Dat Nguyen: From son of a war refugee to leader of America’s Team

Todd Brock
·15 min read

Plenty of pro football superstars come from humble beginnings. But even the most creative and talented Hollywood scriptwriter would have a hard time inventing a more improbable path to the bright lights of the National Football League than the real one Dat Nguyen lived.

He was an immensely popular linebacker for just seven seasons, a punishing hitter who played the game with passion and intensity and football smarts that were obvious to anyone who saw him take the field. But the obstacles he had to overcome to reach the sport’s biggest stage should have stopped him long before he got there.

He was undersized. He was not terribly fast. Teammates had a difficult time understanding his accent as he called plays in the huddle. And, of course, most notably, there’s the not-inconsequential matter of being the child of Vietnamese refugees who fled their home in the middle of the night during a horrific war and survived a treacherous voyage at sea that included violent storms and actual pirates just to settle in a new country that, by and large, didn’t want them.

Those were the cards Dat Nguyen was dealt. And all he did with them was- against all odds- become the starting linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. In the process, he changed the way many people in this country viewed people from his parents’ homeland. He’s inspired multiple generations of kids whose families have come from the other side of the world. And he continues to be a role model and a teacher to those around him, encouraging them to push forward and do exactly what the Americanized pronunciation of his own family name reminds them they can do, too.

Win.

Narrow escape from a war zone

Dec 5, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Texas A&M former linebacker Dat Nguyen at the 60th NFF Annual Awards Dinner Press Conference at New York Hilton. Mandatory Credit: Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

Dat Tan Nguyen was born in the Deep South in the fall of 1975, but it's impossible to tell his story without traveling back in time by several months, and across the Pacific Ocean by nine thousand miles. Dat's parents lived in a small village outside South Vietnam's capital city of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Nguyen had labored for years on the shrimp boats working the South China Sea, but now ran a marine supply store out of the back of the family home. Thanks to a small radio and his coming and going customers, Ho was able to stay abreast of the movements of the North Vietnamese Army during the war, which by then had been raging for two decades. By April 28 of 1975, Communist forces had reached the Nguyens' small village of Ben Da. Ho gathered his wife Tam, their five children, and a few personal belongings and fled their home in the darkness of night. The kids were still wearing their pajamas; Tam Nguyen was four months pregnant. The city of Saigon fell less than 48 hours later. The Nguyen family huddled aboard a small fishing boat with sixty other fleeing refugees. For over a month, the boat dodged the NVA, vicious storms that nearly sunk the vessel, and local bands of pirates trolling the waters before finally docking safely in Thailand. By late June, the family had been approved for relocation in the United States. After an overseas flight to California and a bus ride across most of the country, the Nguyen family arrived at a government-run refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas in the summer of 1975. Dat was born in the hospital there on September 25, less than five months after his family narrowly escaped their war-torn country with little more than the clothes on their backs. Dat has since theorized that it was the improved nutrition and medical care he received in the U.S., the prenatal vitamin supplements his mother was given upon arrival in America, and the nutrient-rich formula he was fed as an infant- all benefits his siblings had missed in Vietnam- that made him so much physically larger than his father or older brothers. But although Dat was big, he was still a baby born in a refugee camp to Vietnamese parents, at a time when that country was being largely vilified in his new one. He was, to be sure, the longest of long shots to one day grow up to play starting middle linebacker for America's Team.

Making a new home on the athletics field

Jul 28, 2008; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys assistant linebackers coach Dat Nguyen at training camp at River Ridge Field at Residence Inn by Marriott. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

The Nguyens moved around during Dat's infant and toddler years, from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Fort Worth to New Orleans to Biloxi, Mississippi before finally settling in the Gulf Coast town of Rockport, Texas. Dat took to sports much more easily. At the urging of a first-grade friend, Dat joined the youth soccer team coached by the friend's father. Just six years old, Dat admits he was more interested in the cool uniform and gameday snacks than the finer points of the game. In a coastal fishing town that had seen a community of Vietnamese families spring up, Dat was the only refugee kid who was welcomed onto a team of white children. By the time he was 11, Dat's team was over two-thirds Vietnamese. But they were the only ones in the league. When they outscored their ten opponents that season by a combined 67-4 score, none of the other parents clapped for them at the championship. "They were making a loud statement about their resentment for the Vietnamese by sitting on their hands," Dat recalled years later. "But while they still may not have liked us, they had to respect us." This was Texas, though, so real respect didn't come until Dat started to prove himself on the football field. He first stepped onto the gridiron as an eighth grader. Already 180 pounds and plenty athletic, Dat established himself quickly. An incident on the school basketball court had gotten him kicked off that team for three days for loafing during a practice, and Dat had vowed to never let it happen again. When he broke a new teammate's leg during a one-on-one tackling drill, Dat decided that the best way to avoid injuries was "to be going full speed at all times." Dat helped lead his Rockport-Fulton High School football squad to regional playoff success during his time there. He was named the defensive player of the year for his district in 1993, recording an astonishing 188 tackles that season alone. As a 12th-grade senior, Dat was already the same height and just eight pounds shy of his eventual official Cowboys profile. He may have been a man among boys at the high school level, but it's that motor he developed in eighth grade- and not his physical stature- that would become Dat's calling card for the rest of his football career.

The unlikeliest college superstar

https://twitter.com/JimMWeber/status/1141372645985964033 Dat's motor needed a good tune-up once he got to college, though. He decided to play college ball at Texas A&M in part to stay closer to home. But after spurning scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Michigan, UCLA, Florida, and Texas, Dat had gotten perhaps a little full of himself... as well as the buffet lines at the College Station dining halls. "I was downright fat," he recalls in the 2005 book he authored with Rusty Burson, Dat: Tackling Life and the NFL. The Aggies' newest linebacker was buried on the depth chart as the team's last-place option. The school's recruiting coordinator went so far as to call Dat the only mistake they had made in the freshman class. But it was an unflattering photo of himself in the local newspaper that finally turned "Fat Dat" around, prompting him to both change his nutrition habits and to hit the A&M weight room and conditioning lab for extra marathon workouts above and beyond what the team was doing. After redshirting his freshman year, Dat got the start at linebacker for the Aggies' season opener against LSU in 1995. He never gave up the role, starting 51 consecutive games over the next four seasons. While Texas A&M never got the national championship that many predicted during those years, Dat anchored a nationally-feared defense nicknamed "The Wrecking Crew." Along the way, he led the team in tackles for four consecutive years- the only player in school history to do so- and ended his college career as the Aggies' recordholder for tackles. The New York Times famously described Dat as "a tornado in cleats, a player who would wipe out blockers twice his size and sniff out a play before it developed." He may have began his college career called "Fat Dat," but by the time his senior season was over, Nguyen was known as "Double Digit Dat," for his habit of posting 12, 15, even 20 tackles in practically each game's box score. Dat applied the same full-throttle approach to the classroom, earning his degree after his junior season. Rather than declare for the NFL draft, though, Dat chose to return to Texas A&M for his senior season, a campaign that saw the team finish 11-3, win the Big 12 Championship, and end up ranked 11th in the final AP poll of the year. For his part, Dat won the Bednarik Award, Lombardi Award, Jack Lambert Award, and Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP honors that season and was named a consensus All-American. He missed winning the Butkus Award by a single vote. Texas A&M's R.C. Slocum, a thirty-plus-year coaching veteran who's in the College Football Hall of Fame said of his award-winning linebacker, "Quite simply the best playmaker I have ever had." But Dat would have to prove wrong yet another wave of doubters for the chance to make plays at the next level.

Proving himself in the pros

https://twitter.com/DemBoyzNation/status/818494072671404032 Despite the many accolades he had collected in college, Dat was considered small and slow by NFL linebacker standards. As a result, he had to wait a while to hear his name called in the 1999 NFL draft. After a serious pre-draft flirtation between Dat and New Orleans, the Saints ended up trading away all of their picks that year to land Texas running back Ricky Williams. The Cowboys selected Dat in the third round. With coordinator Dave Campo's defense already featuring Dexter Coakley, Randall Godfrey, Darren Hambrick, and Quentin Coryatt in the linebacker corps, Dat was expected to be relegated to special teams duty. He ended up excelling there, leading the club in special teams tackles and recovering a key onside kick in the fourth quarter of the '99 opener as Dallas completed a wild comeback win versus Washington. He made the league's All-Rookie team for his efforts that season. But his lack of height was never really a deterrent for the Cowboys in drafting Dat; they had bigger plans for him. As the team's scouting director Larry Lacewell said at the time, "We didn't draft him to come in here and change light bulbs." The following season, with Campo now installed as head coach, Dat got his first NFL start in Week 1 against the Eagles. In Week 2, Dat suffered an MCL sprain and missed three games. A neck issue in his first game back benched him for another three contests. While Dat played in the final seven games of 2000 and regained his starting job for the last two, many in the media were once again questioning the undersized linebacker's durability. In his third season, Dat didn't miss a single game- even playing through a midweek hand surgery in October- and notched 172 tackles, the second-best season total in franchise history at the time. But in 2002, the injury bug bit once again. In the season opener against Houston, the first game in Texans history, Dat took a hard shot to the wrist on the first defensive series of the game. Despite believing it was broken, he asked the trainers to tape it up and took a few painkillers so that he could remain in the contest. He finished with a team-high 11 tackles and a sack while playing with a wrist that sounded like "someone chomping away on a bag of tortilla chips" every time he moved it; his surgeon later called the fracture one of the worst he had ever seen. Even still, Dat came back for the final seven games of the season. Wearing a huge cast on his right wrist, Dat tallied 70 tackles in those seven outings. Double Digit Dat was back. No one questioned Dat's toughness. But in 2003, the Cowboys' new coach would question just about everything else.

Son of a shrimper meets The Tuna

Nov. 20, 2005; Irving, Texas USA; Dallas Cowboys line backer (59) Dat Nguyen celebrates a fumble recovery during the 4th quarter of the game against the Detroit Lions at Texas Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports (c) Copyright 2005 Tim Heitman

Bill Parcells had a reputation for liking monstrous linebackers. Think Harry Carson, Pepper Johnson, Carl Banks. His first impression of the Cowboys' linebackers? Parcells went on record comparing them to a group of clowns climbing out of a Volkswagen at the circus. Dat felt like he was behind the 8-ball from the moment Parcells was introduced as the new man in Dallas. Their first meeting only cemented those fears. Dat was on a treadmill at the team's practice facility one January day when the new coach stopped in. He told one player to lose weight in their very first exchange. Then he got to Dat. "Are you lazy?" Dat says Parcells asked him point-blank. Dat said he wasn't. "Good. Because if you're lazy, you're not going to like it around here. But if you're willing to put in the work, you'll be fine." Dat went on to lead the team in tackles in 2003, with two sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered, eight quarterback pressures, and ten passes defended. He was named second-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl alternate. He led the team in tackles again the following season after the switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4. Parcells famously defended the smallish Dat, "He's a football-playing dude, that guy... You bet he could have played for any of my teams." But Dat's heat-seeking-missile style took its toll in 2005. After a neck injury kept him out of half of that season and placed him on injured reserve, Dat announced his retirement in March 2006. He ended his career with 515 tackles, six sacks, seven interceptions, four forced fumbles, and 38 tackles for loss in 90 games played. Over seven seasons in Dallas, he played defense for a full 16-game slate in just three of them. He led the club in tackles each time. But even though his tackling days were done, there would be plenty of leading still for Dat to accomplish in his post-linebacker career.

A second career in coaching, but not in football

https://twitter.com/HeartofNFL/status/912561896867459072 Dat didn't stay away from football for long. In February 2007, just eleven months after retiring as a player, Dat returned to Dallas as assistant linebackers/defensive quality control coach under new head coach Wade Phillips. "This is a no-brainer in my opinion," Phillips said at the time, brushing off the notion that the team- over half of whom had played with Dat- might have a hard time taking coaching from him instead. "All the players he played with have great respect for him. He's got great leadership." In 2010, he returned to College Station as Texas A&M's new inside linebackers coach. In his first season on the Aggies sideline, he mentored Von Miller to that year's Butkus Award. But after the 2011 season, a head coaching change by the university prompted Dat to walk away from the role for a new- and more stable- type of coaching. Dat is now an owner/operator of a Chick-fil-A franchise in Fort Worth. As one might expect from Dat, he is a hands-on leader and is at the restaurant frequently. He likens the job to that of coaching a football team, priding himself on getting to know his personnel and then putting them in a position to succeed. "I am the coach," he told WFAA in 2017. "We have coordinators and we have players. It's no different than football. Everyone has a position they are responsible for." But most of the teens he oversees making chicken sandwiches and milkshakes don't really grasp that their boss is the leading tackler in Texas A&M history, the first Vietnamese-American player in NFL history, a College Football Hall of Famer, and one of the most popular players to ever wear the Dallas Cowboys uniform. "They do not have a clue who I am. I am in the archives," Dat laughs. "But that is good. I like it that way." From escaping war-torn Vietnam while still in utero to leading America's Team to anonymously living the American Dream. It would be an utterly fantastical story if it weren't completely true. This offseason, Cowboys Wire is reaching back into the archives in a series called Stars of the Cowboys' Past. We'll re-acquaint readers with some of the franchise's players who may not be household names, the lesser-known stars who have still shone brightly during the 60-year history of America's Team. 1/13: Larry Cole 1/28: Eddie LeBaron 2/10: Rayfield Wright You can suggest future Stars of the Cowboys' Past by following Todd on Twitter at @ToddBrock24f7.

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