai. Zhang is a member of the Shanghai Warriors, a team that plays in the American Football League of China.

The league was established in 2013 by two former college athletes; it currently boasts 14 teams based throughout China and continues to grow with each year, in contingent with the gradually rising popularity of football in China. Zhang is not only playing football – his job also revolves around it. He works creating and managing content for a football-focused web publication on WeChat, China’s largest and most prominent social network.

Zhang became involved with the football scene in China in the fall of 2014 when he participated in Union’s term abroad in Shanghai.

Danny Zhang ’16 plays catch with NFL legend Peyton Manning on the Great Wall of China. Courtesy of Danny Zhang
Danny Zhang ’16 plays catch with NFL legend Peyton Manning on the Great Wall of China. Courtesy of Danny Zhang

“I’ve always considered football my biggest hobby and interest, and heard that there were multiple amateur teams in the Shanghai area. I had thought my playing days were over, as I never tried to join the team at Union, but this would give me an opportunity to play the game I loved again in a unique setting culturally,” said Zhang.

During his term abroad, Zhang became infatuated with Shanghai and pursued an internship in the city the summer before his senior year where he began to write game previews and recaps for the league. Following his summer internship, Zhang began to look for full-time employment in Shanghai.

“Finding a job in Shanghai is tough to do for fresh graduates outside of English-teaching jobs,” noted Zhang. However, his connection to the Warriors gave him an edge.

One of the team’s managers began working for a company, Dragon Group Asia, and asked Zhang if he’d be interested in helping to manage “Life in the Huddle,” a web publication informing readers about various NFL China and AFLC news on WeChat.

“Seeing as football is my biggest hobby, I jumped at the chance and immediately accepted,” said Zhang.

Playing on an amateur football team in China comes with certain challenges.

“My team is probably about 70 percent local Chinese, and 30 percent foreigners. Communication issues and cultural differences definitely come into play, as some of the foreigners have played at as high of a level as NCAA Division I, while most Chinese players just joining our team have never put on pads before,” Zhang continued.

The rapid development of amateur football in China is a sentiment to the sport’s rising popularity among the masses.

Furthermore, this fall, NFL great Peyton Manning traveled to China for the NFL Legends Tour and Zhang, through his work was able to work closely with the tour and with Manning; Zhang even threw around a football with the renowned quarterback atop the Great Wall.

“The visual of Peyton Manning throwing a football on the Great Wall definitely represented a striking cross-cultural sight, and I feel lucky to have been a part of that,” said Zhang.

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