When the Patriots drafted Eugene Chung in the 1992 NFL Draft, he was the first Korean-American to be selected in first round and just the third player of Asian descent to play in the league. Almost 30 years later, Chung won a Super Bowl with the Eagles as a coach and hopes to become the first Asian-American head coach in the NFL.
The road to this dream hasn't been easy, though. Chung opened up about his experiences as an Asian-American athlete and coach as part of the Boston Globe's Leadership Lunch Series in honor of Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. The panel was hosted by Globe columnist Shirley Leung and also included ESPN reporter and anchor Michele Steele, and Olympic medalist ice dancer Alex Shibutani.
Chung, Steele and Shibutani shared their experiences moving through the world of sports as Asian-Americans, a place where representation is sparse and full of discrimination.
For Chung and his pursuit of becoming a head coach in the league, he knows opportunities are hard to come by for anyone, but a shocking moment in an interview stuck with him.
"I'm selling myself, being salesman, going through my accolades and my experience and what I bring to this coaching staff. My last comment is like 'Look, check all these boxes when you hire me.' One of them being I'm a minority, so you're hiring a minority on top of that," Chung recalled. "They're like, and it was said to me is, 'Well you're really not a minority.' I just froze in my tracks. Wait, did I hear that correctly … The last time I checked when I looked in the mirror when I brush my teeth, I was a minority."
In that interview, Chung was told he wasn't "the right type" of minority that the team was looking to hire. That moment stunned him.
"It's a sport I hold near and dear to my heart and to hear that I don't fit into that narrative, really, it was emotionally paralyzing … I'm a minority but I'm in an invisible minority. I'm the 'model minority,'" Chung said. "I'm sure we've heard so many times and that's the way I felt leaving that. That's why I'm here today is because of a comment like that and the directive that's out there right now. It was like okay it's time for me to kind of raise my voice and put out there what I'm experiencing."
The idea of the "model minority" is one that all three panelists returned to. As hate crimes against AAPI people have skyrocketed over the last year, there's been a reckoning in the ways Asian-Americans have been made to feel invisible in order to be accepted. By taking up space, being themselves and pursing what they love, Chung, Steele and Shibutani push back against those discriminations.
Though Chung has had negative experiences, he also made it a point to share positive stories of acceptance in the world of sports. He said when working with Andy Reid, he would go out of his way to learn about his Korean heritage in a way that was respectful.
In moments like that, Chung has hope.
"In my experience, American football has always been kind of like the glue that brings everybody together," Chung said. "At the start of every Sunday or Saturday, everything's put down. It doesn't matter what color, what race, when that game comes on, they all come together as one group whoever you're looking for. You always see those barriers get dropped down for that short amount of time. So I always see that as a force that can be like a bond or bridge between people."