Breaking Down Barriers
A Vietnamese-American football star brings a racially divided town together.
If any other group of kids had won the Rockport-Fulton youth soccer championship in Texas, the parents of their opponents would surely have applauded. But most of the members of Dat Nguyen's team were the children of Vietnamese refugees. So when the proud victors rose to accept their trophies, the crowd showered them with boos. It was the 1980s, and back then tensions were so high in the small south Texas coastal community that white shrimpers and their Vietnamese competitors sometimes carried rifles into the bay and took potshots at one another from their boats. Dat Nguyen's domination on the soccer field (he scored as many as 10 goals a game) didn't make his team any more popular with the locals. "We weren't wanted in that community," Nguyen recalled. "They wanted to kick us out. There was so much hatred between the two cultures. My parents told me we couldn't trust anybody outside our family."
Nobody in Rockport would dare boo Dat Nguyen now. The hardheaded kid who brawled on the field to defend himself against racist taunts grew up to become the closest thing Texans have to royalty. Nguyen became a 5-foot, 11-inch, 231-pound football star. After leading Rockport-Fulton High School to statewide renown, Nguyen went on to play at Texas A & M, where he broke the school record for tackles and in 1998 was named the best defensive player in the country. Last week Nguyen, now 25, finished his second season as a middle linebacker for "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys. The easygoing, quick-to-smile athlete has broken a lot of barriers. He is the first Vietnamese-American ever to play pro football. He was the first Vietnamese-American to start at linebacker for a major university in Texas.
But equally remarkable are the barriers Nguyen has broken down in this tiny, racially divided corner of the United States. Thousands of Vietnamese refugees moved to the Gulf Coast of Texas in the 1970s, many drawn by the opportunity to make a living doing what they once did in Vietnam: shrimping. According to the U.S. census, 1,112 Asian-Americans, the vast majority Vietnamese, live among a population of 23,129 in Nguyen's home county. At last tally well over 70,000 Vietnamese lived in Texas. Dat Nguyen is the first to have a day named after him in his hometown, and the first to have his picture plastered on a billboard displayed on the way into the city limits. "That boy never backed down for nobody," recalls Jimmy Hattenbach, Nguyen's old soccer coach and mentor. "He has helped to mend this community — everybody in this town believes that. When the football team started winning, it really brought the town together. He became a role model."
Nobody would have believed that was possible just a few years ago. Dat Nguyen's family fled Ben Da, a fishing village on Vietnam's Vung Tau peninsula, in a fishing boat the night shells began to rain down on their village in April 1975. Ho Nguyen, Dat's brother, remembers soldiers firing artillery at their boat from the shore. After brief stops at an Arkansas refugee camp, where Nguyen was born, and in Michigan, the family landed in another war zone. Thousands of Vietnamese shrimpers had already begun new lives in the bays of south Texas. When they began pulling round-the-clock shifts, the locals felt their livelihoods were threatened.
Soon things turned violent. Little more than 20 miles from the Rockport area, in the town of Seadrift, a Vietnamese shrimper shot and killed a local who was beating him up. Up and down the coast angry shrimpers burned boats, and the story received national attention. Tensions were not as high in Nguyen's hometown — a seaside community of rickety piers, Texas scrub, old houses and trailer-park vacation homes — but they were there. Leslie Casterline, owner of the Casterline Fish Co., used to buy shrimp from Dat's father. He remembers Vietnamese boats pulling up to the dock and white shrimping boats pulling away in protest. Then one morning when Casterline arrived at work, a card fell off the door. "You've been paid a friendly visit by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The next one might not be so friendly," he says it read. "People would come by and cuss us out. But we just didn't have anything against the Vietnamese," Casterline says.
Nguyen broke down the barriers on the sports field. In the eighth grade he began to play football. Just as he had on the soccer field, he always seemed to know where the ball was. He was exceptionally quick, and soon learned to tackle hard. In an area where two thirds of the population have been known to caravan to championship high-school games, people took notice. Attitudes began to change. "He was a celebrity in high school," says Trish Wilson, who worked in the school district's central office for 18 years. "He was just one of those kids you don't see too often. If he was out there on the field, he was going to do something. He'd always get the extra yards, make the tackle, save the day." In college, Nguyen was one of the most popular Aggies ever. And when the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in 1999, he became a fan favorite. Critics who'd always said he was too small and that an Asian would never make it (only four people of Asian ancestry had done so) had been proved wrong.
Now the town that once booed Dat Nguyen has claimed him as their own. Last year Rockport held a Dat Nguyen Day to honor him. Three hundred people showed up. (When a campaigning governor named George W. Bush came to town a few years earlier, only 200 people turned out.) At the local Wal-Mart, store managers have created a consumer shrine to the football star, with Dat Nguyen T shirts hanging off a rack and hats bearing his name. This year his neighbors chipped in $15,000 to erect the billboard on the road into town.
Some in the area still cling to racist attitudes. Nguyen says he receives an occasional piece of hate mail. Interracial dating can lead to fistfights in waterfront bars. And some residents actively opposed erecting the celebratory billboard. But they are in the minority. When Nguyen returns to his hometown, he is mobbed for autographs. "There's always going to be people who are going to have some tension against us," Nguyen says. "But I think the tension died down. I opened a lot of doors for people to see that whatever background you come from, everybody can have an opportunity. I dreamed of being here all my life. And now I'm a Vietnamese boy living in America playing the American sport, living the American dream, playing for America's Team. It doesn't get any better than that."