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Another step in the journey

Posted May 2, 2012

Jaguars workout rookie Long Ding: 'You have to challenge yourself'

For Long Ding, there’s more to the story than being a story.

A kicker from Division III Norwich University, Ding will attend the Jaguars’ rookie mini-camp on a workout basis Friday through Sunday, and is trying to become the first Chinese-born player to make an NFL roster.

It’s a good story. It’s why he has been written about already this week. It’s certainly why there will be international media at EverBank Field this weekend. As for Ding, he said he is proud to be in an NFL camp, but the whole, “Chinese kicker angle” isn’t his angle.

For Ding, the idea is to be a story for the long-term – if not here, somewhere.

“I really don’t think much about being the first Chinese player in the NFL,” Ding said Wednesday. “I just want to do my thing, like the American kickers do.”

Ding said his thing is to do more than try out. His goal is to make a roster, an idea that began forming five years ago, when he knew as little about English as about American football.

Ding, a native of Qing Dao, China, in 2007 was a rugby player in China. A friend from his rugby team showed him a flyer from the IFAF/USA Football International Student Program advertising an NFL-organized camp. Ding went along, outkicked his friend and was one of three players from the camp selected to travel to the United States that summer.

The idea of the trip: to promote a proposed NFL preseason game in China. The game didn’t happen, but soon after his return to China, Long was contacted by the coach at New Hampton School in New Hampshire about attending the school and kicking.

Ding already had offers to attend universities in China. Turning those down to play American football wasn’t easy.

“You’ve got to do what you do – you have to challenge yourself,” he said.

The first challenge, Long said, wasn’t learning football.  It was learning English.

“We have some English courses in China, but you learn a couple of words,” he said, laughing.

Football was no easier. Ding said growing up in China, he knew the sport existed, but knowing rules, or how the game was really played, took about a year.

He made 21 of 26 extra points and six of eight field goals in his first year at New Hampton and played 2008 and 2009 for Dean College. The school won the Northeast Football Conference championship each season, and each season, Ding was the All-Conference kicker. As a sophomore, he was named the Most Valuable Player of the National Junior College Athletic Association Bowl Game.

He made four of eight field goals as a junior at Norwich, was named the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference Special Teams Player of the Year, then made 13 of 16 as a senior while converting 34 of 35 extra points. He again was named ECFC Special Teams Player of the Year.

Following the season, Ding began working with former Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover. In early February, he played in the first Players All-Star Classic, a post-season All-Star game in Little Rock, Ark., converting four of five field goals, including three from 40 yards.

“Matt recognized Long’s ability, then he went down to the All-Star game in Arkansas and had three field goals over 40 yards in rough conditions,” Adam Heller, Ding’s agent, said. “At that point, I knew he had real ability just beyond the fact that he was an athlete from China.

“We felt like it was incumbent on us to find him an opportunity.”

Ding attended the NFL Regional Combine in New York, then was invited to the NFL Super Regional Combine in Detroit. He went undrafted, and was not signed as a rookie free agent, but on Saturday, the Jaguars contacted him about trying out.

“I just said, ‘Thank God somebody finally called me,’’’ he said, laughing.

If that was the immediate reaction, Heller said Ding’s big-picture approach is more long-term, and more realistic.

Kicker is a position unlike most other NFL positions. There typically is one per team, and often kickers kick deep into their 30s. They also are often signed as free agents from obscure schools, and while some make teams as rookies, stories of kickers making rosters after three or four seasons and multiple failed attempts are equally common.

Ding and Heller said they are aware that could be Ding’s path, and if that is the path, it’s one for which Heller said Ding is prepared.

“I told him from Day 1, that this isn’t a sprint,” Heller said. “We’re committed that it’s a tough road. He hasn’t had the NFL-caliber coaching, or even the special teams coaching at the college level.

“There are 32 jobs, so there are no guarantees, but he has an opportunity now. It’s a long-distance race, but to get to this point has been a lot of work, I think he’s ready for whatever comes.”

A main idea of the weekend for Ding is getting a chance. “Our goal is to get in and get him around people who are the best of the best at his position, so he can see the best of the best,” Heller said.

Heller, too, said there’s little question that if Ding is to be seen as being successful in his home country, this weekend is not the final step.

“The Chinese are hard,” Heller said. “A tryout’s a tryout but they’ll be happy for him when he makes a team, so that’s the ultimate goal. That’s what we’re working on.”

As for the reality of those chances, time will tell. Stover worked with Ding on balance during their time together, and also liked Ding’s ability. His size, his muscle memory, his ability to learn quickly? All were good, Stover told Heller.

“This is a great opportunity for me,” Ding said, adding of his chances to make a roster, “I can’t call that. That’s the coach’s call. I’ll just do my best; I think I have a shot. I just want to show the coach my skill and do my job. That’s all I can do.”

And if a long road remains, even as long as the one already traveled, Ding said it’s a road for which is ready. Especially if it leads to the ending he wants for his story.

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