Ex-Trojans setting up student-athlete experience in China

Chris Barrett, shown with former USC coach Pete Carroll after a game in 2006, is leading a group that's trying to bring the student-athlete experience to China. Matt Sayles/AP Photo

Finding the right venue for a football camp in China, a country with more than 1.3 billion people, wouldn’t figure to be too hard for former USC Trojans players Chris Barrett and Joseph Krassenstein. But the fact is, for all its inhabitants and all of its land mass, there is only one field in the entire country that is dedicated to American football.

It’s located in the city of Foshan in Guangdong Province – near the Southeast part of the country, about six hours northwest of Hong Kong. That’s where Barrett, Krassenstein and several other former players with Pac-12 and Big Ten ties will set up shop for two weeks this summer for a youth camp called The Student-Athlete Experience. Their hope is to bring the concept of being a student-athlete to China through football.

“We’re teaching them football and English courses also,” Barrett said. “We want to give them that complete experience. They’ll be getting experience on the football field and also in the classroom. A lot of them want to come over to America and learn English and get the whole experience. I’m bringing this camp to them.”

Barrett, a USC defensive lineman in the mid-2000s, first went to China three years ago, when a buddy asked him to come over and work with some college players and coaches. The sport isn’t nonexistent in China; there is an amateur league. But its popularity is nowhere near what Barrett thinks it could be. So he started recruiting former teammates and guys he played against. He will launch the first camp this summer.

“It’s our beta test,” said Krassenstein, a former USC walk-on kicker. “We’re there to grow the game, find the talent and try to nurture that talent.”

This is a special project for Krassenstein, who is now in graduate school at USC. He is half-Chinese and moved to Shanghai when he was 13. Having grown up on the American game, he was disappointed when there were no options available to him. He played rugby before returning to the United States, where he joined USC as a walk-on.

“There is no such thing as a student-athlete in China,” Krassenstein said. “You can use the Yao Ming model as an example. Handpicked at a young age to go to a sports academy different from normal schools. You’re either an athlete or a student. We’re trying to show you can do both.”

Off the field, campers will take classes in English, football terminology, nutrition and American culture.

The entire concept is still in its infancy. After this first time around, Barrett and Krassenstein will evaluate and reassess. But the long-term hope is that the camp can expand to larger cities, be used as a platform for talent evaluation and, eventually, place Chinese football players in America – either at the high school or college level.

Barrett, who also coaches at Servite High School in Anaheim, says kickers will likely be the first position group to emerge from the country because soccer is one of the nation’s most popular sports.

“I’m positive that in the next five or 10 years from now, we’ll have a Chinese kicker from our program play D1 football,” Barrett said.

The program is starting to build relationships with private high schools on the West Coast, which they hope will pay off for members of their program down the line.

“It gives them the opportunity to feel what it’s like to be a student-athlete,” Krassenstein said. “Do you enjoy this model? If you do, are you interested in coming to America to further your studies? In America we have that balance. We realize we’re not going to change the entire Chinese educational scheme. We realize that’s impossible to do. But we want to give them that experience. A taste of it. Maybe that will help them in the long run learn to be well-rounded.”

But that’s way into the future. The program is still looking for funding through a title sponsor (either American or international). And as of now, it’s just the two camps this summer with about 60 kids of varying ages signed up.

“Football has given me a lot,” Barrett said. “The unique thing is football has a lot to offer in between the white lines. It’s the relationship. It’s depending on each other. The ultimate team sport. All 11 have to do the same job. I want to make sure everything I teach them can [be translated to] the business world and be leaders."

Other coaches in this year’s program include Rudy Carpenter (Arizona State), DaJohn Harris (USC), Will Polle (USC), Kevin Ellison (USC), Michael Jordan (Michigan State) and Sandy Fletcher (USC). Former USA Track & Field runner Tyree Washington (Oregon) will also coach running techniques.