Chinese exchange student Li develops into solid player for Bishop Canevin football

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Friday, September 21, 2018 | 4:36 PM


Bishop Canevin quarterback Jon Ruffing couldn’t contain his smile when recounting the play.

In their second game, the Crusaders faced Avella, and, on a kickoff, Ruffing watched as one of his teammates blew by the Eagles blockers and leveled the return man. The perpetrator of the hit was senior receiver Lee Li.

“He just cracked some kid, the returner, and knocked him back,” Ruffing said. “That was pretty fun to see.”

Big hits send a rush of excitement through any football team, but Li’s effort was particularly satisfying to the Crusaders (2-2, 0-1 Class A Big Seven heading into Week 4) considering how far he has come as a player. Literally and figuratively.

Li is an exchange student from China, where the American brand of football is largely unknown. His sport of choice as a youth was basketball, but after witnessing football upon his arrival in the U.S. three years ago, he decided to give it a try in his junior year.

“The first time I talked about it with my family … they don’t know anything about football. All they know is it’s not safe,” said Li, who hails from southern China near Hong Kong. “They tried to stop me, but I still wanted to try it.

“They are OK now. They just say be safe.”

Li’s foray into football began at Square 1. He didn’t know the rules. He didn’t know the jargon. He was apprehensive about the contact — “I was even afraid to fall on the ground,” he said — and he had trouble hanging onto the ball.

On top of all that, he still wasn’t completely comfortable with English, often making it difficult to remember plays. The coaching staff developed a system of color-coded cards to clue him in on what route to run or where to be on the field.

What Li did have going for him was his athleticism. At 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, he had the size and speed to play receiver.

The coaches started working him into games midway through last season. He didn’t catch a pass, and his impact was minimal. But this year, everything started to click.

Li is a starter, and through the first four games, he had four catches — tied for third on the team — for 53 yards. Coach Chris Lucas also has used him on defense at corner and rush end.

“He is so naturally athletic and fast,” said Lucas, in his first year as the Crusaders coach after two seasons as offensive coordinator. “This year, he was totally different. He’s catching balls all the time, and he seems to be picking up the schemes a lot easier.

“If he’s in open space, he could be gone. He is that fast, and he’s strong.”

Li’s confidence also has grown, and it has manifested itself in more physical play — as evidenced by his memorable special teams tackle.

“I think he always had it in him,” Ruffing said about Li’s willingness to hit. “He just had to learn how to pull it out of him.

“He has changed so much and become so much better than anyone thought he would become.”

This might not be Li’s last hurrah as a football player. Though he said he is undecided about his future, he did not rule out attending college in the U.S. and playing college football.

What is certain is he has grown to love a sport that, until a couple of years ago, was a mystery to him. For that, he credits his teammates, whom he considers “brothers.”

“I like to be with my brothers, my teammates,” he said. “That’s my favorite part (of football), I think.”

Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at ccurti@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.

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