How a Vietnam Warfare Refugee Broke an N.F.L. Barrier

by Christina S. Brown
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Rising up enjoying highschool soccer within the early 2000s, the dream of seeing somebody who appeared like me enjoying on the highest degree of a sport I beloved was one I gave up on early in my youth. For a lot of, illustration on the pinnacle of one thing you obsessed over may be taken with no consideration. For Asian American children in sports activities on the time, it was virtually nonexistent. So after I first noticed the “Nguyen” nameplate on the again of an NFL jersey, I used to be in real awe.

Somebody with my final identify within the NFL? And he wasn’t a kicker (not that there’s something mistaken with that). He performed linebacker, some of the bodily positions in sports activities, for the Dallas Cowboys.

That jersey belonged to Dat Nguyen, the All-Professional linebacker, who cemented himself as a legend at Texas A&M. He didn’t simply have a spot on the roster, he was probably the greatest defenders within the league. Not solely did it make it appear a little bit extra doable that Asians might play within the NFL, however it additionally created a special kind of connection to professional soccer that I didn’t have earlier than.

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We aren’t associated — Nguyen is an extremely frequent final identify — however for me and the Asian children from my era who received to observe him, he represented us on the sector. He broke a barrier we didn’t suppose could possibly be damaged, shattering it with each bone-rattling sort out. Could is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and a very good time to mirror on the historical past Nguyen made and the way he received there.

Discovering soccer

Nguyen and his household shared an analogous expertise as many Vietnamese migrants in America within the ’80s. Throughout the Vietnam Warfare, his mother and father made the harrowing escape by boat because the Viet Cong overtook their properties in Vietnam. They began their new lives in a refugee camp in Arkansas earlier than transferring to Texas, the place Nguyen would develop up and uncover soccer.

His household took up shrimping, a standard occupation amongst Vietnamese immigrants as a result of they did it of their homeland. Starting in fourth grade, Nguyen spent every summer season on the household boat as his brother’s deckhand.

Nguyen’s junior highschool coach, Cliff Davis, found him whereas strolling the halls trying to recruit children to play soccer. Nguyen was practically 5-foot-10 in eighth grade and will already dunk a basketball. He stood out from his mates. Nevertheless, his mother and father initially didn’t assist his enjoying soccer and needed him to concentrate on lecturers. Nguyen cast their signatures to enroll in the soccer workforce.

Dat Nguyen, left, along with his household on the premiere of “All American: The Dat Nguyen Story,” a documentary about his soccer journey, in 2023. (Courtesy of Nguyen household)

He didn’t know a lot in regards to the sport, however as he realized extra, he rapidly fell in love with the psychological facet of the sport.

“I used to be very lucky and grateful that (Davis) taught me to visualise,” Nguyen, now 48, defined. “We went to the gymnasium earlier than the soccer recreation and he shared with us a second. And the second was whenever you closed your eyes and also you play the play in your thoughts, noticed the play earlier than it occurred, referred to as the protection, regulate to the offensive formation, snap the ball and simply see it. If it’s a run, if it’s a move — what’s your accountability? What’s your alignment? What’s your adjustment? All that rapidly needs to be recognized or determined inside just a few seconds. In case you performed it in your thoughts and also you noticed it the night time earlier than and also you line up within the recreation, it’s loads simpler whenever you simply don’t must suppose … you simply react.”

Nguyen’s athleticism and instinctual model of play helped him rapidly excel on the gridiron, however his double life virtually halted when he broke his elbow diving for a fumble towards the top of his eighth-grade season. His mother and father came upon he was damage enjoying soccer however realized he was passionate in regards to the recreation and that it saved him out of hassle, in order that they let him proceed to play. As he performed highschool soccer, the cerebral nature of the game continued to compel him.

“I fell in love with the sport as a result of it was fascinating to me,” he stated. “I used to be one of many 11 guys each time the puzzle was moved. As I received older, the sport was a lot extra fascinating due to the conditions in soccer.”

Breaking out with the Aggies

Nguyen turned a star for his hometown workforce and had individuals from each background chanting his identify, however his mother and father got here to solely two video games. His mother labored two jobs and his dad was on the boat all day. Plus, getting into a crowded stadium full of people that didn’t communicate their language was daunting. It wasn’t till Nguyen received a scholarship to Texas A&M that he really felt they embraced his soccer profession.

When he first received to Texas A&M, he thought he was too small and wanted to achieve weight to be an efficient faculty participant, however then he received too large. He couldn’t transfer successfully and he slid down the depth chart. He virtually gave up on enjoying faculty soccer however recommitted himself within the offseason. He wakened at 6 a.m. on daily basis to work out on his personal, went to class at 8 a.m. and received in a second exercise at midday earlier than understanding along with his workforce at 4 p.m. He received into improbable form and shocked the workforce and training workers along with his physique transformation.

He labored his method up from eighth on the depth chart to No. 2. The one linebacker forward of him was Trent Driver, who had prototypical dimension and velocity. Sooner or later, whereas working sprints, Driver twisted his ankle on a sprinkler. Nguyen received his shot, and the remaining was historical past. He turned an Aggies legend, beginning 51 consecutive video games and amassing 517 tackles and 6 interceptions.

His mother and father began coming to his house video games, and for the away video games, they might have firm come over to observe their son play on TV. They picked up how the sport labored, however the magnitude of how large soccer was, particularly in Texas, was onerous to know. Their son went from serving to them on a shrimp boat to enjoying on nationwide tv.

Nguyen had probably the greatest video games of his profession within the 1998 Cotton Bowl towards UCLA, however when he talked in regards to the recreation, he didn’t spotlight the win or his interception and lateral for a landing or the truth that he was named MVP of that recreation. He talked in regards to the feeling when he came upon his mother and father, who have been throughout the nation for a marriage, have been gathered round a TV with family and friends hooting and cheering him on within the Cotton Bowl.

“That is perhaps the perfect recreation of my profession,” Nguyen stated. “I nonetheless have some information there within the Cotton Bowl, and it’s not like a few of these information may not be damaged, proper? And for them to witness that with relations and household and gatherings and in one other state … yeah, that was fairly cool for them to share with me.”

Rising up in an Asian family, profitable the approval of the household typically felt like chasing after a carrot on a stick that was tied to your again. Whenever you’ve achieved the standing of state legend and get a free schooling out of it, no dad or mum, irrespective of how excessive their requirements, might resist cheering.

How ’bout them Cowboys?

The following achievement to verify off was getting drafted. Although Nguyen had gaudy statistics and accolades, he was nonetheless undersized (5-11, 234 kilos on the 1999 NFL Scouting Mix) in an period of soccer when the prototypical linebacker was 250 kilos. Nguyen was considered one of Dallas’ top-30 visits, so though the Cowboys have been , he knew he wouldn’t be a first-round choose.

The draft spanned two days again then. On the primary day, Nguyen helped a pal transfer and went to a child’s celebration earlier than ending up at his mother’s home the place they might watch the top of day one of many draft collectively. 9 linebackers with higher measurables received drafted earlier than him. He then received the decision from Jerry Jones. The Cowboys drafted him within the third spherical. Nguyen could be enjoying professional soccer in his house state.

“I landed in Dallas and I assumed, ‘Your loved ones left Vietnam to return right here only for freedom and also you get the possibility to play this recreation we referred to as the American sport and also you get drafted by America’s Group,’” Nguyen stated.

He remembered in his first OTAs stepping into the defensive huddle, getting the sign and calling the protection — one thing he’d accomplished 1000’s of occasions. No large deal. He then appeared throughout and noticed Troy Aikman and Emmit Smith, and to his left was Michael Irvin. When the ball was snapped, Nguyen froze and didn’t transfer. These have been guys he watched each Sunday, and simply sharing the sector with them triggered him to short-circuit for a second. Although there have been some traditionally large personalities within the Dallas locker room, he stated they revered his play and he by no means felt ostracized for his ethnicity.

Dat Nguyen celebrates a fumble restoration for the Cowboys throughout a recreation in 2005. (Tim Heitman / USA As we speak)

Invoice Parcells was employed as head coach in 2003, Nguyen’s fifth 12 months within the league. Parcells got here from a 3-4 defensive background and most well-liked larger, extra bodily linebackers. Nguyen was fast, undersized and made performs due to his anticipation and angles.

The old-school Parcells wasn’t simple to impress. However as Nguyen had accomplished his complete soccer profession, he made his dimension an afterthought and earned Parcells’ belief. Nguyen had a profession 12 months in his first season enjoying for him and was named second-team All-Professional.

“I realized extra soccer with (Parcells) than my 15 years prior,” Nguyen stated. “He made the sport very fascinating. Situational soccer was a giant a part of what he did, and I actually realized loads in regards to the recreation on that facet of it. He’s a man that actually cares about you as an individual although at occasions he doesn’t really feel like he does. However I’ll ship him a textual content proper now, and he’ll textual content me again. I really feel like I’m in that interior circle with him, and it’s onerous to get in that interior circle.”

“He might have performed for any of my groups,” Parcells would later say after teaching Nguyen.

Accidents pile up

Nguyen shined brightly when he was on the sector, however accidents took a toll on his physique. In 2004, enjoying the Pittsburgh Steelers, some Cowboys defenders had a guess on who would put the most important hit on Jerome Bettis. Early within the recreation, Nguyen noticed his probability. The play unfolded in sluggish movement. He watched quarterback Ben Roethlisberger flip round handy the ball off to Bettis.

“I used to be like, ‘Oh, shoot, I’m beelining him. I’m about to win this pot,’” he stated. “So I’m about to blow him up. Hastily I get blown up from someplace else.”

Steelers receiver Hines Ward blindsided and de-cleated him. His legs have been 6 toes within the air and he smashed his head on the bottom. The following factor he might keep in mind was the coach bringing him to his spouse and explaining to her that he had a extreme concussion.

He went the subsequent morning to the power to work out, get therapy and attend his place assembly. In his assembly, he appeared down at his grade sheet and noticed he was given a constructive grade on 63 out of 64 performs. He realized he’d simply performed probably the greatest video games ever — the issue was, he didn’t keep in mind something previous the blindside hit.

The next season, he ready onerous and felt nice. He thought he would have a profession 12 months however injured his knee in coaching camp and had meniscus surgical procedure earlier than the season. Throughout a West Coast journey during which they performed the 49ers and Raiders, he damage his neck towards the 49ers however performed by way of it. He accomplished a Cowboys comeback with a game-sealing interception however knew one thing wasn’t proper.

“I keep in mind calling my spouse the morning I wakened,” Nguyen stated. “I used to be like, my knees are bothering me. My neck’s bothering me. I don’t really feel proper.”

After the Raiders recreation, on the flight again to Dallas, he sat subsequent to Dan Campbell, Nguyen’s teammate with the Cowboys and at Texas A&M.

“I used to be like, ‘Dan, man, I can see the performs. I can’t get there.’ Like I labored so onerous within the low season simply to get an opportunity to get the sting, proper? I put so many hours into it, however I believe my physique’s simply breaking down.”

The following morning, Nguyen advised Parcells he wanted to take a while off to get better and regroup, and Parcells obliged. Nguyen tried coming again on Thanksgiving, however his physique didn’t reply. His arm went numb each time he received hit.

Dat Nguyen is acknowledged throughout halftime of a Dallas Cowboys preseason recreation in 2006 for his contributions to the workforce. (Khampha Bouaphanh / Getty Pictures)

“In order that’s after I knew it was over,” Nguyen stated. “I used to be glad I used to be capable of stroll away. And, you realize, you miss it. I’m sorry, you miss the locker room. You miss the competitors. You miss the 4 seconds of the sport when the ball snaps. I can’t clarify this to anyone or share it with individuals as a result of it’s so distinctive.”

Nguyen retired in 2005 and went on to have transient stints teaching with the Cowboys and Texas A&M. He’s earned a number of accolades since his retirement together with making the Texas A&M Athletic Corridor of Fame, All-Time Huge 12 Group and the Texas Sports activities Corridor of Fame. However his seven seasons, a comparatively lengthy profession, weren’t sufficient to get Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame consideration. Although he received’t be enshrined in Canton, his profession was really distinctive. He was the primary Vietnamese participant to be drafted within the NFL and the one one thus far. Nguyen was a barrier breaker, and he hopes his story can encourage different Asian children to comply with in his footsteps.

“I assumed whenever you broke the barrier again then after I was enjoying, I hoped that it was open to individuals,” he stated. “I hoped that extra children could be contributors. It’s onerous to seek out. … I imply, even my nephew, that’s going to commencement tonight, he’s a very good ball participant. I don’t suppose he’s a DI participant, however I believe he’s capable of play DIII if he desires to pursue it. After which (many children wave) off the choice, however it’s like, man, you by no means understand how you develop your physique. It is perhaps small stature, however man, numerous occasions, soccer teaches you a lot. However the alternative to make it and fulfill a dream, man, it’s like no different, although. And I believe numerous them don’t wish to pursue it as a result of the possibilities are towards them, which it’s.”

(High photograph: Al Messerschmidt and Doug Pensinger / Getty Pictures)

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