Los Angeles Chargers kicker Younghoe Koo is no stranger to adapting to new situations.
After growing up in South Korea, Koo found himself attending sixth grade in New Jersey, living with his mother who had moved to the U.S. two years prior to pursue a career in nursing while his father stayed in Seoul as a university professor. After that initial adjustment, Koo would go through a second transition when he spent his college years nearly 800 miles south as a kicker for Georgia Southern University.
"I talked to my parents, and I think culturally we're on a different level of thinking because I just completely adapted to American culture now."
Compared to those two culture shocks, moving across the country to California in hopes of making the cut as an undrafted free agent with the Chargers hardly fazes Koo.
“Through all that time I just learned to adapt and improvise, “ the 22-year-old told NBC News. “So coming out here is just another culture, kind of, but the weather's really nice, everything's nice, I'm loving it out here, doing what I love to do.”
One of Koo’s brightest college highlights is a trick-shot video he uploaded back in 2016 where he executed a field goal and a backflip in one fluid motion to ascend the ranks of internet notoriety. For many, that video eclipsed a college resume where Koo converted 19 field goals in 20 tries in his final season en route to earning a third team All-American nod and being named a finalist for the Lou Groza Award given to the nation’s top collegiate kicker.
But Koo’s accolades did not slip past the Chargers scouting office. And while he is now surrounded by a litany of seasoned veterans during each day of training camp, Koo doesn’t see any reason to conduct himself any different from his peers.
“I just think to myself, act like you belong here, and act like you’ve been here, just to show I don’t have the jitters at first or anything like that,” said Koo. “And just go right into like it like I’ve been here so I can compete at the highest level that I can.”
Koo’s philosophy can be traced back to his experience in overcoming his shyness and the language barrier after moving to New Jersey, he said.
“I [had] a lot of mixed emotions,” Koo said about his first day in middle school. “Scared obviously, because [I] didn’t know the language, I couldn't speak English then, and I didn't know then but going through it definitely the culture was different."
"First day of school, I remember people were just introducing themselves and stuff like that, and I had no idea what was going on, I just had a smile on my face," he added. "And what people did after school, or what they did when they hung out, all that stuff was different.”
Before long, Koo joined the football team, where game days and the subsequent team hang-outs were welcome chances to socialize. Soon after, Koo mustered the courage to string together a sentence (“I’m bored all the time.”) to his teammates to extend their friendship off the gridiron.
“The first week or first day of [middle school] where I didn’t understand anything really taught me a lot. Once I got comfortable, I was like, ‘Okay, this is how it goes, and how things go here,’ so I didn’t have to stress about it,” said Koo, noting that he went through the same process at Georgia Southern. “At the end of the day, I get comfortable, and I’m gonna be fine, so why stress in the beginning because in about a year or two, I’m going to be comfortable in this environment, so why stress about it?”
Should Koo make the 53-man roster for the Chargers, he will become just the fourth South Korean-born player to compete in the NFL, according to the team. The significance of that fact is not lost on Koo.
“I remember doing some interviews [in college], and I was talking about how growing up I didn’t have Korean athletes to look up to or stuff like that, and I said I wanted to be that guy growing up,” Koo said. “I remember like, Korean friends back in high school, we all were going through similar situations where the mom was here, but the dad was still in Korea or moving back and forth because of their jobs, we were going through similar situations. I wanted to be that guy I could look up to, and kind of educate their parents on this culture, or this sport. ”
Before entering high school, Koo had to decide between continuing on with soccer or football. The popularity of football was lost on Koo’s father, who saw Koo as “just kicking a football,” Koo said. It wasn’t until a talk with Koo’s middle school coach and some subsequent research that his father advised his son to stay on the gridiron.
Be it football or soccer however, the end goal of becoming a professional athlete was always the same for Koo.
“When we were choosing between football and soccer, it was not just for college or just the high school team, but more so for like, let's go try to do pro,” he said. “My dad's mentality is that you're not just going to play sport just to play. You're going to try to go that route, that's how it was. I don't know if that's a Korean way of thinking.”
Koo explained that while students are encouraged to pursue extracurricular activities in addition to their studies in America, South Korean youth did not have that luxury. Due to the intensity of the school work in South Korea, students typically had to devote the majority of their time to their studies, and had little time for much else. As a result of learning to balance school and sports, Koo believes that he is a more well-rounded person.
“I just think to myself, act like you belong here, and act like you’ve been here, just to show I don’t have the jitters at first or anything like that.”
"[College] taught me a lot, I think it's important to get involved, because in college too, it was the student-athlete, so it was a fulltime job really,” he said. “You know, balancing school work, and you got practice and workouts in the morning and all that stuff, they really teach you important life lessons really. I think it's really important, I love it, I think I'm more Americanized than ever. I talked to my parents, and I think culturally we're on a different level of thinking because I just completely adapted to American culture now."
Koo’s varied life experiences are not just reflected in his mindset, but also his speech. Occasionally, a Southern twang from his time in Southern Georgia can be detected on top of the New Jersey English he picked up from his friends, he said.
"I think it's a mixture of everything, people tell me they don't know what I am," Ko said. "My friends taught me how to speak English at first, so I got the foundation from New Jersey, and then I went to South Georgia where I picked up ‘yes ma'am’, ‘no ma'am’, and all this stuff, and then now I'm in California, so who knows I might pick up some more new things."