The first Korean pro athlete that I ever heard of while growing up in the States was an NFL placekicker with the quite pedestrian Korean American name of John Lee. What I remember about Lee is that he went to UCLA, played for the (then) St. Louis Cardinals, and wore a single-bar face mask like Joe Theismann, the longtime quarterback of my team, Washington.
Based on perusing Lee’s very brief Pro-Football-Reference page, it appears I would have seen him play on TV at least once—on October 19, 1986, when he kicked three extra points against the Skins at RFK Stadium. Otherwise, Lee played in only 10 other NFL games. He missed five of 13 field goal attempts and three of 17 PATs, back when those were gimmes. Despite being a two-time All-American in college and the 32nd overall pick in his draft, Lee ended up playing just one season of pro football. So, a Korean NFL icon was not born.
Thirty-one years later (and with all due respect to ’90s offensive lineman Eugene Chung, who was a decent pro—but an offensive lineman), we finally have a new candidate. Last Saturday, the Los Angeles Chargers named their starting kicker for 2017: Seoul-born, undrafted rookie Younghoe Koo.
You may have recently seen an old high school clip of Koo doing this:
Beyond the viral trickery, Koo’s path to the NFL has the makings of a great Korean American folktale. He immigrated with his parents from Korea to Ridgewood, New Jersey, when he was 12, and he played both kicker and defensive back at Ridgewood High. He accepted a scholarship to kick for Georgia Southern, where he missed only one field goal (a 54-yarder) his entire senior year, earning him a spot as a finalist for the Lou Groza Award as the top college placekicker. (In Statesboro, he also picked up a noticeable Southern twang to his English.) Koo was signed by the Chargers as a free agent in May and beat out incumbent kicker Josh Lambo in the preseason. So Koo has North Jersey roots, Southern bona fides, and is now in L.A., home to America’s biggest Koreatown. (Note to Koo: Stay away from Cafe Bleu, please.)
Ah, and that name: Younghoe Koo is certainly no John Lee. Koo’s given name—correctly pronounced Young-hwe in Korean but romanized as “Younghoe”—is both a gift and a curse. It is undeniably memorable; it is also ripe for unfortunate puns, which will only proliferate as he becomes more widely known. (I say this as someone whose Korean name contains the word “Dong.”) Expect nothing but the worst on Twitter should Younghoe miss a vital kick this season.
Which brings us back to the present, and the fact that Koo’s sole claim to NFL fame thus far is being drafted by every fantasy owner of Korean descent. We need look no further than the rise and fall of Roberto Aguayo to witness a cult kicking hero spectacularly flame out. You’re only as good as your last kick, and Koo hasn’t even kicked one yet in a regular-season game. Accordingly, the Korean press has covered Koo’s story with muted interest—partly because Korean media really chase glory only after the fact (see: the instant, almost embarrassing Korean fervor over Hines Ward when he won Super Bowl XL MVP) and partly because there are far more pressing things to worry about these days.
Nevertheless, the start of a new season is a time for optimism. Koo hasn’t converted a kick in an actual game, but he hasn’t shanked one, either. I’ll be watching his NFL debut Monday night against the Broncos with bated breath. But even if Younghoe Koo goes the way of John Lee, there’s hope for the future: Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon will be with us in a couple of years.