Pats’ Chung makes big hits like reggae star mom
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – She had a voice that danced like sunshine through warm Sunday mornings, wafting so sweet in her Jamaican church that Sophia George’s friend said it must be heard throughout the land. And because Sophia’s friend knew someone looking for a singer, she insisted Sophia go to the audition. So on the prescribed day, Sophia arrived at the studio and met a Chinese man with a Jamaican accent. He picked a song for her to sing, “Girlie Girlie,” and she sang a few notes until the man said to stop.
He had heard enough. This would be his singer.
How could Sophia know she would one day marry this man? And that they would move to California, and that the middle of their three children would grow up to be a football player? And that her boy, Patrick Chung(notes) – fierce and relentless on the field and gentle away from it – would become in many ways the heart of the New England Patriots’ defense?
She never imagined the singing would be anything more than a lark, just a chance for her to share her voice. Then “Girlie Girlie” was pressed onto vinyl and the record started to sell. And sell. And sell until it was the No. 1 song in her native country, and requests rolled in for her to perform internationally – first England, then Holland, Germany, the United States and even Japan. Suddenly it seemed – in 1985 – everyone wanted to hear “Girlie Girlie.”
“I was invited to go to London and do ‘Top of the Pops’,” she says over the phone with a bit of wonder still in her voice. At this moment she is sitting in her office at a Southern California company that does background checks on doctors and all of this seems so long ago. “It was a time of my life I absolutely enjoyed.”
Then it was over. After she and Ronald Chung married and had kids, the children’s lives gradually took over her own. Eventually, they decided, if they wanted their kids to go to college in the United States, they should probably move here. And in 1996 they did, leaving the music behind.
“You know what it is like in the music business,” Ronald says.”You have a big hit and then nothing. Sometimes it’s just luck I guess.”
Patrick Chung sits in a Red Robin restaurant located in an outdoor mall near Gillette Stadium. Just 9 years old when the family left, he knows little about his mother’s life in Jamaica. He’s seen pictures and heard her songs. He can sing many of them. But he was too young to know the travelling life, the bands, the DJs and nightclub performances. By the time he was old enough to grasp what his parents did for work, they had moved – first to Miami and then to Rancho Cucamonga, a suburb southeast of Los Angeles in San Bernardino County.
But now as he is rising as a star with New England, as he becomes a bigger and bigger deal in a city where professional athletes are revered, it is the lessons of her career that he does understand. “Be humble,” she always told him. You never know when it all might end.
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“That’s how I have to be,” he says. “I have to be humble.
“I didn’t think myself better than the next person,” Sophia says. “If you cut that person, we’re both going to bleed red. I just got an opportunity and they didn’t. If they had the same kind of opportunity they would have done something big with it, too.”
He talks about humility a lot as he sits at the table, dabbling at an appetizer. He might be the most ferocious of the Patriots players, propelling himself into opponents, jarring loose passes and intimidating in a way Patriots defenders haven’t in recent seasons. If New England is going to make a Super Bowl run again this season, he might be the team’s most important player after Tom Brady(notes), Wes Welker(notes) and Rob Gronkowski(notes).
It’s a topic he does not want to indulge and a lot of this comes from his parents. He speaks a lot about them, about Sophia and how she abandoned her previous career to come to the U.S. for her children. He talks about Ronald, the one he calls “a wise Chinese man” despite being born in Jamaica and only half-Chinese. He still thinks it’s amazing that his parents drove 14 hours every football weekend to see him play at Oregon.
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“That’s love,” Patrick says. “There’s nothing else I can say about it. It’s just love.”
To honor it he will not get too far ahead of himself. He will not think himself a star even as he is growing into one.
“Do not let the words ‘I have arrived’ into your vocabulary,” Sophia tells him.
And so he doesn’t.
As a boy in Jamaica, Patrick played soccer, learned karate and swam. It was always swimming that his parents thought he might pursue. He churned so smoothly through the water. At one complex where the family lived, a man would come out of his apartment whenever Patrick jumped in the water and stand beside the pool, watching. One day Sophia approached the man and asked why he came every day to watch her child swim.
“He has such beautiful strokes,” she remembers the man telling her. “They are perfect.”
By the time Patrick was in high school he didn’t care so much for swimming. He thought he might want to play football. There was something fascinating about the game, something alluring. He loved the thought of running free and crashing into other players. He knew he was fast and even though he was small, he knew his body could take the collisions.
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He made the team at Rancho Cucamonga High School but never was a star. The school had bigger athletes, more traditional players who were stronger and ran faster. When college recruiters came by, it was those players whose film the coaches handed over first. As Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal watched another player’s tape, he noticed a kickoff and a slender Rancho Cucamonga player sprinting across the field, bouncing off blocks to tackle the returner.
“I said, ‘Nobody does this in high school,’ ” Neal said.
Soon the former swimmer and soccer player who was something of an afterthought on his high school football team was headed to the Pac-10. He arrived in Eugene at age 16 because students start school early in Jamaica. And the Ducks seriously thought of gray-shirting him, which meant he would sit out two seasons instead of one. They decided to make him sit just one year because he was so relentless as a player, crashing into ballcarriers.
“I’ve never seen a more determined player in my life,” Neal says. “He was one of the most driven human beings I’ve met.”
This was a strange time for Oregon. The Ducks, who had been dominant for years, were stumbling. In 2006, they went 7-5 and found themselves in the unappealing Las Vegas Bowl. The coaches held a meeting that season and devised a new team philosophy they called “Win the Day,” during which players were encouraged to push as hard as they could whether it was a game, practice or weight lifting session.
Nobody seized this mentality quite like Patrick. Neal remembers him dropping to the ground and doing 20 pushups during quiet moments of practice. Soon other players were doing pushups, too. It became a tradition. And as Neal looks back, he says the foundation for the Ducks’ current run of conference titles and appearances in BCS bowls was laid the week Chung fell to the grass and began doing pushups.
“Nobody asked him to do it,” Neal said. “He did it on his own.”
To watch Chung now, prowling the New England secondary, he reminds you of one of those old-fashioned safeties they used to call a “head hunter” – someone who would torpedo into a player catching a pass or a running back stretching for a few extra yards. On a Patriots defense that has struggled at times the last couple years, Patrick is in many ways the one giving the team whatever fierceness it has.
And yet sitting here in the Red Robin, he talks casually about his life in New England. He talks about having a Chinese name despite knowing little about Chinese culture. He pulls up the sleeves of his jacket to reveal two tattoos: “We must not fear death” and “But fear the unlived life.” He talks about his fiancée who works 30 miles away in Boston. He talks about plans he has to go to his first hockey game that night. He talks about the music he records at his home when he has time, though he does not want to reveal much about what he’s writing and performing. He talks a lot about art. He draws a lot, amazing his teammates sometimes.
“He does everything right,” says New England safety Josh Barrett(notes), who has a locker next to Patrick’s.”He’s the kind of guy you can look at with kind of a microscope. He’s everything that’s positive about this team.”
The player on the field? The one who wallops into opponents?
“It’s just my alter ego, I guess,” he says with a smile.
His mother sighs.
“He goes to a different zone when he’s out there,” Sophia says. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘I won’t let anyone come in my house!’ And then away from it he’s peaceful. It’s turned on and turned off.”
Over the phone from the home he and Sophia share, Ronald agrees.
“There is something very passionate about the game,” he says. “Patrick doesn’t want to be too far from the action.
Did they tell you what the defensive coordinator at Oregon used to call Patrick?”
“The Ultimate Warrior.”
There are days Sophia George (whose last name is now George-Chung) wishes she could still sing. She misses the excitement, the attention, the tours. She adored the singing life. But there are other challenges now. Ronald is close to 65. Soon he will retire from the real estate courier business. Doctors keep calling her, wanting to know the status of her background checks. Too much is going on to worry about singing now.
She starts to tell a story about the baby Patrick, sitting on the floor of their home back in Jamaica trying to sing his favorite song of hers. It’s called “Burn in me Belly,” except, he can’t say “Burn in me Belly” and rather keeps singing “Done Deli.” To demonstrate the difference, she says she must sing a few verses while talking on the phone at work.
“Now don’t judge my singing,” she says.
But as she sings, a beautiful, happy melody lilts in the phone. It is as if she is no longer at work, talking to the doctors and instead back in the warm Jamaican sun, swaying to the gentle breeze.
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