MELBOURNE, Fla. — Tentatively clutching the oblong-shaped football, Weixiang Shi flung a fluttery pass resembling a drunken duck to hulking Florida Tech defensive lineman Ron Jackson.
“This time I’m going to speed it up!” declared Shi, a Chinese freshman electrical engineering major who arrived in Florida last month.
Shi hurled his next pass with all his might. And the football sailed end-over-end over Jackson’s 6-foot-3 frame like a wobbly punt, ricocheting off his hands as he leaped high into the air.
Dozens of Florida Tech students from around the globe participated in a school-sponsored crash course on American football recently. They tried on bulky helmets and shoulder pads, threw “passes” and quizzed players about rudimentary rules of the game.
Florida Tech’s domestic alumni and students across the Space Coast are pumped about the Panthers’ inaugural football team, which debuted on the gridiron with a 20-13 win over the Stetson Hatters.
But Florida Tech’s international student population has skyrocketed 60 percent since 2008.
Scholars from 118 countries accounted for 1,327 of the college’s 4,043 undergraduate and graduate students last fall, the most recent statistics available.
So is there a similar football buzz among international students — many of whom don’t know a quarterback from a quarter horse?
“No. It’s so foreign to them, they aren’t really sure. They really don’t have a clue what it is. To most of them, football is soccer,” said Linda “Mom” Condon, who’s spent the past decade hosting foreign students via the International Friendship Program.
“They call soccer ‘football.’ So, it’s a sport that’s kind of uniquely American. So they’re interested — but they haven’t got a clue what it is,” Condon said, laughing.
The college hosted a “Football 101” barbecue for international students at Building C in the Harris Village housing complex.
About a dozen players participated, wearing jerseys, shorts and helmets.
“This is an attempt to immerse you in American culture. What’s American culture all about? Football, right?” announced Judy Brooke, director of international student and scholar services, kicking off the event.
Athletics Director Bill Jurgens followed by assuring attendees that no one would suffer injuries during the outdoor football exhibition.
Gengbo Liu is a Chinese graduate student studying biomedical engineering. He remembers watching Madonna’s halftime show during the 2012 Super Bowl, but he confessed he was clueless about the New York Giants beating the New England Patriots, 21-17, in the actual game.
Liu asked Florida Tech football players whether the quarterback was allowed to hide the ball behind his body to try to fake out would-be tacklers. The players replied yes.
Mohammed Al Habsi, a freshman software engineering major from Oman, said he had only seen two football games on television — “I don’t know the rules or anything.”
He knew neither when the Panthers were playing nor where Palm Bay High’s Pirate Stadium — Florida Tech’s home field — was located.
Brooke said she hopes the “Football 101” gathering becomes an annual event. Georgia Tech hosted an “International Football Clinic” in April. Similar events take place at USC, Vanderbilt, Rice, SMU, Colorado State and elsewhere.
Vaibhav Saxena is an Indian graduate student studying electrical engineering. Yelling, “My turn! My turn!” he got laced up in shoulder pads by Panthers tight end Daniel De Paz (6-3 inches, 230 pounds) and offensive lineman Trey Lewis (6-3, 300 pounds).
Saxena then posed for cellphone photos, grinning and flashing a thumbs-up to his friends.
“It was really cool. It was really exciting,” he summarized afterward. “I would love the chance to play with them — but they are too big.”
PHOTO: Florida Tech football players Daniel DePaz, left, and Trey Lewis pull the shoulder pads off of Jiao Li, an MBA Business Engineering student from China, during an event at the Florida Institute of Technology on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, in Melbourne, Fla. Florida Tech NCAA college football players hosted an international barbecue on Friday with some of the school's international students. (AP Photo/Florida Today, Malcom Denemark)