With no prior football knowledge, China’s Max Yao earned a spot on SMU’s roster

Yao moved to Dallas to study at SMU. Noting his size, his classmates suggested he try out for the football team. Despite zero experience, he somehow made the roster.

DALLAS — As a child, Max Yao loved to play sports, but he says his opportunities were limited.

Growing up in Suzhou in Eastern China, Yao said, “I never had any chance to train or compete on a high level.” 

He also knew sports weren’t a priority for his family. 

“Like most Asian parents here,” he said, “they just care about the academics, not really sports.”

While he focused on school, he always made time for sports like swimming, long jump, shot put and basketball. 

“Even though the school schedule was 7 a.m. to 8:30 pm in China high school, I still went to the gym every night after school just to train myself,” Yao recalled of his upbringing recently.

For Yao, the dream was always to move to the United States. After he started watching American college basketball, he wondered if he could one day play basketball in the NCAA as an international athlete.

As he started to plan out his future, Yao knew the fastest way to get to the United States was by focusing on his grades. 

“I take care of my academics to get into this university first,” Yao said. “And I’m here.”

He was accepted to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Currently, he is an undergraduate student in his senior year, majoring in finance.

In the dorms, his friends on day made a lighthearted suggestion to Yao. 

“All my friends around me say, like, ‘You are the biggest Chinese I’ve met, and I think football is the sport for you,'” Yao remembered with a laugh. “I was like, ‘OK, I’ll try it.'”

He decided to go to the SMU football coach’s office. 

“Is there any chance for me to get on the team?” Yao asked. “Is there any tryout or something?” 

Turns out, there was.

During his sophomore year, Yao made good on his promise and tried out for the football team. He was one of around 40 people who came to tryouts — but only two people made the cut.

Yao was one of them. 

He made the football roster as an offensive lineman — with zero knowledge of the sport. He had never played, nor watched, football before.

But at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, the coaches saw potential in Yao.

These days, his former teammate and current offensive line coach Thalen Robinson is amazed by Yao’s progress on and off the field. 

“The cool thing with Yao is Yao doesn’t have any bad habits that he has set in stone for himself, so you work with a clean slate,” said Robinson.

Robinson said it was initially hard for Yao to understand all the football terms and locker room slang. 

“His English has just skyrocketed,” said Robinson. “What we have in the room is super rare.”

As an international football player, suiting up for his debut last season during the Navy game was Yao’s NCAA dream achieved. 

It’s a moment his father flew in from China to witness. 

“They are proud I can play at this level,” said Yao.

This wasn’t the path Yao’s parents once imagined for their son. But they have since learned about American football and the NCAA, all to support Yao’s dream.

Now, Yao is excited to play one more season as he pursues a master’s degree at SMU. 

“Go Mustangs!” he said. “Pony up!”

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