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While NFL teams are just beginning the second half of their regular seasons, competition is heating up in China as the best of 44 universities compete in the National University Flag Football League playoffs, all under the eye of Kai-Cheng Ho ’10.
Ho, a former Crimson running back now participating in the NFL’s junior rotational program, has made major improvements to the burgeoning game, according to co-worker Stephanie Hsiao.
“He’s taken the reins and made a lot of structural improvements in training and game operations … and just making the experience much better for the players involved,” Hsiao said. “Given his background as a player, he understands what players are looking for and what matters the most for them. He’s done a great job improving the flag football program.”
Specifically, Ho has implemented statistical record-keeping, better documentation of games via flipcams and cameras, and more comprehensive referee training, all since arriving in the Middle Kingdom in June. In his short time in charge, Ho said he has already seen progress.
“There was just a huge difference between the regular season games and now. It is turning into a very competitive semifinal,” Ho said. “It is encouraging to see how cohesive the players are as a unit. I am able to see the same emotion that you see in the States in China.”
It has not been an easy task to build a groundswell of interest in football among the natives, but Ho understands their apprehension about the sport.
“I thought the game was stupid,” Ho said. “I thought, ‘Why in the hell were players wearing helmets and shoulder pads playing a sport? That’s just ridiculous. There is no way anyone can convince me to play this game.’”
But after moving to America from Taiwan at the age of 13, Ho soon began to see football’s power.
“I started playing the game and I loved it,” he said. “I learned a lot ... It’s a game that builds you into a man. It’s a life changer.”
Ho said football could be especially valuable in China.
“Academics is everything here,” he said. “[There’s] a huge pressure to perform. Having football opens a door for students. By playing sports you can handle stress that much more wisely. It can affect your outcome in life.”
While Ho understands that football is still a niche sport in the country compared to basketball, badminton, and ping pong, he has seen encouraging signs of acceptance from locals.
“I was just watching a university game in Beijing and out of nowhere a young woman came up and started asking all kinds of questions about the game,” Ho said.
Ho replied by asking how the woman had become interested in the foreign game.
“I was surprised by her answer,” he said.
The woman said she first become interested in the game while watching the Super Bowl two years ago and found out as much information as she could about the sport.
“She went to our website earlier that week and found out we had games going on in Beijing,” Ho said. “She found out the time and the date and the location and traveled two hours from where she lived to go to the game by herself, just to watch the university flag football. I was really touched by that. I was really encouraged and surprised.”
Long before he showed up in Beijing, Ho’s experiences at Harvard helped give him confidence in his ability to sell a sport to the uninitiated. Before his senior year, Ho, along with the help of several other students, founded People of the Crimson, a student group dedicated to increasing student attendance at athletic events, particularly basketball games.
Fellow founder Hugh Archibald, a senior, said Ho was crucial in the group’s success.
“Cheng was a big part of why People of the Crimson worked properly,” Archibald said. “He is incredibly outgoing and did a lot of the legwork with boosters and others. The best way to describe him is always passionate.”
Harvard coach Tim Murphy said that Ho is now the perfect salesman for the game.
“He’s the perfect guy for a lot of reasons,” Murphy said. “If there is a better salesperson/ambassador for football, I don’t know who it would be. Cheng could sell anything, and I mean that in the most positive way.”
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