Released from Chinese prison, Detroit football standout Wendell Brown returning home

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former American football player Wendell Brown will be returning to his hometown of Detroit on Wednesday after spending three years in a Chinese prison.

 A Chinese court sentenced Brown to four years in prison in June 2018 for being involved in a bar fight, a punishment his lawyer and an activist called excessive.

In this Nov. 25, 2008, file photo, Ball State linebacker Wendell Brown, left, stands with cornerback Trey Buice near the end of an NCAA college football game in Muncie, Ind.

Brown, 32, a graduate of Detroit King High School who played for Ball State University in Indiana, had been teaching American football in southwest China when he was arrested in September 2016 and later charged with intentional assault. He has denied hitting a man at a bar and said he had raised his arms in self-defense after being attacked.

Campaigning from family members and a group of people who banded under the name of Team Wendell campaigned local authorities in China and the United States for Brown's release.

Brown had one year knocked-off his sentence and was released Tuesday, Dan Redford, a family friend, told The Detroit News.

"He has been released and is currently on a flight from Chongqing to LA," Redford said. "He is a free man."

Redford said Brown is "ready to be home" after a tough few years.

"He's spoken with his mom on FaceTime and he all smiles before meeting her in LA," Redford said. "We've only been able to send written letters."

Brown and his mother, Antoinette Brown, are expected to arrive at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus early Wednesday.

The incident occurred on the night of Sept. 24, 2016, when revelers at a nightclub threw a bottle at Brown and an altercation occurred. Afterward, a local man accused Brown of seriously injuring his eye, which had to be removed. The man demanded more than $100,000 in compensation or else he would pursue the case in court.

Brown had been detained 20 months while awaiting the verdict that came in June 2018.

"This marks the third year of his imprisonment. Last year, the verdict came down that he was guilty, which we expected because they don't typically find people not guilty in China," he said. "The extra two-year sentence was devastating for his family, but through our efforts, he was able to get a sentence reduction."

Brown played linebacker for Ball State between 2004 and 2008 and went on to play in the Canadian Football League before moving to Chongqing, China to coach.

Similar disputes are often settled out-of-court in China — where the conviction rate is 99% — but Brown did not reach a settlement with the plaintiff and pleaded not guilty, the Associated Press reported at the time.

Filmmaker and sports activist Matt Liston has been documenting Brown's story and has worked to raise awareness with the Brown family to expedite Brown's release. 

On Tuesday, he wrote on Instagram, "Beyond thrilled to report after 3 years, Wendell Brown is a free man. He is currently on a flight from China heading home to the US! So many people helped to bring this man home and I can’t wait to see him tonight."

Redford said they're excited to see what Brown will to after his return to Detroit.

"We’re anxious to see what he wants to do," he said. "He’s a criminal justice major. Not sure what his plans are, but we certainly want to help him if he needs it, and I think he’s got a lot of opportunities."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_