SI Vault
Bruce Newman
June 04, 1990
Fifteen years after his family fled Saigon, Mike Nguyen is off to UCLA to play football
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June 04, 1990

American Dreamers

Fifteen years after his family fled Saigon, Mike Nguyen is off to UCLA to play football

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"Mike has the most intense concentration I've ever seen," Geske says, "and he's got that motivation that just burns." Mike did not have speed to burn when he started playing football, but after a rigorous weightlifting program he was able to cut half a second off his time in the 40. "He's got that highway speed for 20 yards," Geske says. No one realized that Mike had developed into a true sprinter until a month ago, when he ran in his first 100-meter dash for the Franklin track team and won. Last Friday, after only a week of formal training and in the fifth race of his career, he ran an 11.1 at the state track meet in Eugene, finishing ninth.

At 6'2" and 180 pounds, Mike is bigger and stronger than most Southeast Asian males. That, and his dark complexion, has set off considerable tongue wagging. "Most people are surprised when they find out I'm Vietnamese," Mike says. "I really don't know how I got so tall. Most Asians aren't very big at all."

Mike says he has heard the speculation that his father was black—perhaps an American serviceman, the story goes—but insists all the talk doesn't bother him. "I don't take it as an insult, if that's how they mean it," he says. "I didn't do anything wrong. And I don't consider being part black a bad thing. Even if I am part black, it wouldn't mean I had to work any less hard to accomplish the things I have."

Hoang says that one of Mike's uncles in Vietnam is 6'5", but she knows it is likely they will never meet. If her son has doubts about his parentage, they may never be dispelled. "We used to kid him about being adopted," she says, trying gamely to laugh at the rumors. Others suspect the family has been deeply wounded by the gossip. "I've heard all the stories, everyone has, and I know Mike's very sensitive about it," Geske says.

Mike says he doesn't have time to worry about what people think of him, and there seems to be little free time in his schedule for reflection. He holds down two part-time jobs, as a video store clerk and as a valet parking attendant, after school and on weekends.

Despite the astonishing success of those who have come to the United States from Vietnam—Mike is the academic underachiever of the family; his sisters, Susan and Melissa, have perfect 4.0 grade point averages—Mike almost certainly will be the first Vietnamese refugee to play football at the major college level. ( Stanford recruiters rather blatantly enlisted junior cornerback Tuan Van Le, who is Amerasian, to help recruit Nguyen, only to discover that the two had almost nothing in common.) Mike does not seem particularly eager to become the first Vietnamese anything, but he is willing to be a symbol if that is what it takes to be an asset to his community.

Sometimes players are born with gifts that don't come tied in neat packages. "I think there's something special about him because he's Vietnamese," says UCLA offensive coordinator Homer Smith. "Mike Nguyen is a young renaissance man—beautifully proportioned physically and also a thinking person. He appears, in other words, to have been born to play football." Sometimes it doesn't matter where the gifts are from; you're just glad they're yours.

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