American Football International

China: The Diary Of An International Leadership Team

July welcomed the first group of international athletic leaders to China to begin their fellowship with Gridiron Leaders Foundation (GLF).

The GLF operates the China Gridiron Fellowship in China to support former NCAA college football players with the desire to gain international leadership experience, through a combination of professional work placements & football coaching opportunities, but also local players and communities eager to learn how to play the game in China. Run by Chris McLaurin and Zach Brown, their aims benefit both the individual fellows on the program, but also the sport in China.

Via the Gridiron Leaders Foundation site;

“GLF provides a select group of former NCAA football student-athletes the opportunity to experience China through a program that emphasizes professional, athletic, linguistic, and experiential learning opportunity. Fellows serve as cultural and athletic ambassadors, using their unique backgrounds and skill sets to help bridge the ever-shrinking gap between China and the United States. GLF awards high-performing individuals who have demonstrated excellence on and off the field with the chance to contribute to China’s rapidly expanding sports culture.”

With connections to the 20 currently competitive teams (as well as the 65 teams in total across China) GLF is able to support the game across the country, and through their fellowship program introduce new coaching talent to develop the sport further.

This year, the inaugural intake of coaches arrived on July 28th and includes 3 highly talented individuals who all combine extensive football experience with a wealth of intelligence and business aptitude. Former Toledo University graduate Vladimir Emilien, Michigan University alum Floyd Simmons, and Vanderbilt graduate Darien Briant have a wide variety of educational and business backgrounds, but all share the desire to take advantage of the opportunity to live & work in China, courtesy of GLF.

“I have always wanted to live overseas, and the GLF has given me an opportunity to continue my career, live abroad and still to be part of football,” said Briant, who is also currently completing his online masters degree from West Virginia University.

Simmons, who has extensive experience in social work and non-profit management, added:

“I have not been away from my state before (apart from traveling for football games). After my studies, I wanted to do something to set myself apart from others around me. I never got an opportunity to study abroad before, so I thought this was a great chance for me.”

The group initially stayed together in Shanghai with the GLF team for a comprehensive 2-week induction program and received invaluable training about living and working in China, as well as advice about leadership that will support them in their onward coaching positions and career aspirations.

Wednesday July, 29th – CELAP Office, Pudong, Shanghai

Emerging into China on their first full day, the team’s initial visit set the tone for their 9-month stay as part of the program – a visit to the China Executive Leadership Academy of Pudong (CELAP), located in the south-east of Shanghai. Founded in 2004, and one of 5 national leadership schools in China, the event served to educate the team about Chinese leadership philosophies.

‘Harry’ Liu Genfa

In a tour led by Deputy Director General ‘Harry’ Liu Genfa, the team learned about some of the roles that CELAP plays in supporting the development of leaders from around the world (including senior Chinese officials such as current President, Xi Jinping) with their ability to inspire and lead people, but also in providing cross-culture education by inviting hundreds of the best international speakers to share their country’s cultures with China (as well as imparting lessons about China to share with the world) through their merging aims of “integrating China into the rest of the world & developing knowledge and understanding of other nations for Chinese citizens.”

In an open discussion, Liu Genfa described the GLF initiative (the first sporting exchange seen by CELAP) as “a very valuable chance for these young leaders to exchange ideas in China”.

In his informative discussion with the team, he continued to say “we want to create more opportunities for young leaders, not just from American football, but also from American schools and communities to have a more open exchange, so that we will understand each other better”, something that relates closely to GLF core values of creating platforms for football athletes to “reach their fullest potential as global-minded leaders”.

In his second trip to China, new coach and Vanderbilt alumni Darien Briant commented on the day as “a great experience to see the investment they are having in their people. They are doing really great things here”.

GLF team at CELAP

Next Page: NFL China Offices

Friday July, 30th – NFL China Office

Following a day of security briefings conducted by the US Consulate, and as the remnants of jet lag slowly
loosened their grip on the new coaches, the team met for their 3rd full day in China in down town Shanghai for a day in the offices of NFL China. Located in the luxurious Jing’an district (with more Mazerattis than MacDonalds), the team had an opportunity to hear from a team working directly with the Chinese market to promote and build support for the game, in a market that is vastly different from their own experiences playing in the top tier collegiate football culture of home.

Floyd Simmons outside the NFL China office

The first half of the day was lead by Managing Director Richard Young, and was the source of a productive
discussion that looked not only at the rising popularity of the NFL in China, but a crucial insight into the Chinese mindset for sports and sporting events – something that the coaches will soon have direct exposure to. Through an informative session that was derived from years of experience within China (including the launch of China’s first HD TV channel), Mr. Young was able to convey some key points about how the country approaches the topic of sport, and also how people consume sports media.

NFL China support for new GLF coaches

The second half of the day was built from the same bricks of wisdom as earlier, as the team were delivered a presentation of modern Chinese history (as well as life in China) by Lee Edwards – a U.S. Born, 25-year resident of the middle kingdom, now based in Beijing.

As the group descended into deeper discussion on matters, it became clear that not only were the coaches discovering a wealth of insight, but that they had also spent a lot of time preparing for this trip as a wide range of questions flowed back and forth – despite it being the first time that Vladimir and Floyd had left the United States.

Richard Young commented on this point by saying “All three young men impressed me as thoughtful and intelligent beyond their years. They will do well in China and GLF has done well in their selection”.


The day was rounded off by an organised ‘Big 10’ social event for other collegiate expats to come together in town to meet and connect. Happy hour and happy memories were on the cards for the coaches before their first real experience of what lay ahead of them in Chinese football.

Next Page: Gridiron Leadership Foundation Clinic

Saturday July, 31st – GLF Clinic, Luwan Stadium, Shanghai

Saturday was the first day of August, and the first day of football in China for the new coaches. However, it was far from the first football in China – the sport has already grown from 3 teams to over 30 in the past 3 years (Reference: with the city host to 3 different teams; the Warriors, Nighthawks & Titans.

In temperatures passing the 110 degree Fahrenheit mark, the GLF organized football clinic opened its doors at the Luwan stadium in central Shanghai, with approximately 80 participants coming from the 3 local Shanghai teams, including several people joining the sport for the first time ever.

Warm ups at GLF Clinic

Despite the soaring temperatures, the team had a full day of coaching in front of them which was focused on teaching fundamentals of the game to rookie and veteran players alike, with emphasis on the passing game. “We are coaching people on basic skills, how to go through coverages, how to set up plays and other similar things” commented Simmons, who continued to say;

“These guys are actually pretty talented! They know football, and they love it, and that makes me even more excited.”

Vladimir Emilier during clinic

Through a series of individual drills, talk time with the coaches & combined drills, the participants had the
opportunity to gather as much of their collegiate experience and knowledge as they could.

Darien Briant, who spent much of his time working with the defensive linemen, said;

“They are eager to learn. Some guys are here for their first day and some guys have been playing for a while, but everyone is enjoying it. They really want to learn and get involved.”

With the linebackers, Valdimir Emilien made similar observations;

“They are intrigued and want to learn, and all are very enthusiastic. It is a very competitive atmosphere, but they are all very friendly with each other and there is a mutual respect for each other. All the players are here to compete, to have fun, and to learn football. All three teams (in attendance at the event) are working together towards one goal – to enhance their ability to play football.”

As per the rising trend of popularity of the sport, the new coaches even got their chance to speak in front of camera for a local TV station about their journey.

Darien Briant during clinic

Darien coaching Defensive Linemen

Looking towards the next steps of their oriental journey, Vladimir reflected;

“It has been an amazing experience so far. The language barrier is quite different, but I love it – it forces me to indulge myself in a new culture. So far, everything on this trip has been a highlight to me and it was very intriguing to work with the CELAP team at the beginning. Going forward, we will be having very intensive language lessons (around 100 hours) before heading to our host cities to support the teams there. Personally, I am heading to Beijing to work there – I am going to indulge myself in the culture and not be afraid of it.”

Whilst Vladimir will be heading north to the capital, Floyd will be heading west to the mountainous Sichuan province to live and work in Chengdu, a city famous for its panda populations, and the aptly named Pandamen football team will be the recipients of Simmons’ coaching talents.

Meanwhile, Darien will be remaining in Shanghai to work with teams that he has already been able to already meet with, and he remarked;

“The opportunities here (in China and Shanghai) are unbelievable, and I am looking forward to getting past the culture shock in order to start making an impact on people’s lives.”

Darien breaking the huddle at the end

The induction week was completed with a series of leadership talks, and even a calligraphy session to indulge the new coaches deeper into the culture.

Darien, Vladimir & Floyd at Calligraphy lessons (left to right)

In summary, President of GLF – Chris MacLaurin – spoke about the new team;

“I’m really excited for these guys to be in China and to be at the forefront of football’s development in this country, as well as the impressions they are going to make on their communities as of next month. It’s a chance for them to demonstrate the benefits that football (and sport in general) has given them in their personal development, but also to impart those benefits to people here through their work placements and coaching roles, and to help a country working to define the role of athletes in its society. Being able to have a positive impact on someone’s lifelong development is a great honour, and I am looking forward to seeing the results after their year of discovery and self-development.”

Any athletes interested in participating in the GLF fellowship should make contact with the team via the website, which also contains further information on the entire program.