The American Football League of China’s championship game was historic in more ways than one. Not only was it the first title for the winners, the Shanghai Warriors, but it was by far the biggest outdoor American football event ever held in China. Read Danny Zhang’s account of the game and the festivities surrounding it.
On Saturday, January 16th, 2016, Shanghai’s Yuanshen Sports Centre Stadium, located in the city’s Pudong New District, was the site of one of the biggest American football events to ever be held in China. An estimated 4000 fans packed the stands to watch the American Football League of China’s championship game, and numerous other fan activities before and during the 1:30 pm kickoff took place.
Fan-buses took spectators to the stadium from sites close to the city center, young children were treated to an NFL Play 60 clinic on the field before the game, and the league organized pre-game tailgating festivities.
After entering the field through the stadium tunnel amidst spouts from a smoke machine, the players took the hands of the tiny clinic participants and lined up on opposite 35-yard lines for the Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers. In front of one of the largest crowds to ever witness football in China, Jackson Chen (#89) of the Shanghai Nighthawks kicked off to Kevin Cook (#44) of the Shanghai Warriors, commencing one of the most unforgettable contests in the brief history of football in China.
In a game filled with explosive plays and mind-boggling numbers, it was the play of the defense that sealed the deal in the end. Cornerback and championship game MVP Curtis Good’s (#21) interception on a Nighthawks Hail Mary on the last play of the game clinched the first American Football League of China title for the Shanghai Warriors in their history, with the final score reading 37-30.
Good’s interception came after Boris Criquet’s (#24) field goal that would have given the Warriors a ten-point cushion was blocked, giving the Nighthawks the ball with around two minutes remaining in the game. But with no timeouts remaining and no passing game to speak of, the Nighthawks progress down the field took chunks of time off the clock, forcing their final desperation heave towards the end zone.
Although Good was named the game’s most valuable player, much of the contest featured offensive fireworks. Wide receiver Chris Gardner (#2) caught three passes for 121 yards and a touchdown, while wideouts Alex Spang (#85), Qiming Xiao (#81), and Danny Zhang (#6) all added scores through the air.
The Nighthawks stuck to their typical run-heavy offensive game-plan, and had two players pass the century mark in rushing, led by John Taggart’s (#32) 150 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. Zhengyu Fan (#6) added 101 yards on just 9 carries with a touchdown, and Tianshou Zhang (#44) posted another 96 yards on 14 carries with two touchdowns.
The Warriors trailed 30-23 in the third quarter before scoring the game’s final 14 points, and the Nighthawks committed too many penalties and turnovers to overcome the turn of momentum, including five personal fouls and three lost fumbles.
The Warriors quickly raced out to a 9-0 lead in the first quarter, as Criquet booted a 31-yard field goal to open the scoring, and Gardner snagged a pass over the middle from quarterback Tim Gomez (#22) and accelerated down the right sideline for a 59-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
The Nighthawks put together a long drive on the ensuing possession, however, and got right back into the game when, on a 4th and 1 from the Warrior 36, Taggart blew through two arm tackles and found daylight the rest of the way, crossing the goal line. With his conversion run, the Nighthawks drew to within 9-8 near the end of the quarter.
Gomez (8/12, 147 yards, 2 TD; 7 carries, 30 yards, 1 TD) led the Warriors right back down the field to open the second quarter and capped off the drive with a 3-yard keeper to extend the lead to 15-8. Undaunted, the Nighthawks came right back down the field, chewing up the clock on a 12-play, 83-yard drive, culminating in Tianshou Zhang’s 1-yard scoring plunge, and took their first lead of the game at 16-15. Back came the Warriors with a seven-play, 58-yard drive of their own just before the end of the half, culminating in Danny Zhang’s diving catch over the middle for a two-yard score, and the Warriors would go into the break with a 23-16 lead.
Back came the Warriors with a seven-play 58-yard drive of their own just before the end of the half, culminating in Danny Zhang’s diving catch over the middle for a two-yard score, and the Warriors would go into the break with a 23-16 lead.
The third quarter belonged squarely to the Nighthawks. The defending champions piled up rushing yardage on two long drives, starting with Tianshou Zhang’s bulldozing 14-yard scoring run straight up the gut. The Nighthawks followed with a successful onside kick which was bobbled and dropped by Warriors wide receiver Xiao after he took a hit from cornerback Steven Cui (#22).
After Taggart rumbled up the middle for 29, Nighthawks quarterback Billie Qin (#18) executed a Statue of Liberty play to perfection, handing off to Fan, who ran untouched past a confused Warriors defense down the left sideline for a 25-yard score, putting them up 30-23.
The Warriors would switch to a swinging gate offense to end the quarter, the same kind that the Indianapolis Colts botched against the New England Patriots earlier this season. Instead of Griff Whalen snapping to Colt Anderson however, it was wide receiver Ayumu Iwai (#1), also a member of the Japanese Beach Flag Football team, snapping to Gardner, who used his speed and elusiveness to move the Warriors down the field on an even mix of run and pass.
On third and goal from the Nighthawks 5 just after the beginning of the fourth quarter, Gardner lofted the ball into a crowd of five defenders, and Spang rose above them all to haul in an amazing touchdown catch, pulling the Warriors to within one at 30-29. Then Curtis Good ripped the ball out of Nighthawks running back Andy Yang’s (#1) grasp on the following possession and recovered it himself, giving the Warriors the ball in the Nighthawk red zone at the 19. Two plays later, Xiao would atone for his earlier mistake by pulling in a pass in traffic for a nine-yard touchdown to put the Warriors up 37-30.
Good was not done. Taggart took the ensuing kickoff up the middle, and Good jarred the ball loose from him, with the recovery made by Warriors safety Leo Liu (#3). Criquet missed a 35-yard field goal, giving the Nighthawks the ball back with around six minutes remaining in the game, but Qin attempted to run himself on a fourth and 18, and was corralled by linebacker Brian Stewart (#48) for no gain and a turnover on downs.
The Nighthawks would not go away however, as defensive lineman Yilei Chen (#97) blocked Cricket’s 40-yard field goal attempt with just over two minutes remaining. That set the stage for Good’s final act of heroism, as his interception came on the game’s final play.
It was a busy day in the secondary for the Nighthawks, as Ruodi Zhang (#49) and Eric Grover (#8) led the defense with six tackles apiece, while defensive tackle and co-captain Mike Li (#55) led the new champions with eleven total tackles, including two for loss, and Good finished with seven tackles, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception, and a catch for 24 yards.
The post-game ceremony featured league commissioner and former Michigan Wolverine tight end Chris McLaurin presenting the new championship trophy to the winners in a hail of confetti. The Warriors now join the Chongqing Dockers and Shanghai Nighthawks as AFLC Champions, taking home China’s biggest football prize. Each of the three championship games have been close affairs, but this one may have taken the cake due to its sheer entertainment value and ability to live up to the hype of China’s most heated football rivalry.