How College Football Helped Me Understand America

Nine months after arriving in the United States from South Korea, I watched my first college football game.

I was 12 and living in a suburban house with a host family I barely knew.

On a small TV in my bedroom, I watched Rutgers upset Louisville. Coach Greg Schiano got soaked in Gatorade. Thousands of people stormed the field, dressed in scarlet and white.

The joy I witnessed that night was unlike anything I had ever seen. From that moment, I became addicted.

As I navigated a new country without my parents, while being forced to move three times in three years to suburban Southern California, college football on fall Saturdays was the one constant in my life.

My day started at 9am, through the last Pac-10/Pac-12 games and sometimes Hawaii games that ended after midnight. On my morning bike rides to school, I listened to podcasts rehashing weekend games.

College football became my gateway to understanding my new home. College football, to me, was America at its best, wildest, and funniest.

In February 2006, I landed at Los Angeles International Airport for what I thought was a brief trip to Disneyland.

My mother, to this day, insists that I wanted to move here.

I was bullied at school in Seoul. Only one kid showed up for my 11th birthday party at Pizza Hut. I knew nothing about America except for a few words of welcome and Britney Spears. My mother thought that I needed to learn English and that I could change scenery.

Maybe I did. But any desire I had to live in America evaporated on the first day. My mom’s friend picked us up from LAX and drove us to Koreatown.

“This place looks like 1970s Seoul,” I remember blurting out in the car.

Jeong Park and his mother at SeaWorld in February 2006, shortly after Park landed in the United States for what turned out to be a 16-year (plus) stint while his parents remained in Korea.

(Jeong Park/Los Angeles Times)

After a few unforgettable excursions to Disneyland, Universal Studios and other attractions, my mother returned to Korea, having neither the resources nor the papers to stay here with me. I became a “parachute child”, studying alone in the United States without any immediate family – a common practice in parts of Asia among parents wishing to give their children an American education.

I spent the next few months bewildered and crying alone in a dormitory at a boarding school in Van Nuys that housed parachuted children.

The six months I had spent in Korea listening to English instruction tapes turned out to be spectacularly useless. Other children laughed at me. Interactions with my housemates mostly took the form of them yelling at me to shut up.

I tried to listen to rap. But my classmates laughed when I professed a liking to 2Pac, telling me I was “fresh off the boat.”

— Jeong Park

The bland chicken burgers and stale rice with Panda Express counterfeits were barely edible. Cafeteria chili and cheese fries were my salvation.

The only clues to home came from weekend van rides to a nearby 99 Ranch grocery store and brief phone calls with my parents.

Soon I was sent to live with a foster family in Oak Park, near Thousand Oaks. The few connections I had established in Van Nuys disappeared in a flash. I had to start all over again. This is where I watched my first college football game.

Every immigrant has stories of trying to fit in, often awkwardly and unsuccessfully.

I tried to listen to rap. But my classmates laughed when I professed a liking to 2Pac, telling me I was “fresh off the boat” and would never really understand his songs. I tried to listen to Iron Maiden. That didn’t work either.

I didn’t start following college football to fit in. Even with USC at its height in the mid-to-late 2000s, my classmates from suburban Southern California were more likely to talk about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

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I just loved the emotion and the madness – the weekly upsets, the students storming the fields and knocking down the goal posts, the lovable Lee Corso with his rotating cast of mascot heads.

After a Korean American student killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, my classmates gave me weird looks and made jokes about how the shooter looked like me. I found healing and comfort watching thousands of fans cheering on the Hokies to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

I discovered Cajun cuisine, now probably my second favorite after Korean, by watching Louisiana State games and seeing dishes like okra.

For me, the South was not the cultural wasteland that some of my classmates thought it was. After all, it was the home of the 12th Man (Texas A&M), Swamp (Florida), and Toomer’s Corner (Auburn).

Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore in 2008

Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore celebrates his team’s 37-32 victory over Oregon after the end of an NCAA college football game in Eugene, Oregon September 20, 2008.

(Greg Wahl-Stephens/Associated Press)

I found myself cheering on Kellen Moore and the Boise State Broncos, a perennial underdog who for years fought a fruitless fight to win a national team championship outside of so-called power conferences.

Looking back, I think I saw myself in the Broncos – someone outside the system trying to prove themselves to the system. In 2010, when I found out I was an undocumented immigrant, the Broncos became a legitimate contender for the national title. I got even more attached to my fandom.

As I bounced from one homestay to the next, from Oak Park to La Mirada to Diamond Bar, the sport was there for me every Saturday. When my host family got tired of me hogging the TV and sending me to my room, I would go to my computer to check updated scores and listen to radio streams.

I still struggled to fit in at school, but I found refuge in college football blogs and discussion boards.

Every comment, every meme I’ve posted has helped me connect with fans across the country. They didn’t care that I was from Korea. They just wanted me to like the sport.

Eventually I found friends, hanging out with them at the mall and the arcade like any suburban kid. I became captain of the cross-country team. I went to UCLA.

Jeong Park in Philadelphia circa 2010

Jeong Park in Philadelphia around 2010, four years after arriving in the United States.

(Jeong Park/Los Angeles Times)

But I kept ignoring and deflecting. I was often the first to joke about my accent, my Korean heritage or even eat dogs, just to get ahead of the others. (For the record, I’ve never eaten dog meat.) I often referred to myself as “FOB” or “fresh off the boat,” even though I had been in the United States for seven years.

Meanwhile, my hope of legalizing my immigration status was fading. Congress has repeatedly failed to create a path to citizenship for people like me. One possible path — serving as a Korean translator for the US military — closed when the government cut the program.

When I got Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2016, which gave me a two-year renewable work permit and protection from deportation, it reminded me of my place here.

It was also a reminder of my little belonging. The Trump administration quickly threatened to shut down DACA, and it remains the subject of litigation today.

Even as my career progressed, even as I began to enjoy certain rights and privileges—I almost cried when the DMV got my first driver’s license at age 22—I thought about moving back to Seoul.

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, right

Brett Hundley was UCLA’s quarterback when Jeong Park attended UCLA in 2013.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

I was tired of existing in a legal vacuum, my future was tied to a document that expired every two years.

Meanwhile, the sport that taught me America was slipping away.

This driver’s license, made possible by DACA, gave me the freedom to move around – to cross town for dinner or to take an impromptu road trip. Spending Saturdays glued to the television wasn’t as appealing anymore.

The flaws of college football were also becoming apparent to me – glaring financial disparities, mistreatment of players, a rigged playoff system against weaker teams. I no longer needed college football and grew more and more disgusted with it.

With the recent news that my alma mater, UCLA, is dropping the Pac-12 and moving with USC to the Big Ten, I thought about quitting it.

With the Pac-12 weakened, we will likely have two power conferences – the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference – with other teams having even less of a chance of winning a national championship.

The severance of regional connections and longstanding rivalries will kill one of the things I love most about the game. Why would I want to watch UCLA play Rutgers in New Jersey?

But I haven’t given up on America yet. Earlier this year, I started my dream job covering Asian American communities for The Times.

And sometimes I think back to a college football game I attended late last year.

Sacramento State plays at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento against South Dakota State.

The Sacramento State Hornets played the South Dakota State Jackrabbits on Dec. 4 at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento. The Jackrabbits won 24-19.

(Jeong Park/Los Angeles Times)

My ticket is $10. The game between the Sacramento State Hornets and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits was not televised. I didn’t recognize any of the players. Troy Taylor, the Sacramento State coach, was making $240,000 a season, or 2% of what Lincoln Riley would earn this year at USC.

I didn’t know anything about the two teams, but the moment I sat down in the stands I felt like I belonged. I rocked my feet with the crowd as the Hornets started. I clapped a bunch of strangers when they scored, storming back before losing.

I was reminded why I still love the game. I will be watching this year as UCLA kicks off its season against Bowling Green in the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

Los Angeles Times

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