While the National Football League is largely an American phenomenon, the shield continues to build its brand and attract players and fans from around the world.
While the NFL has just one player born in Asia on an active roster today, 2020 Pro Bowler and Atlanta Falcons’ kicker Younghoe Koo of Seoul, South Korea, promising young players like Kyler Murray, Taylor Rapp and Sam Howell mean that players of Asian descent have made their mark in the league and will continue to do so. Here’s a list of three of the greatest Asian players in NFL history.
Number One: Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers 1998-2011
Born in Seoul, Hines Ward is the best player of Asian ancestry in league history, despite playing sports without an ACL in his left knee from fourth grade on. He also has a chance at becoming the first Asian-born player inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as he’s made the ballot as a semi-finalist in each of the seven years since becoming eligible.
Hines Ward is a product of the era he played in: a hard-nosed receiver who, despite racking up over 12,000 yards and 85 touchdowns on 1,000 catches, is perhaps best known for the plays he made without the ball in his hands, helping his teammates out by throwing brutal blocks. A two-time Super Bowl champion and the MVP of Super Bowl XL, Ward helped define a physical era of Steelers football.
Ward is also a spokesman for the Asian-American community against acts of racism. When the Los Angeles Rams drafted Rapp in 2019, Ward recorded a video in which he sent a message of support to the rookie encouraging him to defy racial stereotypes.
“I know you’ve heard it before: ‘Asians can’t play football.’ I still remember the first time I heard it,” Ward said. “But I learned something too. Those words can be a gift. You can feed off that energy. Turn that hate into wins.”
Following his playing career, Ward devoted his time to coaching, including as an offensive assistant for the New York Jets in 2019 and 2020. Another Jets receiver, Garrett Wilson, has the second-best odds (+150) at the Offensive Rookie of the Year award on the best NY sportsbooks.
Number Two: Tedy Bruschi, New England Patriots 1996-2008
Bruschi, whose mother’s side of the family hails from the Philippines, won three Super Bowls with the Patriots’ dynasty in the early 2000s. He played a key role on New England’s star-studded defense and recorded 1,110 tackles, including 30.5 sacks as a middle linebacker. Bruschi also added 12 interceptions and 17 forced fumbles, and managed to play 13 years in the NFL despite suffering a stroke after the 2005 season. He earned a nod in the College Football Hall of Fame for his play with the Arizona Wildcats.
Number Three: Patrick Chung, 2009-2020
Another standout defender and three-time Super Bowl Champion, Chung played the majority of his career as the Patriots’ starting strong safety. He’s of Chinese descent on his dad’s side of the family, and has a tattoo of the Chinese transliteration of his name on his right arm.
Chung provided valuable play on the back end of the Patriots’ defense, making 773 tackles along with 56 pass breakups, 11 interceptions and a defensive touchdown.
Chung was born in Jamaica, and in 2021 he criticized the United States for the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes compared to racial interactions in his home country.
“In a nutshell, it sucks. It’s very disheartening to see,” Chung said. We all need to grow up, you know. That’s just my opinion on it. I’ve never experienced something like this. In Jamaica, it wasn’t like that.”