How a soccer player from China came to America and found football.
“Steve” Yue Wang’s eyes light up when you talk football. He doesn’t have any favorite players or memorable moments, either from watching or playing. He can’t rattle off any statistics. He’s never really played the game. These are all things the average American has done if they’re into football.
But Wang isn’t American. He just knows he enjoys football.
“I know the game of soccer, but it isn’t worth it anymore,” says Wang. “I am tired of playing [soccer]. Football is so new, and it is just different.”
Wang, a senior at Cumberland University in Nashville, Tenn., has played soccer all his life. Soccer is what Wang has to do. He’s on a soccer scholarship, which has opened the doors for an education that includes double majoring in both business management and marketing. He holds a 3.7 overall GPA. He plays jazz and blues music in his free time. He picked the English name “Steve” because he says Ray Vaughn sounds like Yue Wang (pronounced like ‘u-way wang’), and he always enjoyed Stevie Ray Vaughn’s music.
But this is a story about what Wang wants to do: Become the first professional Chinese kicker in the National Football League. And to understand what Wang wants to do, it is essential to understand where he comes from and how he’s gotten to this point.
Soccer in the People’s Republic
Wang grew up in Tianjin, China — a city east of Beijing that has a population of 12 million — playing soccer since the age of 10. In China, like other countries around the world, if you are identified as an athlete, you are taught your sport. That’s not to say that Wang did not receive an education, he just played soccer everyday as if it were a job. By 1999, he had qualified for the Chinese junior national soccer team.
Wang has played soccer in every province in China, and in countries as far away as Brazil. In 2004, his coach suggested he try playing in Europe, the pinnacle of the soccer world. Wang was selected for a second division team in Portugal, but for whatever reason — which remains elusive for Wang to this day — he was denied a working visa and his opportunity to play soccer in Europe disappeared.
“Then, my coach suggested I stick with the amateur route of going to America by first attending college and then playing [soccer] in a league,” says Wang. “At least I’d have a degree.”
According to Wang, he was offered a scholarship by an NCAA Division-I school, but because he had not been recruited directly out of high school, he could not attend. Instead, he was recruited to Lindsey Wilson College, a small school in Columbia, Ky.
“I’d never been to America before,” says Wang. “Lindsey is a tiny college in Kentucky. The city is no more than 4,000 people. And it’s a dry county, which means no alcohol. They have an amazing soccer team; the whole team is international. But for me, soccer was beginning to seem old. I was getting tired.”
Finding Football in America
Lindsey Wilson has consistently made the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics soccer championship tournament over the past decade, including overall wins in the 2001-02 and 2005-06 seasons.
It was at Lindsey Wilson that Wang kicked his first football one day after soccer practice when a friend egged him on. “I’d seen football in college, but I thought it was stupid,” says Wang. “Football is about tackling; soccer is about using your skills with your feet. I liked kicking better. And as an outsider, football seemed violent.”
Yet, from that moment on, Wang was hooked to football. In his spare time, he’d head to the indoor basketball courts at Lindsey Wilson and, using the sides of the backboards as imaginary goal posts, would stand on the opposite end of the basketball court and kick the football “through the uprights.” Since no one else was around, he’d simply spin the football on its tip, give it a kick and watch it sail through the goal.
Wang transferred to Cumberland University after his freshman year, saying he couldn’t do the whole “small town thing” anymore. He continued to play soccer for Cumberland, but during his first few days on campus, Wang says he went over to the football coach’s office to see if he could walk on the team.
“He kind of didn’t bother with me, didn’t even look up from his desk,” says Wang of his visit. “He brushed me off, saying they already had six kickers. But I still had soccer.”
Instead, he’d practice along with another kicker from the football team, to the point where Wang says the football coaches refused to allow Wang on the football field or even practice with team balls. In 2008, Wang was named to the Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athletes list as a soccer player, along with making First Team All-TransSouth Conference.
But before getting his soccer accolades, Wang made a trip to Atlanta, to try out as a kicker for the Georgia Force, a team for the Arena Football League. Wang never knew if he’d end up getting recruited, as the league suspended its 2009 season. In April 2009, Wang attended the 6th Annual Aguiar Kicking Academy Pro Camp in Las Vegas to see if the NFL was a viable opportunity.
“Before the showcase on the last day — with coaches and scouts there to watch — I’d never kicked a football through the uprights with a snapper and a holder,” says Wang. “That whole process of snapping the ball threw me off. I wasn’t expecting it. I missed my first kick —the easiest one of the kicks we were expected to do. I made the rest.”
Wang was handed an NFL player contract, but was also told there were no guarantees he’d make a team. If he signed the paper, Wang would forfeit his eligibility to play soccer his senior year at Cumberland, dissolving his scholarship and a chances of obtaining a degree. The NFL career would have to wait.
“Preparing” for the NFL
He enters his senior year at Cumberland on an athletic high. He’s at the top of his soccer game, and more importantly, he’ll also be kicking for the Cumberland football team. “The football coach’s attitude completely changed after the NFL camp,” he says, laughing. “He told me, ‘We’re always looking for a good kicker.’”
At 28-years-old, Wang wants football. He understands he would be the first Chinese national to make a professional NFL team should he be selected. And he uses it like a selling point when he speaks.
“He can kick the snot out of the ball,” says Jeff Loucks, head coach of the men’s soccer team at Cumberland. “How many in the NFL can make a 60-yard field goal? Steve can do that. He has so much potential and so much upside.”
Wang says as a kicker you don’t need to be particularly attuned to all the other aspects of football. You don’t need to know formations, and according to Wang, you don’t need to understand how to play the game. Wang says you just have to kick the ball through the uprights. But before Wang can begin his career as a kicker, he might want to try on the uniform first. After all, he’s yet to fully suit up.
— Zachary Franklin