The Bleacher Report did a feature story of Los Angeles Chargers kicker Younghoe Koo, who made his debut Monday night as an NFL player. As a star player at Georgia Southern University, he was one of two Korean teammates. The other player, Andy Kwon, and him immediately formed a bond — they would day “anyong” to each other in the locker room, watch the occasional K-Pop video on an iPhone, and also cook together whenever one of them received a Korean food care package from a parent.
The two players were part of 25 students of Korean descent out of a school of 20,000. Given their status as star athletes, the pair decided to always have each other’s backs. The issues of identity never became a main talking point in conversation for Koo and Kwon, but the friends were always aware. They knew they were going to stick out in a sport where just 2.1 percent of college athletes identified as Asian-American. They talked about life and school. They talked about their families.
When Koo’s mom came to games, she would sit with the Kwons. They formed a silent solidarity.
Koo would move to the U.S. at a young age, moving to the East Coast with his mother, while his father, a college professor, remained in South Korea.
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John Byon remembers Koo’s first year in the United States—and the recess that changed everything. In sixth grade Byon, also Korean-American, invited Koo to play football at recess with him and some other kids. Knowing their new classmate played soccer, they invited him to kick off. Koo took the ball and punted it, and the ball flew. And flew. And flew.
”I s–t you not, it was straight out of THE SANDLOT. Straight out of a sports movie,” Byon said. “The ball just flew over the field we were playing in and over the fence. It was like, ‘Oh my god. You have to play football.’”
Koo soon joined the football team and became a star wide receiver and cornerback. In eighth grade, Koo’s kickoffs would fly more than 50 yards on the 80-yard pee-wee field, forcing teams to touchback.
— Younghoe Koo (@YounghoeKoo) December 1, 2016
Koo’s mother would sit with Byon’s parents at all football games. They didn’t have any other family in the United States, so they enjoyed their kids’ football games together.
By seventh grade, people around town began asking whether Koo could one day turn pro. By his freshman year, they knew he would. Two games in, Koo took over the starting kicking job and never let go.
He also developed into a strong player on both sides of the ball, earning first-team All-North Jersey honors as a cornerback and developing into the team’s best receiver, according to head coach Chuck Johnson.
— Younghoe Koo (@YounghoeKoo) May 6, 2017
With college and eventual NFL dreams, Koo and his friend Kwon were recruited for various NFL camps. Koo would eventually get drafted as the kicker for the Chargers. Kwon was recruited as an offensive lineman for the Arizona Cardinals, but didn’t make the cut. He is currently a graduate assistant at the University of Akron. If you ask Kwon and Byon, Koo’s closest friends, his entry into the NFL was a no-brainer.
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Koo’s story, in many ways, represents the modern Korean-American journey. He speaks with a uniquely American accent, Korean with a southern twang, the fusion of his two homes. He grew up in an upper-middle-class town with a strong school system, naturally making the district a hot spot for Korean immigrants. It created a weird social dynamic, according to Byon, and they struggled to find a sense of social identity.
Granted, Koo’s NFL debut was not so great — his kick was blocked by Denver Broncos that would have forced his debut game into overtime — many people see a bright future ahead of him. And like Jeremy Lin, his presence in professional sports could be a beacon for more Asian Americans to pursue their pro sports dreams.
Now, as an NFL kicker, Koo holds a major opportunity. His platform allows him to expand the idea of what it means to be a Korean-American. Both Byon and Kwon understand this—how Koo’s mere presence in the league makes him a trailblazer for young Koreans in America.
”It’s exciting for me,” Koo told Greg Beachem of the Associated Press. “Obviously there aren’t that many [Korean players in football]. Hopefully it will start the trend a little bit, and have people out there playing and see if we can get that going. But I love to represent.”
To read the rest of the article, head over to The Bleacher Report: Chargers Kicker Younghoe Koo’s Story Is Familiar for Many Korean-Americans