From refugee to NFL: Lo van Pham makes history as league's first Asian-American official

The story of Lo van Pham begins three or four years before he is born.

It begins in Vietnam, when the Viet Cong are seeping in from the north, when Pham’s parents flee, abandoning the mechanic shop they owned.

It begins when Pham is the middle son of three boys. When his parents pay guides to help them hack through the jungle — Pham’s youngest brother on his father’s back, his older brother almost dying from malaria. It begins when they bounce around refugee camps in Laos, Thailand and the Philippines.

And it begins in 1979, when Pham is 7 years old. His family wins a lottery run by Catholic missionaries that ushers them to a new life in Amarillo, Texas. Pham sees his parents build their home on wages from Levi Strauss and a meat packing plant.

Pham’s story includes all of these beginnings because what are the stories of immigrants and refugees but a series of them: new displacements, new languages, new cultures and foods, new ways to improvise, to survive.

His latest beginning came Tuesday, when the NFL announced it had hired 10 new on-field officials for the 2022 season, and Pham became the first Asian-American in league history to hold the position. He will work as a side judge. Pham knows why he’s here — because of everything that came before.

Lo van Pham will be a side judge in the NFL this season.
Lo van Pham will be a side judge in the NFL this season.

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“I’m just amazed we even survived that journey,” Pham told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “We were always on the move. We didn’t know where we were. We just kind of went where they told us to go. And then when we came to America, the one thing my parents always stressed was education, that education would lead us to a better opportunity.

“Did it put pressure on us? Absolutely, because I knew what they had gone through. I saw it. But my brothers and I never were deprived of anything. Everything that I needed was there. This opportunity is a blessing. It’s an honor. It’s a privilege. This is what America is all about.”

Pham was born in 1973 in southwestern Laos, where the Mekong and Xe Don rivers meet, in a town called Pakse. His memories of tent camps in cavernous warehouses are hazy, most pieced together from stories his parents passed down.

Amarillo is where Pham’s memories sharpen.

Welcome to Texas

At first, the family was placed in temporary housing for refugees. Pham went to elementary school and learned English, thanks in large part to movies and cartoons. He made a friend, and that friend’s father, Brady Durret, coached the local youth softball team and invited Pham to play.

Pham was unsure. He didn’t know anything about the sport. He didn’t know if his parents would let him play. He didn’t even know if his family could afford the fees to sign up. Durret told Pham not to worry; he would take care of it all.

Later, Durret coached youth football. Again, Durret extended an invitation.

“That’s how I fell in love with it, especially football,” Pham says. “It was fun. I mean, I got to hit people. I credit him for introducing me to American sports. I’ll never forget Brady. But I had a great childhood. I think it was always in my blood, but when I came here, I didn’t really know about the team concept, didn’t really know what was out there. Football changed that.”

Pham would go on to letter in high school. He watched Tom Landry and Tony Dorsett and the Cowboys on Sundays. He dreamed of being an NFL player.

That, however, was not in the cards. Instead, Pham earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Texas Tech and was accepted into a master’s program at the University of Colorado, where he often played pickup basketball with friends. When he graduated, he moved to Denver for a job while most of his friends stayed behind in Boulder.

“I missed being around sports,” Pham says. “I was a working young man. I was an engineer working for a design firm and I was like, ‘Man, I’m bored. I need something to do with my Saturdays and Sundays.’ "

Pham answered an ad for officials to call Pee Wee football games, though he knew nothing about officiating. He was supposed to be part of a two-person crew for his first game, but the head official who was to join him was called to another game.

“That’s kind of how it all started,” Pham says. “That’s how I fell in love with officiating, a trial by fire.”

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Leading others to new beginnings

A job opportunity opened in Texas, so Pham moved and eventually started officiating high school football games. Pham says he became addicted. He signed up for clinics and camps and spoke to experienced officials to pick their brains.

He was invited to officiate games in the Lone Star Conference at the Division II level, then to the Southland Conference in Division I-AA. He bounced around in the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference. And then, in 2015, Pham was promoted to the Big 12.

“Officiating has opened a lot of doors for me,” Pham says. “It has taken me places that I never thought that I would go to. It has given me lifelong friends and lifelong experiences that I never would’ve gotten. But I didn’t do this alone. There were great people along the way who helped me.”

Now it’s Pham’s turn because, in many ways, this is just another beginning.

In the hours since Tuesday’s announcement, Pham received an email from a young official who had followed his career. The person revealed they were gay, and Pham’s promotion to the NFL gave them hope that they, too, could forge a similar path.

“That really hit home,” Pham says. “This is crazy that they reached out to me and told me that story. Because you don’t need to be anything to be the best that you can be, regardless of your background, religion, orientation. That was really touching.”

Joining Pham in the class of 10 new officials is Robin DeLorenzo, the third woman in league history to hold the position, along with Sarah Thomas and Maia Chaka.

“Diversity in our membership is something we strongly support,” NFL Referees Association executive director Scott Green wrote in an email to USA TODAY Sports. “We look forward to Lo and all of our new officials joining our crews and taking the field this season.”

Pham’s timing for the new role is fitting, given that May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage month. But weighed against the backdrop of a spike in anti-Asian violence that has emerged in the United States, it’s also a reminder of how much space remains for acceptance.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Pham says.

"But America is a great country. We’re just a melting pot for everyone. I just want everyone to understand and know and apply it — don’t just say it, but apply it — we’re here for the same things. Everybody wants education. Everybody wants to work hard to get what you desire out of life."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL official, a refugee who survived journey to U.S., makes history