Surely no fee agent can claim their journey to joining a NFL team has been as unusual or as unlikely as that of Long Ding, the Chinese kicker who will try to make the roster of the Jacksonville Jaguars this summer.
In 2007, Long traveled 7,000 miles from his home in China to the New Hampton School in New Hampshire as a member of the IFAF / USA Football International Student Program to begin life as a prep school student and a kicker on the Huskies football team. His only prior kicking experience had been at a NFL-organized camp in his homeland.
There was one minor issue to address when he arrived in New Hampshire: Long barely spoke more than a few words of English.
His resolve and determination to overcome the language barrier set the tone both on and off the field for the next few years that would take him via Dean College and Norwich University to the Jaguars.
On the football field, where the 6-0, 210-pound Long soon became a useful member of both the offensive and defensive lines, he waited patiently at the back of lines to join in with drills that were as foreign to him as the language his teammates used and watched them perform, copying their movements to learn football technique.
In the classroom he quickly excelled and when words were lost in translation, it often worked to his advantage. One night Long stayed up late finishing a punishing math project, only to discover he had mistakenly completed a month's worth of homework rather than just the required single assignment.
New Hampton finished the 2007 season 5-3 with Long, who had never kicked in a competitive game before arriving in the United States, making 21 of 26 extra point attempts and six of eight field goals. Defensively, he collected 19 tackles including 6 for a loss of yards and had three sacks. By now he had progressed from communicating through hand signals to holding conversations in school and in the huddle.
The American media soon took notice and Long's success triggered a SI Teen magazine cover story, the Chinese-language version of Sports Illustrated dedicated six pages to his adventure and he was featured in the Super Bowl XLII game program.
Long, who hails from Qing Dao, did not have the luxury of heading home for the holidays, so his coach David Perfield welcomed Long into his family. He also encouraged him to engage in other sports including soccer and rugby and took Long to see his first NFL game at Gillette Stadium and the wide-eyed kicker became an instant Patriots fan.
When it came time to move on, the Chinese teenager's story moved south to a junior college in Massachusetts.
"If I didn't go to New Hampton I would not have found this college," explained Long after he had completed 36 of 42 extra point attempts and made three field goals in his first season at Dean College in Franklin, Mass. "They gave me an opportunity to play football and to learn. They helped me a lot."
Long studied and played football for two years at Dean College, winning a Northeast Football Conference championship in 2008 and 2009 and he was named MVP of the 2010 NJCAA Bowl Game and was selected as an all-conference kicker.
Long's progress continued within New England, this time in Vermont when he moved on to Norwich University and enjoyed a stellar career. Following his senior season, Long was selected for the Division III Senior Football Classic and the Players' All-Star Classic. He came to the attention of NFL scouts when he attended the new NFL Regional Combine in New York and was then invited to the NFL Super Regional Combine in Detroit.
Twice named Eastern Collegiate Football Conference Special Teams' Player of the Year, he also gained all-New England Football Writers Association and D3football.com all-region accolades along with the October Fred Mitchell Award recognizing his off-field contributions.
He concluded his Cadets career by successfully converting 11 consecutive field goals and 14 extra points in a row. He ended the 2011 season as the Maroon and Gold's leading scorer with 73 points and was the ECFC leader in made field goals and field goal and extra point accuracy as well as ranking in the top 20 of Division III in field goals per game. In only two seasons at NU, he ranked in the top three in career points, field goals and extra points and was one of three Cadets' place-kickers to hit three field goals in one game.
In 2007, when asked how he thought his adventure in the United States might turn out, Long was bold about his ambitions and his answer raised a few eyebrows considering he had barely settled into shoulder pads and a helmet.
"The first year after college, I want to try professional football," he said.
And try he will. And if his journey so far is any indication, succeed he probably will too.