Tommy Zhou and Abdul Abdourahman grew up far from the aura of American football, but not too far from its allure.
In Zhou's hometown of Hangzhou, China, almost no one knew what American football was. He had seen it played only on video. A few more people know about football in Abdourahman's adopted home of Dubai, where he played in a small league a few days a week for a few months.
That was plenty to make both boys eager to try out for football when they came here in August to study at St. Paul's. Crusaders coach Paul Bernstorf was happy to have them, giving Zhou, a sophomore exchange student, a spot on the junior varsity team and Abdourahman, a senior, a chance to play with the varsity.
Despite the steep learning curve for football newcomers, Zhou and Abdourahman wouldn't trade the experience. Zhou, 16, will be at St. Paul's for three years and plans to keep playing. It's a kind of cultural experience that students, coaches and teachers at St. Paul's embrace.
"I know I wanted to play football when I was in China," Zhou said. "I like the toughness, and it's a big sport in America and I need to know this to fit into American life."
Abdourahman, 18, is living on his own at a family home near the Inner Harbor while preparing to attend college in the United States. He was the Most Valuable Player for his American Football Academy club team and has become a Ravens fan, even attending the Super Bowl in New Orleans with his father.
"I like physical sports, and I like the technique behind football," said Abdourahman, who also has experience in rugby and mixed martial arts. "When I first started watching it on TV, I could not keep up with it. I would never know where the ball is. It just seemed too technical, but now I can see where the ball is and I can understand how the game is played."
Abdourahman, 18, grew up speaking English. He moved from his native Djibouti in East Africa to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates at age 4 and has been a frequent visitor to the United States, so he is easily able to communicate with his teammates.
Language has made the transition more difficult for Zhou, who lives on the Brooklandville campus with his host family Mick and Amy Scott and their two young boys.
Zhou has studied English since he was 7 years old, but the speed with which Americans speak and the technical lingo of football can make it difficult for him to understand.
"One-on-one, it's great. His comprehension is awesome," said Mick Scott, director of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Initiatives for the St. Paul's Upper School.
"Every once in a while I'll say something like, 'What are you up to?' and he has no idea what I mean. He's becoming more comfortable saying, 'I don't know what you're saying,' which is good, and he seems to have a very positive attitude about the whole thing.
"But making friends, I think, is challenging for him. Tommy did say he's got friends on the team. They're nice to him on the field and everything, but then in school, it's different. He's not really hanging out with them."
Zhou can easily communicate with Ryan Yu, a fellow Chinese exchange student who plays on the Crusaders' soccer team. Crusaders JV coach Rich Matthews said it was more difficult for Zhou on the football field, but he said the defensive lineman and special teamer is a fast learner.
"He's had a lot of skill-based instruction with our varsity staff and coach Neil Keenan, one of the guys in charge of the line," Matthews said. "His teammates on the line are more than willing to help with whatever defensive scheme we're doing or placing him in the right spot on the field if he's not sure. His teammates have really taken to him. He's a quick study and he does very well. He's athletic, too."
His first game ended in minor injury, but Zhou has already shown a willingness to shake off the small things.
"Four people push me and someone stepped on my finger," he said with a laugh.
Abdourahman hasn't played a game yet — until a few weeks ago, he had not received necessary paperwork from his school in Dubai — and is hoping to get on the field in Friday's 60th annual meeting between the No. 11 Crusaders and Boys' Latin. The winner of that game will advance to the MIAA B Conference championship game on Nov. 9.
Being on the sideline at game time hasn't stopped Abdourahman from soaking up the sport in practice
"The biggest challenge is probably the technique behind it all," Abdourahman said. "Positions and hitting, that's part of it, but there's also where you should be at all times, keeping position and you should know how the game is going on overall not just your position. Since I'm just starting, I'm still picking up those things like having vision for the game."
With his team in Dubai, Abdourahman practiced only three times a week. He was surprised by the everyday commitment of the Crusaders.
"My conversations with him have been about how he's amazed at how organized it is in this country as opposed to where he was, how different it is," Bernstof said. "He just doesn't have the teaching that they have in this country, but he plays really hard and really gets after it and the kids really like him."
Abdourahman, like Zhou, said his teammates made him feel welcome from the start. Senior lineman and team captain Connor Keenan said Abdourahman showed he could handle himself physically right away
"Coming in as a new player you never know what to expect and you're worried if he can hit," Keenan said. "Abdul got on the line and he was like a battering ram. He was actually very surprising. We're an International Baccalaureate school, so we're all about developing the international student, so it's cool to see a student from another country here playing football with you."
That's exactly the experience Bernstorf hopes will enrich all of the boys' lives.
"I think the cultural experience of us learning a little bit about them and their cultures, and their learning a little bit about us and our culture, is really kind of neat," he said. "These kids, when they sit together, they'll share amazing things and that's what we want this to be."