When reporters at the NFL draft ask the draftees to describe their feelings, more often than not the athlete will say something about how they dreamed of playing in the NFL their entire life. Former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen was not one of those guys.
In fact, Nguyen didn’t play a snap of football until the eighth grade. Before that, he had his heart set on becoming a professional soccer player.
“I was going to be the next Pele,” Nguyen said with a chuckle. “Then all of the sudden my family opened a restaurant. It was a buffet restaurant and I ate a bunch of fried food, pizza and hamburgers. So I was much bigger than a typical Vietnamese American guy. So I started playing basketball and then I thought I was going to be the next Shaquille O’Neal.”
But a coach at Nguyen’s middle school saw something in him and approached him every day about playing football.
“I had a typing class over by the gymnasium,” Nguyen said. “There was a coach named Cliff Davis. He was a legendary player at Texas A&M and played professional baseball for the Colt 45’s. So he sat there and recruited me every day for three, four, five weeks.”
Nguyen’s family immigrated to the U.S. from South Vietnam during the fall of Saigon and they moved to the small Gulf Coast town of Rockport, Texas to work as shrimpers. Because of his family’s long work hours and Vietnamese heritage, Nguyen didn’t know anything about football and he wasn’t interested in playing.
But Davis’ persistence eventually paid off and Nguyen agreed to give football a chance. Nguyen was a natural football player and it didn’t take long before his team started having success and he fell in love with the game he knew so little about.
“I didn’t know anything about football,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t know there were pockets inside the pants for your thigh pads. I didn’t know the hip pads had belt loops on them. So all of this was new. Whenever you do something new and you have success early you always want to pursue it.”
Everything took off from there. Nguyen’s eighth grade team won district. It was the first time a football team from Rockport, at any level, won district in about 20 years. That success sparked more winning from the other teams in the city.
“As you win, it’s contagious,” Nguyen said. “So when we did good in football we had a chance to do good in basketball and baseball. Then when we got to high school we played soccer. It was very competitive and I think it made the whole athletic department go up in the whole town.”
Rockport took notice. It didn’t take long before what seemed like the entire city showed up at the high school football and basketball games.
“It was small 3A football,” Nguyen said. “Everything shut down for football and Friday night-lights. Everyone pretty much took Friday off. It’s basically something very unique to the state of Texas and it’s still going on today.”
But beyond winning the football team provided an arena for the community to grow closer together.
“It was a fun time for me because 15 to 20 years prior to that we experienced a lot of tension because of the transition from Vietnam, coming to America, settling into a small town like Rockport and being fishermen down there.,” Nguyen said. “It was a challenge for our parents, families and our culture. It was just a tough time during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s until the late ‘80s when sports kind of mended that town.”
Nguyen said their sporting events became such a remarkable sight at the time that people from other cities would come to enjoy the atmosphere.
“People from all different races starting supporting the town more than just their color,” he said. “So we became a family, we became a community, and looking back now I don’t think I realized how amazing it was to be a part of that. Going to a football game or a basketball game it was a packed house and of course you saw all different kinds of race.”
The bond that Nguyen formed with that community and his teammates is still intact today. It all started with that eighth grade football team.
“That’s the same team that grew together and played all the way through high school,” he said. “That’s why it was fun. We just became brothers. Even today a lot of my friends are those high school players.
Unlike so many other good high school football players, Nguyen’s story didn’t end when he graduated. Despite having a small stature for a collegiate linebacker he received scholarship offers from multiple Division I colleges like Michigan, UCLA, Notre Dame, Texas and Florida. But a legendary ball coach at Texas A&M named R.C. Slocum was the man who finally hit the Dat Nguyen lottery.
“My son was coaching at A&M at the time and he was recruiting,” Slocum said. “He told me about this linebacker so I asked, ‘how big is he?’ and he said ‘oh he’s 5-foot-10 and one-half to 5-foot-11.’ I said, ‘are you sure? Why do we want to recruit him?’ and he said ‘well I watched him stand flatfooted and dunk a basketball and, well, I just have some film I want you to watch.’”
“So we put some tape on and I started watching it and he literally made every play,” Slocum said. “So I said, ‘I see what you mean, this guy is a heck of a player.’”
The Division I competition in College Station did little to slow the undersized Nguyen down. He earned first-team All-Big 12 honors three times and was the Big 12 Defensive player of the year in 1998. Nguyen also earned the Chuck Bednarik award, Lombardi Award and All-American honors in 1998. He made the Big 12 10th Anniversary Team in 2005 and the Associated Press All-Time Big 12 Team in 2010. But Slocum was most impressed with Nguyen’s iron man streak.
“For a guy playing inside linebacker, that’s a physical position,” Slocum. “And I would say he’s undersized for that position. But he started 52 straight games, which is unthinkable. We played in a couple preseason games, bowl games and we played in the Big 12 Championship in ‘98 and so he played a whole lot of football and never missed a game. To start that many games as an undersized inside linebacker, that’s the most remarkable thing about it.”
Despite his production on the field, Slocum said some of Nguyen’s most valuable attributes showed in the locker room.
“He had such a great smile, disposition and he’s such a great person,” Slocum said. “He’s a remarkable person. He was a favorite of the guys on the team and they really admired him.”
“He was a great leader for us,” Slocum said. “He was one of those guys where I never had to worry about him being ready to play or be motivated for a game. He took great pride in whatever he did. He was always highly motivated for practice and games. So he was a leader by example and a vocal leader as well.”
Slocum cut his teeth as a defensive coach. He was a linebackers coach by trade and then elevated to defensive coordinator before finally taking over head coaching duties. He has seen a lot of good defensive players, including many of Nguyen’s teammates on the infamous A&M “Wrecking Crew,” but Slocum said Nguyen was one of the best he’s ever coached.
“Linebackers are special to me,” Slocum said. “I had a lot of great ones who made it to the NFL, and he wasn’t as big or as fast as some of them. But he was as productive as any player I ever coached in terms of just making plays.”
Slocum said Nguyen was able to be so productive because of his intelligence and his physical style.
“He was so initiative and aware on the field,” Slocum said. “He really studied football and understood football. I would say more than any player I ever coached he was the best tackler. He didn’t miss tackles. When he locked on to someone they went down.”
Nguyen agreed with his old coach about how his study of the game led to a lot of his success. But instead of focusing solely on the opposing offense, Nguyen would study his teammates. He said he thinks the football community underestimates players who rely on their teammate’s talents.
“I knew exactly how good the guy in front of me was or the linebacker next to me was,” he said. “So in order for me to be good, or better, I had to know my teammates weakness and strengths as well as the opponent’s weakness and strengths.”
“If this guy is going to miss a tack then there’s a good chance I would have to get there,” he said. “If there’s a guy who always makes the tackle then I could play off of him, trust him and play off his ability. When there’s a guy who’s very talented and makes a lot of plays, he’s going to take some chances and miss sometimes. So you have to cover for him when he misses.”
That philosophy worked well enough for the Dallas Cowboys to select Nguyen 85th overall in the 1999 NFL draft. He was a linebacker for the Cowboys for seven years and retired March 3, 2006. About a year later he joined Wade Phillips’ coaching staff with the Cowboys and started a coaching career in Dallas and at A&M that spanned four years.
But he will be inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame on Saturday for his accomplishments as a green football player at Rockport-Fulton High School, not A&M or the NFL.
“It’s so crazy because of the criteria,” Nguyen said. “It’s not like they just say you’re in the Texas High School Hall of Fame. They say you represent a generation. To be entered as one of the best players of a generation is pretty phenomenal.”
Nguyen said this particular honor matters to him because it also represents so many of his teammates from Rockport-Fulton.
“I’ve never been too into honors because it takes a whole team,” he said. “But to represent all those great players, Rockport and to maybe be the first Vietnamese American inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame is an honor. Hopefully that opens a lot of doors for other kids to dream and know they can do it.”
Now Nguyen and his wife of 17 years, Becky, live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with their three girls and two boys. They recently opened Chick-fil-A and Nguyen works hard to teach his employees the benefits of working as a team.
Nguyen’s father recently died and he has spent more than a little time thinking about how the man who raised him shaped his life.
“When you look at the big picture it’s about opportunities,” Nguyen said. “My dad left Vietnam to come to America so that we had opportunities and a chance to live in this great country. We knew we had an uphill battle. The only thing we knew we had was spiritually. But the work ethic my mom and dad had taught me to be grateful for what I had.”
And Nguyen does believe that the work ethic and example his parents set led to his success in life.
“No doubt about that,” he said. “I used to work on a shrimp boat until I started playing football. I wanted to get out of that job. So when I fell in love with football and decided to pursue it. I never thought I would have a chance to play in the NFL. But I thought that if I could get a scholarship then I could go to school. It’s just crazy how it all worked out.”