The story of Dat Nguyen goes way beyond football. The records he has set, the honors that he has won are only part of it. Born in a refugee camp, the son of Vietnamese parents who fled their homeland following the fall of Saigon in 1975, Nguyen (pronounced WIN) became an All-America linebacker at Texas A&M.
Nguyen was a four-year starter for the Aggies and set the school record for career tackles. He was named the Maxwell Football Club’s Collegiate Defensive Player of the Year and will receive the fourth Chuck Bednarik Award, named in honor of the former University of Pennsylvania great.
At 6’1, 213 pounds, Nguyen hardly looks like a big-time college linebacker, He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, which is only average speed. Yet he earned a scholarship to A&M after a stellar high school career in Rockport, Texas, and he became the focal point of the Aggies’ famed “Wrecking Crew” defense.
Last season, Nguyen set a Cotton Bowl record with 20 tackles, 15 unassisted, when A&M played UCLA. He also intercepted a Cade McNown pass and lateraled to teammate Brandon Jennings, who ran it in for a touchdown. Nguyen was voted Defensive Player of the Game.
Said Jack Pardee, the former NFL linebacker and coach: “In today’s game, you have so many measuring sticks – – 40 yard dashes, height, weight, agility. But the thing people often overlook is the most important of all, the ability to make plays. That’s where Dat Nguyen excels.”
Shawn Slocum, son of A&M head coach R.C. Slocum, spotted Nguyen on a high school recruiting trip through the Texas gulf coast. The Nguyens settled there, along with other Vietnamese families, to work on the shrimp boats. Dat’s parents did not understand football. When A&M offered him a scholarship, his father said: “You can’t be that good.”
But he was!
Nguyen was the first freshman in A&M history to lead the team in tackles with 94. As a sophomore, he led the team in forced fumbles, fumble recoveries as well as tackles. Iowa State coach called Nguyen “as fine a linebacker as I’ve seen.”
He broke the school record for career tackles set by Johnny Holland, who later played for the Green Bay Packers. Aggie fans compared him to Ed Simonini, a 6’0″, 220 pounder, who also made All-American in college and played seven years in the pros.
Nguyen hopes some NFL team will select him in the April draft. He is projected as a mid-round pick due to his size, but Slocum feels Nguyen could make it at the next level if given the chance.
“He’s not big or fast, but from a production standpoint, he makes a bunch of plays,” Slocum said.
“It’s a huge step for the Vietnamese community to have a Vietnamese football player,” Nguyen said. “That’s why I don’t worry about expectations. To me, I walked the mile. I play for the love of the game.”
The Maxwell Football Club thanks Ray Didinger of NFL Films for contributing this article on Dat Nguyen.
Texas A&M University