COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — Younghoe Koo didn’t know much about football when he saw his new seventh-grade classmates in New Jersey playing two-hand touch during lunch recess.
Koo got invited to kick off, and the South Korean-born, soccer-loving middle schooler booted the pigskin with authority. So he signed up for tackle football — and he discovered he really liked hitting people, too.
“I just fell in love with the whole thing,” Koo said.
Koo recounts the story in the Los Angeles Chargers’ locker room, where he has earned a seat. The undrafted rookie from Georgia Southern has beaten out veteran Josh Lambo to become the Chargers’ kicker, and he makes his debut Monday night in Denver.
“I knew I was going to have to earn everything, but mentally, I just (wanted to take) small steps to just prove I belong here and I can compete with these guys,” Koo said. “It was huge to find comfort inside to compete at a higher level.”
Koo is the fourth South Korean-born NFL player, joining Hines Ward, Kyle Love and former UCLA kicker John Lee. Although he only missed one field goal during his outstanding senior year at Georgia Southern, he was best known for the viral videos of his incredible backflip trick kicks before getting his shot with the Chargers.
“I felt good because I thought I did everything I could out there during the preseason,” Koo said. “But at the same time, you don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re going to make the decision based on whatever they’re looking at.”
Whatever it was, Koo had it. After Lambo missed a handful of important kicks last season, the Chargers are entrusting the job to their third kicker in four years — a rookie with a burning desire to succeed in his adopted country’s favorite sport.
Koo loved youth football in Ridgewood, New Jersey, but he still pursued soccer until high school, when he had to choose one sport because their seasons were simultaneous. Koo credits his middle school football coach with persuading his father that kicking could lead to a college scholarship and more.
Koo played kicker and defensive back in high school before heading to Georgia Southern, where the 5-foot-9 ex-cornerback reluctantly gave up defense.
“Going into college, I kind of had to calm down,” Koo said. “I had to accept the fact that I was just kicking a football. I wanted to (keep playing defense), but they were kind of bigger in college.”
Koo’s father, Hyungseo Koo, is now a business professor at Induk University in Seoul. His mother, Seungmae Choi, is a nurse in Georgia. Neither can be in Denver to watch his debut next week, but Koo hopes to get them to a home game soon.
“Football isn’t really big back there, but now my dad is getting attention from his colleagues and he’s letting me know,” Koo said.
Koo realizes that if he is successful, he should attract enormous interest to the Chargers from the Los Angeles area’s estimated 200,000 Korean immigrants — the largest such community in the U.S.
Koo would welcome the chance to build his less-familiar pastime among the same sports fans who embrace Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu with fervor.
“It’s exciting for me,” Koo said. “Obviously there aren’t that many (Korean players in football). Hopefully it will start the trend a little bit, and have people out there playing and see if we can get that going. But I love to represent.”
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