Arizona State RB Jackson He blazing a trail for football in China

Four carries, seven yards and one touchdown.

It’s hardly the type of stat line that is typically associated with college football stardom. In a sport so often defined by video game numbers, every conference has a crew of all-stars whose production is eye-popping and it seems almost irrelevant when compared to those players who will attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York. Yet those four plays, tacked on at the end of a 70-7 blowout, may be the most important of the year, giving rise to a new star whose existence has massive implications for the future of the sport.

All of it is just the latest chapter in the unlikely football career of China’s Jackson He.

When the Arizona State walk-on running back punched into the endzone earlier this month, he became the first ever Chinese born player to score at the highest level of college football. It was a historic accomplishment that sent ripples all over social media and captivated many in his home country. On the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo alone, news of his touchdown generated more than 1.8 million hits, stirring up a sense of national pride.

“I’ve already received a lot of messages,” He said when interviewed by ESPN after the score. “I strongly feel their love for this game and for me. I’m so grateful.”

His historic moment brought about more than just well wishes from strangers however, it has already impacted the way the game of American football is being consumed in China. The country’s largest streaming platform Tencent sports made history when they gained the rights to broadcast Arizona State’s season finale against Oregon State, providing their more than 900 million subscribers with a chance to view He perform on special teams. While the platform accounted for roughly 60% of China’s seven million Super Bowl viewers last year, this foray into college football was a first spurred by the presence of their new national folk hero.

RB Jackson He bulls his way into the end zone to make history Photo: Arizona State

It’s a role that He could have never imagined when he first came to the US as wide-eyed 17 year old. Growing up in Shaoguan, China, He Peizhang knew nothing of the sport which would eventually consume his life. Sent by his parents to study at Lutheran High School outside San Diego in order to better prepare for university, he picked the American name of Jackson as a nod to his favorite singer, Michael Jackson, but still struggled to fit in. It was football that found him and changed all that. As is so often the case with small schools, the football program needed bodies and a 250-pound newcomer turned a coach’s head in the hallway. Without any idea of what it would entail, He signed up for the football team and over the next two years was gradually transformed from an uncoordinated lineman into a powerful fullback, finding a place where he belonged along the way. He quickly realized he didn’t want to stop playing.

With little more than a dozen real games under his belt in a completely new sport, He impressed enough to earn a college opportunity at his high school coach’s alma mater Jamestown, a tiny NAIA program in North Dakota. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, He rushed for 376 yard on 80 carries and scored two touchdowns  behind a Jamestown offensive line he affectionately nicknamed “The Great Wall”, because they protected him from the Mongol horde of defenders. The success was short lived however. An off-season coaching change left He dissatisfied and in 2018 he returned home to China.

Back at home, He quickly became a star with the Foshan Tigers of the Chinese National Football League but he still had bigger aspirations. After applying to a number of American schools, He was accepted into Arizona State in 2019 and upon arriving in Tempe, immediately went to the football offices to request a chance to walk-on. It seemed like a long shot, but his tape caught the eye of the coaching staff and He became the only Chinese player in the Division One ranks.

“We thought he was a very productive guy that could bring a little bit to our room in regards to depth,” running backs coach Shaun Aguano recalls. “When I met with him, that intrigued me the most. He’s a very, very, very intelligent kid. He had a great personality. I thought those characteristics in our running back room would help, especially our younger kids.”

Arizona State RB Jackson He warms up before NCAA game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Photo: AFP

Head coach Herm Edwards agreed and it proved to be a savvy decision. Over the last two years, China’s football trailblazer has put in the work on scout team and in the weight room to become a valued member of the Sun Devils. The sport that was once foreign and confusing now makes perfect sense.

“His understanding of the game, the whys of why we do things, conceptually why we do things,” says Aguano. “He’s going to be a great coach later on because he asks the right questions. He’s understanding the game of football a lot more, and it’s a joy to have him in our room.”

As a junior he’s become a leader in the locker room, breaking the running back group out of the post-practice huddle every day with phrases in Chinese. His touchdown in Arizona State’s blowout win was a personal reward from the coaching staff for his effort for the team, but it’s had bigger ramifications elsewhere. Even before he found the end zone, his former principal at Lutheran High School began noticing pictures of He in his Arizona State uniform popping up in Chinese schools on academic recruiting trips. When he powered in against Arizona, He became a household name for millions of Chinese.

CNFL chairman Wang Datong in an interview earlier this month:

“Since his latest performance, everybody associated with football in China has heard about him. For Chinese, football is very new. We’re less accustomed to contact sports, so it’s nice to see that one of our peers can be successful in football, and that this isn’t just a sport for foreigners.”

China presents the world’s largest consumer market, one that is highly desirable to North American sports organizations but is still largely untapped when it comes to American football. Most foreign sports believe that to succeed in China you need a ground breaking figurehead, a player that can captivate and inspire the country like NBA superstar Yao Ming did for basketball. The NFL’s Yao Ming may still be years away but for now Jackson He, with Chinese characters proudly embroidered on the back of his jersey, is the face of football in China.

“I want to prove that Chinese can play really good football,” He says. “I have a chip on my shoulder. I want everybody to recognize us. We can have success not just in basketball, but in football too.”

Still just a walk-on behind a crew of talented scholarship athletes, He may never get the opportunity to become a star in the United States but he is already inspiring the next generation of Chinese players. With his touchdown at the FBS level and former Division 2 outside linebacker Boqiao Li narrowly missing out on a practice roster spot as part of the International Player Pathway Program, this year has shown that the once distant pipe dream of a Chinese player in the NFL is inching closer to reality.

Jackson He might not be football’s Yao Ming, but one of the the kids watching him might be.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.