CEDAR HILLS — Chad Lewis, the former BYU standout tight end and multi-year All-Pro with the Philadelphia Eagles, is billed as the National Football League's ambassador to China, having made multiple official visits there in recent years.
Unofficially, he doubles as China's ambassador to the world.
"I love going there and being a part of a people and a culture that I got to love and eating their food," said Lewis, adding a light-hearted disclaimer of Chinese cuisine, that "it's not Panda Express."
Talk to the towering 6-foot-6, 36-year-old Lewis about his China experiences, and he's less likely to focus on himself and his experiences ... Instead, conversations drift into his favorite topics — Chinese places, Chinese people and Chinese personalities.
"They teach me so much with their friendship and acceptance," he added of the Chinese," and they're so forgiving of my inability to speak."
But when it comes to America's four major sports of football, baseball, basketball and hockey, no one this side of the NBA's high-profile China natives of Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian can communicate with the Chinese in Mandarin like Chad Lewis, who first learned the language as a LDS Church missionary in Taiwan in the early 1990s and continued studying it at Brigham Young University.
And at the tail end of Lewis' productive pro career, the NFL recognized the benefit of deploying Lewis to the Far East. He made his first trip with then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2002 and served as color analyst for the first Chinese NFL broadcast at the 2004 Super Bowl between the Patriots and Panthers.
Since then, when the NFL has a need in the People's Republic of China, it calls on Lewis — sometimes with less than a week's notice. And he delivers there, comfortably chatting in football clinics with young players, coaches and referees or effortlessly mingling in formal functions with diplomats and dignitaries.
A couple of years ago in China, Lewis was invited by the U.S. ambassador to China to speak at the Fourth of July festivities that the latter was hosting.
"You talk about catching people off guard," said Pete Abitante, the NFL's senior director of international affairs, to the Boston Globe. "You can't get any more American-looking than Chad, and then he opens his mouth and he's speaking to the people in their language. He even signed autographs in Chinese characters."
Lewis' NFL Asia experience didn't start in mainland China, but on a three-nation trip in 2002 to Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand, where he conducted by his count hundreds of interviews, in both Chinese and English, with reporters and writers lined up at each stop for a 10- to 15-minutes apiece chat.
Since then, he's made five extended visits to mainland China — always either Beijing, Shanghai, or both, and often with a family member in tow — and looking to returning more in the future to visit other cities.
With its eye on the potential market of 1.3 billion people and some 300 million households, the NFL is venturing into China in opposite fashion from its 16-year European adventures. Starting in 1991 as the World League of American Football and finally closing in 2007 as NFL Europa, the notion was to field NFL-aligned professional teams in hopes of drawing Europeans to a different brand of football.
However, the China effort — as well as throughout Asia and back in Europe — is more of a grassroots approach, a 20-year plan that started with sponsoring international flag football there for youth ages 12 to 14, and slowly and steadily build interest, marketing and sponsorships.
And hopefully a fan base.
Besides the potential audience, China's 1.3 billion population — merely by sheer mass — provides quite a possible talent pool when it comes to athletes.
"That's a big pool to be choosing athletes from," said Lewis, recalling seeing "guys my size — massive — who could easily play in the NFL."
But China is in its infancy of learning the basics of "ganlanqui" — Mandarin for "olive ball," as football is called there — let alone the intricacies of the American sport. So, finding the next "Yao Ming of the NFL" maybe not be in the very near future.
But they're coming.
Three years ago, 10 international flag-football teams — representing nations from North and Central America, Europe and Asia — gathered in Beijing for the world championships. "And it was a total blast," Lewis said.
In his mind, he can still recall the highlights of the tournament MVP, an athletic Chinese receiver who not only impressed onlookers but wowed Lewis as well. "He was their Jerry Rice."
He credits the slowly blossoming successes in China and Asia to Tagliabue, who originally recruited him for the overseas efforts and traveled side-by-side while extolling the virtues of American football and doing the meet-and-greet with government ministers and mayors.
"He's a true statesman," Lewis said. "There's no flavor of him imposing anything American — he was simply sharing a game he loved with the Chinese." And he sees current commissioner Roger Goodell following the same path set by Tagliabue — a direction and a demeanor that equally describes Lewis himself.
"You treat people with respect," Lewis said. "You don't want to be a bulldog in their own country."
Spoken like a true ambassador.