From not knowing any English to becoming a starter, Younghoe Koo is one of the most improbable National Football League success stories.
Now, Koo is the second-highest paid kicker in the league having signed a five-year contract extension with the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the South Korean native.
Despite a collegiate career with Georgia Southern in which he converted a team record 88.6% of his field goal attempts and was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s best kicker, Koo went undrafted in 2017 and signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Chargers shortly after.
He quickly impressed, winning the starting role in preseason over incumbent kicker Josh Lambo, but a long-term place in the team proved elusive.
“I felt like I made it my rookie year when I won the job going into Week One. I was like: ‘Oh, this is it, I did it,’ you know? The next four weeks, I was cut,” Koo tells CNN Sport’s Coy Wire.
It was this moment early in his career that taught the then-23-year-old rookie about life in the NFL.
“It taught me this is never over. You gotta compete every single day. You gotta produce; it’s a production business. That’s what the head coach told me when I was getting released. That was a big learning experience for me.”
With nowhere else to go, Koo was forced to turn to rather familiar surroundings – somewhere he did not think he would ever find himself again.
“When I ran out of money with the Chargers, I moved back home to my mom and that’s when you’re just waiting for a phone call, waiting for a workout,” he says.
“And when it comes it’s like: ‘Oh yeah, good. I’m ready to go.’ Then there goes [the] offseason [and] two or three months go by [and] no phone call comes: ‘What am I doing with my life?’”
Football players, and athletes in general, are particularly conditioned to always having their daily activities planned for them, whether it be film study, meals or training. Without that, Koo lost his sense of direction.
“I guess my football career, like high school, college and then getting to the Chargers, I always had something to do, on a team. You almost feel empty because [when] you wake up, nobody’s telling you anything,” Koo says.
Connecting with fellow NFL free agents helped him to regain that sense of team ethos and structure he missed.
“I learned a lot. I wasn’t the only one going through it. It was almost therapeutic for me to go to workouts [with] guys that are going through the same stuff and we’re competing but also sharing our journeys,” Koo explains.
He credits those moments of early adversity with helping him become a professional and an even better student of the game, although he says he still has a lot more to learn as his career progresses.
“Coming out of college, I felt like I knew everything, but [in] reality, I didn’t know anything,” Koo says.
“I decided to drop that ego [and] ask questions. I wanted to learn, I wanted to see what went wrong, and very soon after that, I realized I was a puppy in this business. I had to keep asking questions. I got a lot to learn and a long way to go, obviously.”
He signed his $24.5 million contract with the Falcons in March, officially making him the league’s second-highest paid kicker in total dollars, trailing only Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker in average annual value, according to the NFL.
Koo lived in South Korea until the age of 12 before moving to the United States to attend sixth grade.
“I grew up playing soccer for the school team. That was really my main focus. I wasn’t really great in school,” he says.
He describes the transition to the United States as “tough,” an experience that was further compounded by his lack of English. Koo cites sports as a catalyst to learning the language and making friends in an unfamiliar country.
“I feel like I picked up English a lot quicker because I played sports,” Koo says. “I was forced to throw myself out there and socialize with different friend groups and meet different people. It definitely bridged that gap for me.”
Koo first found football via his friends, who noticed his soccer talent and wanted him to punt or kick off in their games.
“And that’s when everybody saw my leg strength because [of] soccer, so kicking came naturally for me. That’s when I was asked to sign up for football and I signed up that summer.”
Koo remembers specifically sitting in a car with teammates heading to practice one day not even knowing how to communicate with them.
“I didn’t know how to ask, like: ‘Hey, what do you guys do on the weekends?’ I didn’t know how to phrase that or even form a sentence at that time,” Koo explains.
Despite a fear of sounding “stupid,” he was able to muster a phrase that changed his fortunes.
“I remember just saying, ‘I’m bored,’ and they were just asking [me] questions like: ‘Now? In the car going to practice?’ I was like: ‘No, no, no, on the weekends.’ So then that weekend they called me to hang out.”
As a South Korean immigrant in the United States, Koo says he noticed racism growing up but chose not to “respond to it or react to it.” He didn’t take any racist comments to heart, knowing everyone has their own opinions, whether valid or invalid.
“Everybody has something to say. Everybody can say something if they want to. It’s not really my responsibility to soak that all in and absorb [it]. I choose what I want to pay attention to [and] what I don’t want to pay attention to. I think that’s the mindset that I had when I was younger as well,” Koo says.
As for how he deals with negativity now as one of the NFL’s top-earning kickers, Koo likens it to a diet where he chooses which comments he wants to eat and digest. He says his mindset must be “bulletproof” when he takes the field; adversity from outside could hurt his performance.
“Whether it’s dealing with racism or whether it’s dealing with adversity, we shank a ball … we gotta go out there and next time, we got to now focus on the next snap. That can’t stay with me because it will affect my next kick,” Koo says.
“My dad taught me from a young age [that] if you’re good enough, your talent speaks for itself,” he adds.
And when the kick is in the air, all that matters is the result.
“You’re White, Black, Asian or whatever. [The] football doesn’t know who is kicking it. And when the ball’s flying, they don’t know who kicked it and they just see the results and they see the ball and they’re like, ‘Alright, that kick’s good,’” Koo says.
‘Set up a plan and go after it’
Koo understands the place football can play in the world and what his story can mean for the next generation of Asian athletes wanting to play in the top American league.
“It’s [something] we talked about a lot. It’s a very diverse group of people in that locker room. Everybody comes from different places, backgrounds, families, but we all have one common goal, and we work towards that together and that sacrifice to work hard for not only for yourself, [but] for something that’s bigger than you,” Koo reflects.
“I think representation is big because, growing up for me in football, there was nobody that looked like me. It was harder for me to visualize, [if] he’s doing it, I can do it.
“If you look at my story, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t know what football was. I was struggling to say: ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ I think anybody, if they have a dream and just chase it and work hard, can set up a plan and go after it.”