BEIJING — Former American football player Wendell Brown returned to an emotional welcome in Detroit on Wednesday, more than a year after being handed a four-year prison sentence in China for his involvement in a bar fight.
Brown, a native of Detroit who played for Ball State University in Indiana, was arrested in September 2016 over charges of intentional assault, and was convicted in June 2018. His lawyer Wu Junmei confirmed with NBC News on Wednesday that Brown was released and left China on an evening flight from Chongqing.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart, sincerely. Thank you for all your love, support, prayers, positive energy, everything," Brown said, while wearing a sweatshirt with the word "Blessed" across the chest in a video posted on Twitter. "I'm coming home."
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A Chinese court reduced his four-year sentence to three in November and set his release for Tuesday, The Associated Press reported. The court did not issue an official statement about the decision at the time.
Chinese authorities didn't immediately respond to NBC News' requests for comment.
Brown's friend Quentin Sterling, an American businessman based in Chongqing, China, posted the video from a Chinese airport. Sterling told NBC News that he was excited to see his friend freed and gave him a big hug when they were briefly reunited before the flight.
"He never complained to me about his time in prison. He had a lot of gratitude and positivity and didn't say he would never want to come back to China," Sterling said. He added that Brown's family was preparing a surprise welcome party in Los Angeles.
Brown played linebacker for Ball State between 2004 and 2008 and went on to play in the Canadian Football League before moving to China to coach.
He became involved in an altercation at a nightclub on Sept. 24, 2016, after someone threw a bottle at him, his supporters have said. A local man then accused Brown of seriously injuring his eye, which had to be removed.
Brown has denied hitting the man at the bar and said he had raised his arms in self-defense after being attacked.
Junmei didn't provide details about Brown's release. At the time of his arrest, those advocating for Brown told NBC News that China sometimes deports foreigners following their conviction.
Sterling said police had escorted Brown to an airport straight from prison before handing him over to U.S. consulate members and friends who came to see him off.
Dawn Liu reported from Beijing, and Linda Givetash reported from London.
Dawn Liu is a researcher for NBC News based in Beijing.
Linda Givetash is a London-based freelance journalist.