By Jaylon Thompson / The Alliance
ATLANTA — Younghoe Koo’s introduction to football began with a simple request.
In the sixth grade, Koo was relaxing at recess when a classmate got his attention. Across the schoolyard, a group of kids was preparing to start an impromptu football game and needed an extra person to even the sides.
The Atlanta Legends (2-5) travel to face the Birmingham Iron (4-3) on Sunday, March 31, at 4 p.m. ET at Legion Field. The game can be seen on CBS Sports Network. Tickets to all Legends games are available here.
So, they turned to Koo.
The group asked if Koo could kick off during the game. At first, Koo was a little apprehensive. He had never seen a football or played the game in his life.
“It was new to me when I first came to the United States,” Koo said. “I didn’t speak English or know about football.”
He ultimately gave it a shot. On his first kick, he boomed the ball over the fence and left everyone out at recess amazed.
“They were surprised with how far I kicked it,” Koo said. “They suggested that I should play football and that’s how I got into organized football.”
The moment is still etched in Koo’s mind. It was his initial welcome into the American culture and the beginning of a career that has led him down a successful path.
“It was a gateway to the new culture,” Koo said. “I was adapting to the culture and learned the English language. I don’t know what kids did after school, but football and soccer kind of forced me to put myself out there. Without that, I don’t think I would be where I am as a person.”
Koo’s journey has taken several twists and turns. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and migrated to the United States as a youngster. He attended Ridgewood High School in New Jersey and was a standout athlete.
In addition to football, Koo played soccer and participated in track and field — specifically the long jump, triple jump and the high jump. He also tried his hand at the javelin toss.
Playing multiple sports helped Koo excel on the football field. As a senior, Koo not only kicked but played defense, intercepting six passes and drawing the attention of then-Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken.
Monken was in search of a kicker. During the recruiting process, he flew out to New Jersey and met with Koo and his family.
“I never saw a head coach at a kicker’s school,” Koo said. “I was like ‘He might be serious.’ He offered me a scholarship, and I took a visit to Georgia Southern with my parents.”
The visit was special for Koo, as Korean professors met with and translated for his parents, and his family was shown the campus and welcomed with open arms.
“My dad didn’t know I could get a scholarship for playing football,” Koo said. “He felt it could be an opportunity for me.”
Koo took advantage of his chance, quickly rewriting the school’s record books and earning All-Sun Belt honors in 2016. He set the school’s career field-goal percentage record (88 percent) and finished his senior season 19 of 20 overall.
Koo’s success got him a taste of the NFL. He landed with the Los Angeles Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and became just the fourth Korean-born player in NFL history (joining Hines Ward, John Lee and Kyle Love).
However, things didn’t work out as planned. Koo struggled with consistency and was released by the Chargers midway through the season.
The decision left him at a crossroads. He took time away from the game to re-evaluate his career.
“I was learning to be a pro,” Koo said. “It just all caught up with me. I was learning about myself, and I think I am better off because of that experience.”
After a couple of months, Koo was back on a professional gridiron with the Atlanta Legends. And so far, he has thrived, hitting all 11 of his field-goal attempts, scoring the first points in Legends’ history and winning a Special Teams Player of the Week award.
The trio of Koo, punter Cameron Nizialek and long snapper Jeff Overbaugh even have a nickname: “Koo and the Gang.” They earned the title from Legends head coach Kevin Coyle.
“Coach Coyle called us that one day,” Koo said. “Cam (Nizialek) showed me some songs from Kool and the Gang and I didn’t know it was an actual band. I had heard all those songs before and it kind of clicked.”
Together, the specialists form one of the strongest groups on the team. Their chemistry rubs off on the entire roster.
“We have outstanding specialists, and Koo has done a great job kicking for us,” Coyle said.
Koo hopes to continue making big kicks throughout the season. The Legends have three games left and are in playoff contention.
Should the Legends get within his range, Koo will be ready to strike. He also appreciates The Alliance for giving him another chance to play football again.
“I think this league has done a great job of giving guys another opportunity to showcase their talent,” Koo said.
If everything goes well, Koo would like another shot at the NFL. Kickers are a valuable commodity, and he’s doing everything possible to make it happen.
“I would love to get back into the NFL,” Koo said. “I think that is a lot of guys’ goals.”
Until then, Koo will continue enjoying the ride and his time with the Legends.
“I just try to focus on my job each day,” Koo said. “Kick by kick, I try to make it like a game-winner. I feel like that’s what it essentially is to me.”
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Jaylon Thompson covers the Atlanta Legends for The Alliance of American Football. Follow him on Twitter JaylonThompson.