Asians overcoming barriers in football | Asian Sunday Newspaper

Asians in Football

Asian Soccer / January 23, 2024

Who Says Asians Can’t Play American Football?In the movie Airplane! when a lady requests light reading material, she is promptly handed a leaflet titled “Famous Jewish Sports Legends.”

“Famous Asian Sports Legends” might not be much more voluminous than that leaflet, either, but at least there’s an Ichiro Suzuki here and a Yao Ming there. But when it comes to the gladiator sport of American football, will there be enough material to fill up a bookmark?

Fear not. As the U.S. football season gets underway (college football this week and then the National Football League, or NFL, next week), we looked into the history of players with Asian heritage who made a name for themselves in the sport. And surprisingly, there’s more than enough to fill this blog post.

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These are not exactly obscure players, either. Some were among the headliners in their time. In order, here are our ten best:

1. Roman Gabriel

Gabriel was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son of a Filipino immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1925 and worked as a laborer in Alaska and California before settling in North Carolina and marrying an Irish-American woman. Young Roman grew up poor, sickly and afflicted with asthma, yet ended up being 6-foot-4, 235 pounds—your prototypical modern NFL quarterback.

He played 16 years in the NFL, and still holds most of the passing records of the Los Angeles Rams. But despite being a four-time Pro Bowl selection and the league MVP in 1969, Gabriel is still not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

2. Hines Ward

Born in Seoul and raised by a single Korean mother who had Hines with an African-American serviceman stationed in South Korea, Ward might become the first player of Asian descent to make it to the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in three years. A four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, Ward holds most of the receiving records of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise and was named the MVP of Super Bowl XL.

Ward made an emotional return to his birthplace in 2006 and has been a vocal advocate in raising awareness on discrimination suffered by ethnic minorities in South Korea. He donated $1 million to create the Helping Hands Foundation to provide much needed assistance to biracial children in Korea.

3. Dat Nguyen

Nguyen was conceived in South Vietnam and born in a refugee center in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, as his parents fled their homeland after Saigon fell in April 1975. His family, like many of the “boat people” who left Southeast Asia following the war, eventually settled in southeast Texas' gulf coast, where a sizable Vietnamese community formed.

Despite being undersized at 5-foot-11, Nguyen starred at Texas A&M University as a linebacker and still holds the Aggies record of 517 career tackles. He was named the nation’s top collegiate defensive player before being selected by the Dallas Cowboys. He was an All-Pro selection in 2003 before a neck injury forced him to retire at the age of 30.

4. Tedy Bruschi

The most decorated player of Asian descent in terms of championships, Bruschi spent his entire career with the New England Patriots, winning three Super Bowls. The son of an Italian father and a Filipino mother, Bruschi was a two-time All-Pro linebacker and now works as a television commentator for ESPN.