On June 7, Chinese American football player Taylor Rapp announced on Instagram “Officially official, pen to paper!” The 21-year-old safety from the University of Washington signed an initial four-year contract with the Los Angelos Rams worth more than $4 million.
As Asians embrace sports in the United States, stereotypes are gradually fading. Rapp is set to showcase his Asian heritage in American football. Promising transformations are happening on America’s campuses.
Rapp was born to a Shanghainese mom and American father, and was raised in Bellingham, Washington where football teams are made fun of by cross-country athletes. He graduated from a high school which had never yielded an NFL player. It’s no wonder that Rapp, who also goes by his Chinese name Chi Youjun, struggled to find role model athletes who looked like him and that he could identify with or relate to. He managed to find programs outside of school to train and find a few opportunities out of a football-scarce environment. He drove hundreds of miles to sell himself to summer football camps and college scouts. For most of the time, he was disrespected and overlooked, because of his Asian heritage which unfortunately still carried the “good at math, poor at sports” stereotype within some traditional circles of American football.
NFL.com described Rapp as someone who has, “beaten long odds, undeterred by a city that failed to support prep football, a high school community that openly mocked him, coaches who were unprepared to develop his talents, college recruiters who blatantly overlooked him and kids who racially taunted him for his Chinese ethnicity.”
But throughout these years, and despite the obstacles in his way, Rapp has blazed his own trail to the NFL and embraced his ethnicity and ancestry even more. He looked up to Jeremy Lin when he was honing his skills on the field in his early teens even though Lin played with a rounder ball. Rapp sprinted the fastest 60 yard shuttle among all hopefuls at the 2019 NFL Combine. A product of the University of Washington, Rapp was drafted by the Rams at No. 61 overall in the second round the 2019 NFL Draft. He vowed to become the beacon of all Asian-American kids who share his dream.
Rapp seems to be the only Asian rising star in the Big Four receiving considerable media coverage and advertising; In fact, he is not alone, especially in the past two years. Aside from Asian Americans’ tradition of high-level performance in the MLB and the foothold of players with Asian nationalities in NBA, three North Americans with Asian heritage – David Suzuki, Kailer Yamamoto and Jason Robertson – were picked in the first two rounds in the 2017 NHL draft. In 2018, Vancouver Canucks selected Jett Woo of Chinese descent at No. 37 in the second round.
They all have one thing in common: they easily open up when asked about their country of origin and how their families moved to North America. Being Asian in North America means more than gobbling up homemade mapo tofu or sushi. New Asian immigrants suffered insurgency and turmoil in their country of birth, tried plenty of humble jobs and overworked to establish a family and earn a decent education and future for their offspring in their new homeland. For the later generations, the family’s early struggle is a major lesson from their heritage; they prepare to chase their dreams with studiousness, like their parents and ancestors have done before them.
“[The younger generations] see how much sacrifice their Asian parents made for them. Being respectful, hardworking, high work ethics and discipline are the life lessons they learned from their parents,” said Bidyut Goswami, the head men’s tennis coach of Columbia University for 37 years. In the past three decades, he recruited dozens of Asians, which changed the racial composition of the team from predominantly white to half Asian. Many Asians he had dubbed as prodigies became Ivy Hall-of-Famers and a few have become professional athletes. He cherishes how the Asian sports spirit has molded a healthy team culture, and believes it’s universal for any sport.
Once an athletic talent is discovered, for some families, the investments in the kid’s sports are no exception from that in academia. But the lack of sports accessibility in Asian communities in America and scarcity of examples to follow hold back the children themselves from pursuing college sports and a professional career.
“Expose early on and you have a chance to break through…but here’s only one person, one person playing in the NBA. How could you be the next one?” Brian Yang, a Chinese American film director focusing on telling sports stories related to Asians including directing the film “Linsanity,” spelled out the concern of parents and the kids themselves. “It’s a cycle that prevents them from ever breaking out of some sort of nurtured nature.”
Fortunately, more influential coaches are dedicated to discovering Asian kids with great physical attributes and nourish their talents. Some are trying to find the next “Jeremy Lin” in the NBA. Steve Baik, the 2016 Naismith Boy’s High School Coach of the Year who is Korean American himself, has established a basketball program in Fairfax High School in Los Angeles with a special focus on preaching the sport among Asians who aim to become professional basketball players. Marshall Cho, the Director of Basketball Operations at the University of Portland, is currently reaching out to Asian basketball players in high school on the west coast as well.
Admittedly, there is still little Asian presence in professional American sports, especially in the Big Four. At the collegiate level, only 0.6 percent of men’s basketball players and 1.1 percent of women’s basketball players are Asians, whereas Asians count around 6 percent of the population of the United States. But as they gain more access to professional training and set up their role models in American professional sports, more Taylor Rapps are on the way, in basketball, football, soccer, and beyond.
Featured photo credit to Instagram