All heart: where there’s a will there’s a way—just ask this Cowboys linebacker

Charean Williams

DAT NGUYEN WAS TO0 SMALL TO play college football, the critics said. Yet he won the Lombardi Trophy as a senior at Texas A&M and left as the school’s all-time leader in starts and tackles.

He was too small to play in the NFL, too. Yet he was a third-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 1999.

He certainly was too small to play for Bill Parcells. Yet the Cowboys’ second-year coach fondly has referred to Nguyen as “a football-playing dude.”

The 5’11”, 243-pound linebacker has defied the odds his entire life. Born in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Arkansas to parents who fled Saigon by boat just before the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Nguyen is the first NFL player of Vietnamese decent. And he has become one of Parcells’ favorite players. “He’s too good. He’s too good,” Parcells says. “He just makes too many plays. He’s a football guy. He’s a good football player.”

The Cowboys campaigned for Nguyen to earn a Pro Bowl berth last season. They had a good case: Dallas ranked first in the NFL in total defense, and Nguyen led the Cowboys in tackles with 140. But Nguyen was left out, settling for the team’s first playoff berth since 1999 instead.

Nguyen recently took time out to talk with FOOTBALL DIGEST about life, liberty, and the pursuit of a Super Bowl:

FOOTBALL DIGEST: What does it mean to you to be the first NFL player of Vietnamese decent?

DAT NGUYEN: Hopefully, it opens a lot of doors for all the Vietnamese or Asian kids who want to play and dream about playing in the NFL. There’s an opportunity there.

FD: Have you ever been to Vietnam?

DN: No, I haven’t. It’s still a Communist country. But I would like to go and see what my parents went through and how they lived. I want to wait until my daughter gets a little older to do that.

FD: Have your parents told you a lot about their lives in Vietnam?

DN: No. The only things I know are from the stories that have been written.

FD: Your family eventually settled in Texas, drawn to the Gulf Coast’s shrimping trade. You’ve said that when you were younger, you always thought you would carry on your family’s tradition in the shrimping business. At what point did it dawn on you that maybe you had a career in football?

DN: Really, when I was offered a scholarship to go play college football. Then I knew I could better myself no matter what. It offered me an opportunity, because my education was going to be paid for at Texas A&M University, regardless if I played a down or not. It was then I knew that, even if I didn’t play a down of football, I would eventually have a degree for whatever I wanted to do in life. I was going to better myself, so I wouldn’t have to do what my parents had to do to raise a family.

FD: You graduated from A&M with a degree in agricultural development in August 1998. How much does that degree mean to you?

DN: It means a whole lot. It’s something that no one can ever take away from me. I had to overcome a lot of odds, not just on the football field, but in the classroom, too. I didn’t speak English until I went to elementary school. The first language I learned was Vietnamese, and it was a big, big transition to English. I struggled in school. It’s one of those deals that you don’t know how much something means until you sit back and realize how far you’ve come.

FD: Did you ever work on the shrimp boats?

DN: Oh, yes. Plenty of miserable summers.

FD: How hard was that?

DN: It’s tough. You’re up at four in the morning, and you’re on a boat all day, trying to find some shrimp, first, and then get as much as you can. You’ve got to be lucky. You put it down and hope you get some. That’s the hard thing about the business, because you don’t know where the shrimp are.

FD: Do you still eat shrimp?

DN: I still love shrimp. My nickname in here is Little Shrimp. I like boiled shrimp, shrimp kabobs, fried shrimp … just like Bubba Gump.

FD: At the restaurant your family owns, what is your favorite meal?

DN: Shrimp fried rice. No, I’m just kidding. I like the traditional Vietnamese food, chicken and rice or noodles and rice. It is very healthy. The meat is grilled. That’s basically what I eat there. I don’t get it often, so I try to eat as much as I can when I get the opportunity.

FD: You had your first child, Aubrey Mai, last year. How has being a father changed you?

DN: Oh, it changed the whole aspect of everything. Your priorities, everything changes. You don’t realize how selfish you really were. Even when you are married, until you have a child, you don’t realize how selfish you really are. It’s a different life. You come home and regardless what happened, the kid makes it all better. She puts a smile on your face. When you gives you a hug or a kiss or a smile, nothing else really matters. That’s why you five your life–for her.

FD: Do you plan on having any more?

DN: Maybe one more. I’m not going to carry on that Asian tradition and have a handful.

FD: How many times have you heard you’re too small?

DN: I still hear it. I hear it all the time. It’s going to be engraved on my tombstone when I die.

FD: Have you ever thought you were too small?

DN: I’m not the prototype [linebacker for the NFL], but guys like Mike Singletary, Sam Mills and Zach Thomas opened the door for guys like myself to have an opportunity to go play. They were undersized, and they succeeded despite their size. You look around the league now and 75% of the teams are running a similar defense and using small linebackers, or smaller linebackers.

FD: Ideally, what size would you like to be?

DN: I think I’d be 6’6″, 250 and play basketball. I’d be as tall as [Charles] Barkley. No, I’m blessed with what I have. I try to stretch as much as I can. It doesn’t help.

FD: What did you think when Bill Parcells called you “a football-playing dude” last year?

DN: It was an honor. It’s an honor even being recognized, knowing that he mentioned my name. It’s one of those deals that I do what I do, and I enjoy what I do. All I know is to give 110%, and as long as you give 110%, things will be OK.

FD: Parcells likes big linebackers. When he was hired, did you fear that maybe your time here was over?

DN: All I thought about was that I played a scheme that he had always played. I played the 3-4 [defense] at A&M, so I had a little taste of it. But it’s one of those deals that all you can do is control what you can control. You can’t worry about what other people are thinking about or doing. Why worry about it, why stress over it when you can’t do any thing about it? All I knew was to just go in and play hard, and if I’m not here, I’m not here.

FD: Should you have been elected to the Pro Bowl last season?

DN: That’s something I don’t worry about. I think anybody who plays this game knows it’s a team sport. Individual awards are something I don’t care much about. Yes, it’s an honor, and all my career I’ve gotten awards, but I’m only as good as the guys up front and the guys behind me and the guys next to me. We do it all together. When you’re finished playing, you’re going to remember all the wins, not the Pro Bowls.

FD: Who’s your favorite player to watch?

DN: Ray Lewis. I like watching Michael Vick, too. He’s very exciting. You know when you’re watching him play, something is going to happen. He always puts you on the edge of your couch.

FD: Is Ray Lewis the best linebacker in football?

DN: Yes. The things he does on the field are unbelievable, and a lot of times, it’s the little things he does. Everybody talks about all the big tackles and all the big plays he makes, but nobody realizes how much effort he puts into it. His motor never stops. He’s very passionate. He’s just unbelievable to watch.

FD: Everybody compares you to Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, mainly because you’re both undersized. Do you think there are any similarities?

DN: Size and position. Zach is good. He’s the next best linebacker [in the NFL] after Ray. I’m not at that level yet.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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