The Year of the Asian-American Football Player
It seems a bit rude to call 2020, an apocalyptic hellscape of a year, the year of anyone. But it’s hard to ignore the strides Asian Americans have made this year in the sport of football, one that has only featured a handful of Asian Americans in its history. John Lee, a Korean, was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1986 NFL draft but lasted only one year in the NFL. Dat Nguyen, of Vietnamese ancestry, played 7 seasons for the Cowboys from 1999–2005. A handful of more prominent players are partially Asian, like former Steelers receiver Hines Ward and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, both of whom are Korean. Even so, Asian Americans have never been more prominent in the football landscape than they are this year.
I remember wanting to play football more than anything when I was in seventh grade. I already played travel basketball, but that was in the next town over with a bunch of kids I didn’t know. Football would let me play with my friends. Plus, I always thought I had great hands from playing in the street, and might’ve had delusions of becoming an NFL receiver. But my parents said no. Their reasoning at the time was they wanted to keep my brain, my most valuable asset, intact. In April of 2011, the same year, the Jim McMahon lawsuit was filed, so I guess they had a point. I was devastated, though. Luckily, a few months later, I found inspiration.
December 2011 to February 2012 were some of the best months of my life, solely because of Linsanity. On the blacktop with classmates during lunch, I’d always been lightly bullied about being Asian during basketball games. I was a good outside shooter, but that must’ve been in some way tied to my advanced math abilities, not the hours I spent in my driveway tossing up shots instead of doing my homework. With Jeremy Lin breaking through, that melted away for a bit. For the first time, both my classmates and me saw someone that looked like me as a viable NBA player. I was captivated, putting all of my energy into basketball to try to be the next Lin and setting my football dreams aside. I’m willing to bet many others did the same.
Basketball is still a huge sport in Asia, certainly bigger than football and bigger than baseball in China. Lately, more role models have emerged. Yuta Watanabe, born in the same Japanese city as my mom, has been on two-way contracts since 2018. Rui Hachimura was the first Japanese player to participate in March Madness in 2017 and only Japanese first-rounder after the Wizards selected him 9th overall in 2019. Both are 6’8”, though, not exactly a realistic standard for many Asian Americans.
Younghoe Koo, on the other hand, is 5’9”. He moved to the US in sixth grade, knowing zero English, but eventually found football through games at recess. By seventh grade, he had people telling him and his family he could go pro because of his powerful leg. But there was a decision to be made, according to an incredible recent article on Koo: “Ask Younghoe to put all of his effort into academics to get into the best college possible or put it into sports to pursue a career in the pros.” Reading it back feels eerily familiar to my own situation as a seventh grader, except I was nowhere near the same caliber of athlete. My family chose academics; Koo’s compromised so that he could chase the NFL.
Koo’s signing with the Chargers in 2017 made him the 4th South Korean born player in NFL history. The other three are John Lee, Hines Ward, and defensive tackle Kyle Love, whose father was a US Army soldier stationed in the country. As a Chargers fan and Asian American, it was easy to root for Koo. Here, for the first time in my life, someone that looked like me was in the NFL. By this point, I was in college, my dreams of being a professional athlete of any kind ceding themselves to a psychology major. People made jokes: about his name, which now we all understand is pronounced YOUNG-hweh, about the Chargers signing him to appeal to the Korean-American population of Los Angeles, and about his name some more. Then, he struggled, going 3–6 on field goals in 4 games. The Chargers lost all 4, and waived him to bring in 10-year veteran Nick Novak, even though everyone in the building thought Koo had the talent to stick. After one whole month, the representation came to an end.
Fast forward to January 2019, and Koo was back, this time in the AAF with the Atlanta Legends. He scored the first points in league history and went a perfect 14–14 on field goals before the league shut down. It got him onto a practice squad for eleven days.
All was not lost, though, as Koo found himself on the Falcons by the end of October, earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in his debut. He converted three onside kicks in one game, a feat he’s insisted is less cool than we make it out to be. In 2020, he’s the NFL’s leading scorer, a Pro Bowler, and likely All-Pro candidate. Yes, he’s a kicker, a position people widely mock for being lesser than. But it’s a start, and Koo knows he’s the flagbearer: “I remember watching the NFL and I was like, ‘There is nobody that looked like me,’” Koo says. “As a kid, you look to somebody that you can relate to. As crazy as it is, I used to tell myself that I was going to be that guy. … To have that representation in any industry that you’re the minority, it’s a blessing. There ain’t no pressure in that.” That quote is again from ESPN’s excellent profile on Koo, and he hits the nail on the head.
Almost 2,000 miles away, another Asian American made history as the first Chinese-born athlete to record a carry and score a touchdown for an FBS college football team. His name is Jackson He, and you might’ve seen him because of his awesome as hell jersey:
He’s football journey has been incredibly profiled in this article. The story starts almost stereotypically Asian: his parents sent him to the US when he was 17 to improve his grades and chances at getting into a good university. With little to no knowledge of English, he ended up at a high school in Chula Vista, CA, where classmates laughed at his accent. Football coach Ron Allen saw him in the hallway, convinced him to try out for the football team, and his career took off from there. He spent two seasons at an NAIA program, took a year off back in China after a coaching change, and finally landed at Arizona State as a walk-on in 2019.
He may not have pro potential, but just the exposure from playing in college has done wonders for Asian American football interest. Tencent, China’s gigantic media conglomerate, picked up ASU’s game against Oregon State because of the elevated interest in him. A lot of fans seem to (unfortunately) be treating it as a bit of a gimmick, with tweets suggesting Jackson He merch could erase ASU’s COVID-19 related deficit. Granted, He is still a walk-on, pretty far down the depth chart. He only played and scored against Arizona because the game ended 70–7. To their credit, many more fans have praised how cool of a story He is and what it means to the game.
Jackson He has embraced the opportunity to be a role model for other Chinese youth, something he’s talked about on a few occasions. In an interview after the Arizona game, he answered one question with “Chinese can ball too!” and another in Chinese, directed at kids who might be looking to him as a role model.
Lately, I’ve been dipping my toes into football on the media side. I got credentials to go to the Senior Bowl, college football’s biggest all-star game, in January. Not a lot of people in Mobile, Alabama that week looked like me. It got me thinking about how many people in this space did. ESPN Swiss Army knife Mina Kimes, host of ESPN Daily Pablo Torre, staff writer for The Athletic Ted Nguyen. There are others who I probably don’t know, and I hope to learn of them soon. The Younghoe Koo profile was written by Joon Lee, who I never knew existed before that article, for example.
Asian American representation might always be an uphill battle. For people like me, half Asians that grow up only in America, I feel like it’s easy to lose sight of that side. I used my American middle name, Nicholas, instead of my Japanese one, Akisada, on official documents until I was a teenager. I shied away from my heritage when I started writing, because I didn’t want it to matter. But it does, not because I’m going to be treated any differently, but because I want new people entering the space to know they won’t be, either. Perhaps it’s a reach given my limited sphere of influence, but I can hope.
In five to ten years, maybe you’ll remember Younghoe Koo. He might even still be in the NFL. Maybe it’ll be for converting three onside kicks in a game, or his torrid 2020 season, or something that hasn’t happened yet. There’s a chance you’ll remember Jackson He, too, but maybe not. Maybe in fifteen or twenty years, when the next Chinese-born athlete comes along and it turns out he learned the game from He. You might not remember these guys either, and that’s okay. I will, though. I’ll remember them as the guys that look like me.