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How did this former CFL player and Detroit native end up in a Chinese jail?

Jul 18, 2017

Former Detroit high school football star and Canadian Football League player Wendell Brown faces trial today in China for assault.

Brown allegedly punched a Chinese man after the man, who was drunk, threw a glass bottle at him at a bar in China. Brown is scheduled to go on trial 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, which is 9 a.m. in China.

If Brown is found guilty, he faces three to ten years in prison. His 10-year-old son is living with his mother in Florida. He hasn't seen his dad's face in almost a year.

"I was just heartbroken, thinking like what's going to happen, you know, then the first thing that come to your mind he's totally out of his element." - Antoinette Brown

The 30-year-old linebacker was in Chongqing helping to coach the Chongqing Dockers in the American Football League of China. He had been teaching children and adults about American football.  He also  worked as a fitness trainer.

Wendell Brown teaching and playing with Chinese youth.
Credit Antoinette Brown

Before going to China, Brown played for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, then for the Swarco Raiders, an Oakland Raiders affiliate team, in Austria.

Western news outlets have noted that China has a short history of racism towards Black people.

Both the Washington Post and National Geographic have done pieces on the issue.

Brown himself was even interviewed for a YouTube web series called "Black in China." 

While Brown had only positive things to say about his experience in China back in April 2016, others have not shared that positivity. 

After being arrested, it took several days before Brown’s friends and family in the U.S. heard about his predicament.

"What hurts me is to know you're going through this and you don't deserve to." - Antoinette Brown

Antoinette Brown is Wendell’s mother. She found out after one of Wendell’s friends in China called her.

“I was just heartbroken, thinking like what's going to happen, you know, then the first thing that come to your mind he's totally out of his element,” she said.

Brown had never been arrested before, say family members.  They say he was a straight-A student at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit and at Ball State University in Indiana.

“I know this is devastating for him, I know he's scared like what is going to happen,” his mother said.

In the 10 months since Brown was arrested, the only way Antoinette has communicated with her son is through letters.

It wasn't until March 2017 that Brown was finally able to get a handwritten letter out to his family. 

Here is a copy of the letter:

A handwritten letter from Wendell Brown. Photos were sent by his mom, Antoinette Brown.
Credit Antoinette Brown

In these letters, Wendell often talks about his weight loss in jail, thanks to eating only rice and vegetables.

Sometimes Brown tells his mother about how he is a physical trainer for the other inmates. Other times he apologizes for the pain he's caused his mom.

“I told him, ‘Don’t not to be sorry for that. It hurts, but I know you [didn’t] do anything wrong. What hurts me is to know you're going through this and you don't deserve to,’” she said.

His mother has been collecting letters from people in the U.S, China and even in Europe who either know or have met Wendell as a sign of his character.

She says many of the letters are from people she’s never met before.

“Wendell is an amazing young man. I’m not saying that because I’m his mom, I’m saying that because I know that’s the kind of person he is, so do all these people that have been sending me letters,” she said.

According to his mother, over 100 people have sent letters to talk about who Wendell is.

"The main way we try and do that [help Americans in trouble] is by talking with the Chinese authorities, and by making sure that they take Mr. Brown and any other arrested Americans' case seriously." - Elliot Fertik

Brown has been in jail ever since the incident that took place 10 months ago. The Chinese legal system is a lengthy process, according to Brown’s lawyer Wu Jun Mei.

Wu Jun Mei says the facts of the case don't look good for Brown, although last year she was able to get an ex-pat off in a Chinese court. Unless she is given permission by the prosecutor, she will be unable to call witnesses on his behalf.

Elliot Fertik, the East-Asia Pacific Division Chief in the Office of American Citizen Service of the U.S. Department of State, says his office is aware of Brown's situation and has been in contact with the family. His office works to help Americans who get in trouble in other countries.

“The main way we try and do that is by talking with the Chinese authorities, and by making sure that they take Mr. Brown and any other arrested Americans' case seriously,” Fertik said.

Fertik made it clear, however, that his office can't intervene in the Chinese legal process.

“But we do monitor cases involving American citizens who were arrested abroad to make sure that they receive fair treatment from the authorities as best we can,” he said.

While the facts of the case won’t make it easy for Brown to prevail, his mother is more concerned with his mental and emotional health going forward.

A collage of Wendell Brown playing with his son. Photos were sent by his mom, Antoinette Brown.
Credit Antoinette Brown

“I just hope that this don't change his heart. He loves people and I don’t want to see that change because this bad thing happened to him,” Brown said.