How Korean-Born Kicker Younghoe Koo Used Football to Adjust to American Life

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Chargers kicker Younghoe Koo won the team’s starting kicking job Saturday, becoming just the fourth Korean-born NFL player in the process. On the latest episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, Koo talked about his journey from Korean immigrant to pro football player.

“I grew up playing sports in Korea,” Koo began on the pod. “Basketball, soccer, baseball, you name it, I was playing it. But football was not one of them, because it wasn’t popular there.”

Koo moved to New Jersey from South Korea when he was 12 years old, unable to speak even a word of English at the time. He first saw a football in seventh grade — and he immediately had a knack for the kicking game.

“During a lunch break, kids were playing two-hand-touch football. They said, ‘Punt it,’ because they knew I played soccer. And they saw me punt the ball and they were like, ‘Oh man. Look at this kid! You should come out and play football with us.’ And that’s how I signed up for football.”

During middle school, he shined. But football and soccer meant something else for Koo — they helped him transition to life in the United States.

“Sports really got me out there. Without sports I wouldn't be who I am, where I am, in terms of football or life. So sports really got me out there to meet new friends and learn a new culture. Looking back at it, language was the easier part; culture was the harder part. … The locker room was the least of my worries. Back then it was like, ‘What am I doing after school?’ but I didn't know how to go about it. I didn’t know how to ask people, like, ‘What do you do after school?’ I didn't know how to say it, physically. I didn’t know how to speak that language. I was trying to say, ‘What do you do? What do you guys do in your free time?’ because I’m just going home after school, and I didn't know what people did after school or anything like that. So that's what I was focused on.”

As he prepared to enter high school, Koo had to decide between soccer and football. Since their seasons overlapped, he couldn’t do both.“My middle school coach, my teammate's dad, came to my house and told my dad, ‘He has a future in [football].’ Because my dad looked at it like I was just kicking a football. But my middle school explained to my dad, ‘You can get a scholarship and you can have a future in this.’ So I got to thank him for explaining that to my dad, so we chose the football route.”

It took him only a few games during his freshman year before he made the varsity team. And as he played high school, he got the scholarship opportunities that his middle school coach predicted. James Madison came knocking first, but it was Georgia Southern that landed Koo.

“Head coach Jeff Monken came to my high school to tell me that he was offering a full scholarship. And I’d never seen a head coach at a kicker’s high school to offer a full scholarship. So I was like, ‘OK.’ I took a trip down there with my parents, me and my dad and my mom, and I fell in love with it.”

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

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