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.
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.
5. Johnnie Morton
The son of an African-American father and a Japanese mother, Morton starred at USC as a wide receiver and had a distinguished pro career, mostly with the Detroit Lions, playing both receiver and returning punts. Morton’s younger brother Chad also played at USC and spent seven years in the NFL mostly as a return specialist.
6. Eugene Chung
Taken by the New England Patriots with the 13th overall pick in 1992, Chung became the first player of Asian descent to be selected in the first round since Gabriel was chosen second overall in 1962. The son of Korean immigrants, the offensive lineman became the first player of Korean descent to play in the NFL.
7. Kailee Wong
Wong was an All-American linebacker at Stanford University before being selected in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings. The son of a Chinese father and Hawaiian mother, Wong is best known these days for marrying the sister of U.S. television personality Mario Lopez.
8. Ben Leber
Like Ward, Leber is the son of an American serviceman father and a Korean mother. The linebacker spent most of his career with the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings and was embraced for his involvement in the local community in both places.
9. Will Demps
Born to an African-American airman father and a Korean mother, Demps was mostly a backup in the NFL after starring as a safety for San Diego State University. Demps’ younger brother Marcus also played for the Aztecs but never made an NFL roster.
10. John Lee
Considered one the finest kickers in college football history, Lee was a two-time All-American at UCLA and still holds the NCAA record for highest career field-goal percentage of 86. The Korean immigrant couldn’t replicate the success at the pro level after the St. Louis Cardinals used a second-round pick to select him in 1986. He lasted only one season in the NFL.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.