Celebrating The 10 Most Influential Asian Players in NFL History
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we celebrate 10 Asian American and Asian football players in NFL history.
May is officially recognized as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, and it's the perfect time to honor the rich legacy of some of the most exceptional Asian American NFL players who have ever stepped onto the field.
Over the years, numerous outstanding football players have emerged from Asian or Pacific Islander backgrounds, with Filipino quarterback Roman Gabriel being one of the most notable examples. In 1969, he even clinched a league MVP title, and several other Hall of Fame talents have also left their mark on the sport.
What is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month?
The Asian American Pacific Islander month, also known as AAPI heritage month, takes place throughout May. It is a time to acknowledge and honor the rich history of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. It provides an opportunity to celebrate the diverse cultural contributions of these communities to American society.
Are there any Asian and Pacific Islander NFL players?
Over the years, the NFL has seen a significant number of Asian players from places such as Korea, Hawaii, and the Philippines. This includes legendary Hall of Fame figures like Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu, as well as present-day stars like Kyler Murray, Penei Sewell, and Tua Tagovailoa.
Current Asian/Pacific Islander NFL Players
Looking ahead to the 2023 NFL season, there are a few Asian players making their mark in the league.
Arizona Cardinals' quarterback Kyler Murray, who is one quarter Korean, is among this list Asian players currently in the league. Meanwhile, fellow quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa both grew up in Hawaii.
Interestingly, Tua, who comes from a Samoan family, looked up to Mariota when he was in high school. Both players attended the same school in Honolulu, with Mariota being a few years older than Tua.
In addition to these players, other notable Asian NFL players in 2023 include Lions tackle Penei Sewell, Eagles offensive lineman Jordan Mailata, and kickers Younghoe Koo and Kai Forbath.
Famous Asian/Pacific Islander NFL Players
There have been several famous Asian/Pacific Islander NFL players throughout the years, including two who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu are among the elite players in this group, known for their exceptional skill and talent on the field.
In addition to Ward and Polamalu, other notable Asian/Pacific Islander players include Junior Seau and Teddy Bruschi, both of whom were outstanding linebackers in their prime. Their contributions to the sport have made them household names and beloved figures among fans.
Celebrating 10 Asian American and Asian/Pacific Islander players in NFL history
Years Active: 1990-2009
Teams: San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots
Awards: 6x First Team All Pro, 12x Pro Bowl, NFL Man of the Year
Junior Seau was a remarkable NFL linebacker, known for his tenacity and hard-hitting style of play. He was selected in the first round of the 1990 NFL draft after a successful stint at USC.
Throughout his career, Seau amassed an impressive 1,847 tackles, 56.5 sacks, 18 interceptions, and 11 forced fumbles. He was recognized as a First Team All Pro on six occasions and was selected to the Pro Bowl an incredible 12 times. In 2015, Seau was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, three years after his untimely passing.
Seau was of American Samoan heritage, with both of his parents hailing from Samoa. His grandfather was also a respected village chief in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. His legacy as a legendary football player and his Samoan roots have left an indelible mark on the sport and on his community.
Years Active: 2003-2014
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers
Awards: 2x Super Bowl Champion, Defensive Player of the Year 2010, 4x First Team All Pro, 8x Pro Bowl
Troy Polamalu, who also has American Samoan roots, was born in Garden Grove, California. He followed in the footsteps of fellow Samoan and USC alum Junior Seau and became a standout player for the Trojans. Polamalu was a two-time First Team All American and a dynamic playmaker during his college career.
In 2003, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Polamalu in the first round, and he quickly established himself as one of the best safeties in NFL history. He helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls and earned the distinction of being named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, the same year they made it back to the Super Bowl.
On the field, Polamalu was known for his aggressive, instinctual playing style and hard hits. Off the field, he was a beloved figure among his teammates and fans, known for his kind and humble demeanor. Polamalu's exceptional career earned him a place in both the Pro Football and College Football Hall of Fame, and he remains a favorite with NFL fans to this day.
Years Active: 2010-2013
Teams: Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles
Ed Wang was born in Fairfax, Virginia to parents of Chinese descent, both of whom were Olympic track and field athletes. Wang's own athletic career began to take shape in high school, where he excelled on the football field. He later attended Virginia Tech University and played left tackle for the Hokies.
In 2010, Wang made history by becoming the first full-blooded Chinese player to be drafted into the NFL. He was selected in the fifth round of the draft and spent two seasons with the Buffalo Bills before going on to join the practice squads of both the Raiders and Eagles.
Years Active: 1992-2000
Teams: New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles
Awards: 1992 All Rookie Team
Eugene Chung was born in Maryland and is of Korean-American heritage. He attended Virginia Tech, where he honed his skills as a football player. In 1992, the New England Patriots drafted him in the first round of the NFL draft, making him the first-ever Asian NFL player of Korean-American descent to be selected in the first round.
Chung went on to play in the NFL for several years before transitioning into coaching. He served as an offensive line coach for both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Years Active: 1962-1977
Teams: Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles
Awards: NFL MVP 1969, NFL Comeback Player of the Year 1973, First Team All Pro 1969, 4x Pro Bowl, NFL Passing Yards Leader 1973, 2x NFL Passing Touchdowns Leader
Roman Gabriel, a North Carolina native, was an exceptional quarterback in the NFL during the 1960s and 1970s. He was of Filipino descent, with his father having immigrated to the United States from the Philippines.
Gabriel made a name for himself playing college football for the NC State Wolfpack, where he was a two-time First Team All American and won two ACC Player of the Year awards. He then moved on to the NFL/AFL draft, where he was selected first overall by the Oakland Raiders in the AFL draft and second overall by the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL draft. Gabriel decided to sign with the Rams, where he became the first Asian/Pacific Islander quarterback to play in the NFL.
Throughout his career, Gabriel threw over 200 touchdowns and more than 29,000 passing yards. He was named the NFL MVP in 1969 and the Comeback Player of the Year in 1973. For his exceptional performances with the Wolfpack, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Years Active: 1996-2008
Teams: New England Patriots
Awards: 3x Super Bowl Champion, NFL Comeback Player of the Year 2005, Pro Bowl 2004
Tedy Bruschi became a mainstay in the New England Patriots defense throughout his decorated career in the NFL. The talented linebacker amassed over 1,100 tackles during his career, with 30.5 sacks, 12 interceptions and 17 forced fumbles.
As a standout player in college, Bruschi was a two-time consensus First-Team All American, a three-time First Team All-Pac 10, and the 1995 Pac 10 Defensive Player of the Year. In the 1996 NFL draft, he was selected in the third round by the New England Patriots, where he played his entire career and won three Super Bowls. The former NFL linebacker is of both Italian and Filipino descent.
Position: Wide Receiver
Years Active: 1998-2011
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers
Awards: 2x Super Bowl Champion, Super Bowl XL MVP, 4x Pro Bowl
Hines Ward was born in Seoul, South Korea, to a Korean mother and African-American father. When he was one year old, his family moved to Atlanta in the United States. Ward had a natural talent for athletics, excelling as a high school quarterback and baseball player. In fact, he was selected in the 1994 MLB draft by the Miami Marlins before he had even begun his college football career.
However, Ward was even better at football than baseball. He played receiver at the University of Georgia and was also a very talented running back, ranking second in rushing yards only to Herschel Walker.
Ward was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 1998 NFL draft. He would help them win two Super Bowls, including an outstanding performance against the Seattle Seahawks at Super Bowl XL that earned him the MVP award.
Ward is considered one of the very best NFL Asian players in history, and many believe he has a strong case for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Years Active: 2019-Present
Teams: Arizona Cardinals
Awards: NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year 2018, 2x Pro Bowl
Arizona Cardinals Quarterback Kyler Murray has Asian heritage as he is one quarter Korean. This makes him one of the most notable Asian players in the NFL currently.
Murray has also shown an appreciation for Asian culture, particularly the influence of Bruce Lee. The legendary martial artist has had a significant impact on Murray's mindset and attitude towards his football career.
After a successful college football career, Murray was drafted first overall by the Arizona Cardinals. He won the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award in his debut season and has since been selected to two Pro Bowls, solidifying his status as one of the top Asian players in the NFL.
Years Active: 2020-Present
Teams: Miami Dolphins
Awards: NFL Passer Rating Leader 2022, Polynesian Football Player of the Year 2022
Tua Tagovailoa, hailing from ‘Ewa Beach, Hawaii, was born into a Samoan family and is the oldest of four siblings.
Making a splash as a freshman in the 2017 National Championship game for Alabama, Tagovailoa threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Devonta Smith, thus beginning his journey as a promising talent in the quarterback position.
After being selected fifth overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 2020 NFL draft, Tagovailoa showed glimpses of his potential before being sidelined by concussions in 2022, when he was on course for a potential MVP season.
In recognition of his impressive efforts in 2022, the Dolphins QB was awarded the Polynesian Football Player of the Year, which was previously won by DeForest Buckner, Ronnie Stanley, and Juju Smith-Schuster.
Position: Wide Receiver
Years Active: 1994-2005
Teams: Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers
Johnnie Morton was born in Torrance, California, to an African-American father and Japanese mother.
He quickly became a college football fan favorite on the West Coast while playing football at USC, earning the nicknames ‘Johnnie Hero’ and ‘Big Play Morton’.
After being drafted in the first round of the 1994 NFL draft, Morton joined the Detroit Lions where he played for the majority of his NFL career which spanned over a decade.
Over the course of his career, Morton caught 624 passes for 8,719 receiving yards and 43 touchdowns. He is widely considered one of the most accomplished wide receivers in the history of the Detroit Lions and is also regarded as one of the best Asian NFL players of all time.
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