By Alex Endress
For ChinaInFocus and the Austin American-Statesman
Memo Mata came to China six years ago for a change of pace. As he put it, Mata wanted to explore the world.
Now Mata, a former Westlake High School player who suited up for Texas State, is helping mold an unlikely relationship between the National Football League and a growing Chinese fan base.
The 32-year-old Mata serves as head coach of the first Chinese youth football team in country’s history, the Sea Dragons Football Program. His team will be showcased later this year when the NFL lands in Shanghai for an international fan expo.
“People have said kids will never play football in China,” said Mata, who coaches more than three dozen 8- to 14-year-olds. “I want to make things happen that people say can’t happen.”
The NFL doesn’t yet sponsor teams like Mata’s Sea Dragons, but they do assist his effort in other ways.
“People who are developing and teaching football in the right ways in China — we’re supportive of,” said Richard Young, Managing Director of NFL China.
Last December, the NFL brought Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Ed Wang to hold a clinic for Mata’s players. Wang is the first Chinese-American player to be drafted by the NFL.
“It’s awesome for [Mata] to be able to do something out there with the sports barrier and the language barrier,” said Wang, whose younger brother, David, plays for Virgina Tech.
“And on top of that, he’s done such a good job with his team.”
Before China, Mata served on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1997-2001, moving to the reserves in 2001 and remaining there until 2008.
He also put in two years at Bobcat Stadium during the 2002 and 2003 seasons and earned a degree in History and Anthropology before moving to Guangdong in 2005. There he met his wife, Marissa, and relocated to Shanghai in 2008 to begin teaching English at Xie He Primary School.
When Mata arrived at Xie He Primary, the school approached him about teaching an extracurricular class. While activities like music and art were available, Mata naturally chose to start a class about American football.
Though the Sea Dragons are currently in their off-season, during the summer Mata holds an American Football clinic every other Saturday called the “Saturday Football Smash.”
The clinics provide interested youth with a crash course in American football and help more seasoned players advance in a sport that’s only recently gained popularity in China.
Mata provides helmets, shoulder pads and jerseys for the newcomers, paid for out of his own pocket.
“I wanted to start a new sport that I’m good at and suited for,” said Winston Hsu, a 14-year-old defensive tackle for the Sea Dragons. “I like the action and contact in the sport.”
Hsu, a San Francisco 49ers fan, became interested in football after playing catch with friends from the team during his school lunch break this past spring. He joined the team this summer after attending a Smash clinic.
“He has no interest in other kinds of sports,” said Hsu’s mom, Tiffany. “I’m not a fan, but my husband and my son really like it.”
Looking to expand it’s global market, the NFL is working to build more fans like Hsu.
“[We’ve] really just started here,” Young said. “We really need to focus on the people that are ready to adopt the NFL as a sport. In all honesty, that’s a small percentage of the people in China right now.”
Getting the Sea Dragons off the ground hasn’t been without problem.
The gear Mata initially bought — all $6,000 of it — was nearly confiscated by Xie He Primary, which claimed Mata was a school employee and should donate the balls and pads, according to Mata. After working to keep the equipment, Mata scraped the Sea Dragons’ affiliation with the school, instead offering free weekend meetings.
Despite the hurdle, Mata and the Sea Dragons have pressed on.
In November, the SAFL defeated the Sea Dragons 26-0 in the Shanghai Youth Bowl — the first full contact American football game in China’s history.
Plans for the near future include a Junior National Chinese Team for International competition to join the International Federation of American Football, and the creation of a program to facilitate high school students.
Mata plans to host a youth camp at the Star Gym Stadium in the Minghang District of Shanghai on July 25 for kids of all ages. Though the two-week camp will run about $500, inexpensive by American standards, the costs will cover equipment Mata has purchased as well as new equipment for each individual player.
“My vision,” he said, ”is to give the kids a new dream of football.”
It’s a dream that the NFL seems to share.
The league will host an NFL Experience expo in Shanghai on Nov. 26, inviting the public to learn more about the NFL and its players. Mata’s players are scheduled to showcase their talents during the expo, competing in a live scrimmage for the public’s viewing.
“We’ve spoken to these middle schools and high schools, and we can provide a fund to get them equipment,” Young said. “[But] they need coaches, they need people to play, they need referees, and that’s something that will take time to develop.”