The Gridiron Leaders Foundation offers former NCAA football student-athletes a nine-month grant worth $20,000, but the full value for GLF Fellows exceeds any monetary value.
“Help them gain a more global perspective for whatever their professional goals are,” says Zach Brown. “As well as benefit from their experience in football to be comfortable in a totally new culture and environment.”
Brown, a defensive end in his playing days at Arizona State, came to Hong Kong in 2010 working in logistics. Like his partner in the GLF Fellowship, former Michigan tight end Chris McLaurin, Brown initially moved to China planning to be there for about a year.
“It’s been six years now,” Brown said. “We both obviously have really fallen in love with the culture…the working environment, being more globally-minded.”
Both Brown and McLaurin champion college football alumni gaining exposure to the world beyond American borders. McLaurin did so previously as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa, and then later as a Henry Luce Scholar in Chongqing, a city in southwestern China.
“The opportunity of coming to China and learning about the growth that’s happening here and it’s importance geopolitically, I wanted to come check it out,” McLaurin explained.
He moved to China a few years after Brown, and found it to be a perspective-changing experience.
“I’d never been to Asia before coming to China,” he said. “There’s a huge part of the world I don’t know about. I was 24 when I applied [to the Luce Scholars Program]. I got a little time before I went to law school to try and up my language skills and [Mandarin] Chinese is an important one.”
The GLF Fellowship was born of that mindset. As Brown put it: “We just wanted to share that experience with other guys.”
Since launching in November 2014, that’s exactly what the fellowship has done. The first recipients of the grant were chosen in the summer of 2015: Vanderbilt defensive end Darien Bryant; Toledo safety Vladimir Emilien; and Michigan safety Floyd Simmons.
Brown said fellows are chosen for their leadership qualities, academic proficiency and career goals. The latter plays a huge part in the GLF mission of growing fellows professionally for opportunities in the years to come.
Fellows study and are immersed in Mandarin Chinese, one of the most important languages in the burgeoning global marketplace. They hold jobs, and give back to their new host communities as coaches for newly-established football programs.
Football is in its infancy in China — so much so, one might call Brown and McLaurin the doctors delivering the sport into the world there.
However, Brown said it’s quickly gaining popularity, with two leagues now established that feature 20 and 16 teams apiece.
Coaching players with no prior exposure or experience comes with its challenges, some of which are chronicled in the New Republic story “Year of the Pigskin,” chronicling McLaurin’s Chongqing Dockers.
But the challenges are part of the reward for McLaurin.
“There’s not one other experience that’s able to expand their capacity to lead, to open their eyes to the world in a larger context than they’ve ever been able to do before,” McLaurin said both of working and coaching in China. “And [to] really get ready for a life in business or a life in understanding international relations and culture.”
Football plays a role in so many areas for the GLF Fellowship, from the opportunity being afforded former players, to expanse of the game into an international market, and right down to its conceptual genesis.
Brown said while crafting the idea for the GLF Fellowship, he found inspiration from a National Football Foundation #ImAFootballPlayer video featuring General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, a former Dartmouth offensive tackle.
“That video was a great personification of [football as a bridge to professional life],” Brown said. “You put up certain aspects or traits or expectations through football culture, and a lot of them have a great benefit in any professional culture.”
Football builds bridges in professional culture, and the GLF Fellowship is helping to also establish inroads into the social culture.
Brown said he hopes as the GLF Fellowship continues to grow in the coming years — which he anticipates after Year 1 provided “good ROI to [its] donors” — its influence will leave a global impression.
“It makes no difference to us if they decide to stay in China or go back home,” he said. “We’re just looking to build out a network over time of alumni from this fellowship, who are out in the world doing great things.”