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Falcons' Younghoe Koo faces redemption game, inspires others

The Chargers cut the then-rookie; he's now the NFL's leading scorer. "He can influence and be a role model for many of the young [Asian American] kids."
Image: Younghoe Koo
Los Angeles Chargers kicker Younghoe Koo misses a game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter of the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sept. 11, 2017, in Denver.Justin Edmonds / Getty Images file

Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn isn't kicking himself for cutting loose one of the game's best specialists.

When his squad goes up against the visiting Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, it'll face former Chargers place-kicker Younghoe Koo, who has been nearly perfect this season and leads the NFL in scoring.

The Korean-born Koo is only a Falcon because L.A. cut him after a difficult, though very brief, four-game stint back in 2017.

"I hate to cut any player, especially a productive player, but it was time," Lynn told reporters Friday. "He needed a change of scenery, and he's made the most of it."

Koo made three and missed three kicks for the Chargers in 2017, but two of those misfires were late in high-profile games.

Koo's potential 44-yard equalizer was blocked with a second left in Denver, preserving a 24-21 Monday night victory for the Broncos in Week 1. Koo appeared to have kicked the tying field goal, but then-Denver coach Vance Joseph called a timeout a moment earlier, nullifying the play and forcing another try.

Then less than a week later, Koo missed a 44-yarder with 5 seconds left, securing a 19-17 Miami Dolphins victory in the Chargers' home opener. It was the Chargers' first regular season game in L.A. County, following the team's move from San Diego.

"I'm happy for him. But with kickers, you see that a lot. ... Sometimes [with] that second or third team, they mature and come into their own," Lynn said Friday.

"I know when we had him here, he did an outstanding job in training camp, he won the job, the guys loved him," Lynn said. "He had a rough start to the season and it didn't work out. But he blocked out the noise, believed in himself and kept working. And now he's one of the top kickers in the game. I take my hat off to him."

The Falcons did not make Koo available for interviews this week ahead of the game against the Chargers. Last week, Koo was nothing but diplomatic when asked about his time with the Chargers: "The experience with the Chargers in my rookie season was really a great experience for me as a kicker and as a person. That taught me a lot on how to navigate my energy and what to focus on."

After the Chargers cut him, Koo didn't get another chance in the NFL until last season, when the Georgia Southern alum hooked up with the Falcons and raised his game. Koo has made all but one of his 33 field goal attempts this season and was named NFC special teams player of the month last week.

Alabama holder Woody Humphrey (2) raises his hands in reaction to the field goal just kicked by Peter Kim (3) during first quarter action with Baylor in the Cotton Bowl game in Dallas on Jan. 1, 1981.AP file

Blazing a trail for other Asian Americans

In his still-young career, 26-year-old Koo is already head of a small class of Asian American place-kickers who have teed up at the highest levels of football.

The University of Alabama's Peter Kim, the University of Hawaii's Kenton Chun and Notre Dame's Reggie Ho and Justin Yoon have all kicked for major Division I programs.

John Lee booted 85 field goals at UCLA and scored 390 points in his career between 1982 and 1985, which is in the top two in school history in both categories. Lee was selected in the second round of the 1986 draft, unusually high for a kicker, and played for the then-St. Louis Cardinals.

Ho, now a cardiologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, said the early 1980s legacy left by Kim and Lee inspired him to walk on in South Bend and kick for the storied program.

"I think my passion and drive to make the team was always there, but what John Lee and Peter Kim did was give me hope that making the team was possible," Ho told NBC News this week.

Ho is best known for booting four field goals, including the game-winner in the closing moments, in a 19-17 Irish triumph over Michigan in Notre Dame's 1988 national championship season.

"They were the first successful Asian kickers on nationally renowned college teams, and they paved the way for future kickers like myself to make it onto the D-1 stage," Ho said of his Asian American role models.

Kim insisted he never faced any racial animus playing in Tuscaloosa from 1980 to 1982, a mere decade after the Crimson Tide suited up its first Black players.

His trailblazing path was as Bama's first "soccer-style" kicker in an era when some place-kickers still took straight-on approaches to the ball, instead of a sideways run-up that generates considerably more power.

Now that Koo has established himself as a bonafide NFL standout, Kim said he hopes their small group of Asian American players won't be such an exclusive club.

"You know, him [Koo] being in the NFL is a big deal. He can influence and be a role model for many of the young [Asian American] kids who couldn't even think about becoming a football player," Kim, who owns a chain of restaurants in Hawaii, told NBC Asian America.

"The kids on the streets, maybe this will give them a different perspective on life?" Kim said. "They can be a football player, go to college, get educated. What more can be better than being an American athlete in college?"