Justin Yoon's Epic Journey

The kicker's record-setting career at Notre Dame could lead to the NFL. But if it does not, he's already helped to redefine what it means to be Korean American.
photo of Joon LeeJoon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterDecember 26, 2018

On the first drive to South Bend, Justin and Jiseop Yoon talked in Korean, like they always do. Since he was young, Justin always talked to his father in his family's native tongue; otherwise, his parents would not acknowledge him. His dad has always wanted to make sure Justin stayed in touch with his roots, that he understood his place in the United States within the system.         

Justin listened as the family conversed, driving through the flat, monotonous Midwestern highways, coasting toward his new home for the next four years. Notre Dame would present a wildly different set of challenges from playing at Milton Academy, his father said, referring to the prestigious private school in Massachusetts where Yoon played in high school.

While Milton was diverse, the football team was not. Going into a nationally ranked Division I program, Jiseop advised, would mean navigating a more diverse locker room, featuring teammates from a wide array of cultural, geographic and economic backgrounds.

"I can tell you what you could expect in white culture. That's what happened at boarding school," Jiseop told Justin. "That's purely white. I don't know black culture. More than half of your locker room is going to be black. That's something you need to learn yourself."

Jiseop was always giving advice. Justin listened because he knew his dad's intentions: putting him in the best position to succeed. His father had provided an answer to every question he'd ever asked. It's what brought him that far, to Notre Dame as the No. 1-ranked high school kicking prospect of the 2015 graduating class.

Zip forward four years to today, and Yoon, with 364 career points, is now the highest-scoring player in Notre Dame history, which boasts alumni like Joe Montana, Jerome Bettis and Joe Theismann. He broke pretty much every Fighting Irish kicking record, from single-season to career, and was on the 2018 Lou Groza Award watch list, an accolade given to the best placekicker in the country.

"They're gonna put a little plaque on the Notre Dame wall with Justin's name as the all-time leader," Jiseop says now. "It's so important. That's Korean heritage represented on that wall for God knows how many years."

And now, following a senior year that saw him convert 16 of 20 field goals and 41 of 43 extra points, Yoon finds himself preparing to face Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, a win away from the College Football Playoff Championship Game.

His collegiate success has also made him one of the top place-kicking prospects in the NFL draft pool. He has an opportunity to become the third Korean American NFL kicker and potentially the first with a career longer than one season. He would be the only player of full Asian descent in the NFL.

Justin tries not to think about that right now. His focus remains on Clemson in the CFP semifinal. But as he prepares for his NFL opportunity and the public scrutiny it will bring, he thinks about what his grandpa tells him every time they talk on the phone, dating back to when Justin's kicking success began to take off.

Football wasn't just about the ritualistic act of kicking—three steps back, two steps over, perfectly perpendicular—his grandpa told him. The Notre Dame community depended on him to win football games. His successes and failures affected his family's reputation. The dreams of others could hinge on his success.

"A lot of Koreans look up to you," his grandpa said. "Your body is not your own anymore."

Justin Yoon works on his kicking technique before a game.
Justin Yoon works on his kicking technique before a game.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press/Associated Press

Kicking requires an intense insistence on consistency and discipline. One mistake—a step too far left, a slip, a lace facing the wrong direction—can send a football flailing east or west of its target. The position demands precision and perfection more than any other on the field.

Rarely does a kicker come into an NFL camp unopposed, and the difference between a job and the unemployment line can be razor-thin. Had Adam Vinatieri missed a few more kicks in the preseason of his rookie year, his stellar 23-seasons-and-counting career as a kicker in the NFL may have never begun. He may have wound up more like Korean American kicker Younghoe Koo, who lasted only four games into his rookie season, missing crucial kicks in his only NFL opportunity with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Kickers are usually noticed more for their misses than their makes. So when Alabama kicker Cade Foster received death threats following the 2013 Iron Bowl, Yoon knew exactly what he wanted out of kicking: anonymity.

"The last thing I wanna do is miss a field goal and have death threats on my wall like the Alabama kid," Yoon says.

But Jiseop wanted more for his son. From a young age, he always wanted him to stand out. Something always bothered Jiseop about how many Korean parents raised their kids in the U.S. He took note of the stereotypes.

Too many times, he thought, he saw kids raised to become engineers, doctors or lawyers who didn't want to become engineers, doctors or lawyers. Too many times, he saw kids not spending enough time making friends. Too many times, he saw parents pushing their kids to extremes to get into elite academic educations.

Jiseop, 52, arrived in the United States at 13 years old, when his father, a Korean naval officer, sent him to boarding school because they wanted their son to experience the U.S. There, he lived in a foster home and eventually did figure skating at a high level in his native South Korea.

As his friends began going to college, he noticed something: The collegiate system prized athletes, enough to admit them into elite academic institutions with lower grades. He noticed colleges marketing through athletes. He observed that athletes received special treatment from boarding school through college.

"Everyone else can get all A's," Jiseop says. "I wanted my kids to do something different."

Clockwise from top left: Jiseop, Mihwa, Eric and Justin Yoon.
Clockwise from top left: Jiseop, Mihwa, Eric and Justin Yoon.Courtesy of Jiseop Yoon

Justin was born in Cincinnati before moving to Korea with his family, where he went to international school. On the Korean subway, Justin and Jiseop would speak English but would often sense the resentment of other riders. The government had spread anti-U.S. sentiment among its people at the time, Jiseop says, and he did not want his kids growing up in that environment.

It all prompted the family to move back to the U.S., settling in Nashville, Tennessee, where Justin attended boarding school. Justin's mom, Mihwa, supported the family by running a pharmacy (contrary to some reports, Mihwa never was a silent film actress in South Korea). Jiseop focused on raising the kids.

Justin and his brother Eric received constant reminders that they stood out like sore thumbs by nature of their race. Going to school in the South meant they were among the few Asian kids in a classroom. In the eyes of his dad, that created an even greater responsibility for Justin to be on his best behavior, not only for himself, but for the reputation of Asian kids in general. "If you don't do things right ...  We're not going to get anywhere," Jiseop reminded his son. 

In school, Justin received countless questions from other students asking if he was from North or South Korea. Others would ask if their family ate dog for dinner. Justin grew angry at the ignorance of their questions.

Some students would say racist things about his family, often sparking fights. "I didn't grow up the right way at first," Justin says, talking about his actions rather than how he was raised. When the tussles ended and Justin's parents were called, Jiseop always reminded him his actions had consequences beyond the bruises lining his body.

"You're Korean by heritage. You're different from all the other kids," Jiseop told Justin. "When you do something wrong, it reflects poorly on other Koreans as well. You have to be aware of that."

Justin didn't know how to tell someone that something offended him. He didn't know how to properly channel the anger that came hand-in-hand with the casual racism he faced daily.

"You have to grow up and understand what's going to happen to you," Justin says. "I learned that really fast. And then, obviously, I stopped getting in trouble."

Being more athletically and less academically inclined than his brother, Justin fell knee-deep into sports, as his father enrolled him in three. He always played team sports because Jiseop wanted his son to learn to work with others.

Every night, Justin went to bed at 10 p.m. after drinking a lot of milk. His parents said this would help him grow. Today, he stands 5'11". His parents are both 5'5".

Justin began playing football when a coach at Harding Academy in Nashville saw him kick a soccer ball and suggested football. In kicking, Jiseop noticed the repetition of the craft, which reminded him of his days figure skating. Kicking presented much smaller risk for injuries and concussions, and all Justin needed to do was keep practicing, like he was studying vocabulary flash cards for the SAT.

"He's kicked the ball so many times; every single kick is like a pendulum," says Kevin MacDonald, Yoon's high school coach.

Korean culture teaches kids respect, based on someone's age, position in the family, job position or college degree. When presented a gift from an older person, Koreans are expected to use two hands receiving it, accompanied by a bow. Justin obeyed, always listening to his dad, never speaking back to his parents or jawing with a referee or coach. "You respect an elder," Justin says. "You don't fight back."

Justin Yoon kicking for Milton Academy.
Justin Yoon kicking for Milton Academy.Photo courtesy of Jiseop Yoon

For high school, Justin was sent to Milton Academy, hand-selected by Jiseop because of its academic and equally important athletic fit. It didn't matter if Jiseop's high school alma mater was rival Governor's Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Jiseop thought Justin needed to be around kids who might one day have power in the world, as is the case with many prep schools. The teachers and community grew to know him as a kid who did no wrong.

Justin actually felt most passionate about hockey (his No. 19 for Notre Dame is a tribute to Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman, his only favorite team and athlete). But by his sophomore year, he mostly sat on the bench as a fourth-liner. At that point, he'd already become the No. 1 kicker in the nation for his high school class.

So Justin consulted with his dad, and the easy decision was made to ditch the ice. By the time he graduated, students and campus patrol at Milton grew accustomed to seeing Yoon on the football field, centrally located among the campus dorms, kicking at 7 a.m. before classes started.

His college decision came down to Notre Dame and Harvard. If he wanted an NFL career, he would go to Notre Dame, where he could kick in front of 80,795 fans for home games. If he wanted to prioritize a career outside of football, he would don the Crimson, receiving an elite education in front of a smaller football crowd, playing for the Ivy League title instead of a national championship.

He only heard one rule from Jiseop before the process started. He could not go to Alabama, under any circumstances. Justin needed as elite a collegiate education as possible, and his father was convinced that was not available in Tuscaloosa.

Fake news (as it tends to do nowadays) spread about Justin the moment he set foot on the Notre Dame campus. In the Korean American community, one rumor spread that Yoon arrived in the U.S. from North Korea, rowing across the ocean in a boat using just one leg. Another spread that he turned down a Valentine's Day cookie from a girl, as many viewed him as cold and unapproachable. (He was at home watching Netflix the entire day.)

Justin wanted to connect with other Korean Americans at Notre Dame, but football dominated his schedule for the first two years of college. The Korean American community was cautiously curious about him.

He was an anomaly, someone who looked like them but played football for Notre Dame, a pastime as American as Levi's jeans and yellow school buses and red Solo cups. He was an outlier. A Korean playing football was like an alien, maybe a Korean in the sunken place.

"They didn't want to talk to me at first because they weren't sure," Justin says. "They weren't sure what type of person I was."

"Is it because you played football?" he's asked.

"I think so," he responds.

Justin Yoon gets a high-five after a successful kick.
Justin Yoon gets a high-five after a successful kick.Elsa/Getty Images

Adjusting to the locker room took some time too. Justin followed his dad's advice, trying new foods, asking about people's backgrounds and getting to know everyone. As a minority who understood the discrimination struggle but who also played on a mostly white prep football team, Justin often found himself in the middle, toeing the line between the black and white culture permeating the locker room.

"It took me a while to get accustomed to it, but I ended up understanding this is the life and I gotta get used to it," Justin says. "I started making a lot of friends. Everyone here is awesome. ... Whenever the locker room says, 'Let's talk about a topic,' it becomes very controversial, very funny in fact."

Justin eventually reached out and got to know some Korean Americans. They found the rumors were untrue. He told them he was there, like them, to get an education, with the only difference being that he also played football.

"I'm here to literally kick a ball, do my job, and that's all I'm doing," Justin told them. "I'm pretty sure if you guys practiced just like I did, continuously, you guys would've probably done the same thing."

On weekends, Justin embraced his heritage, going to the H Mart, an Asian American supermarket chain, in Chicago, an hour-and-a-half drive from South Bend, to stock up on groceries, especially ddeokbokki and kimchi. He became a big fan of the K-pop band 2PM and the K-drama Jumong. He texts his parents in Korean on KakaoTalk, animated stickers and all, on his Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

He's grown to understand his place in the Korean American community. He had an opportunity most of them did not have, presented with a platform because of his kicking ability and his spot on one of the most iconic college football teams. But his body was also theirs.

"It's really heavy stuff. When you're Korean, you're putting an entire load, an entire country, on your back," Justin says. "The way it goes, I have to accept it. I have to continue to do what I'm doing and just hopefully aspire to help contribute to the successes of others and help them."

Justin and his games have dictated Jiseop's schedule for a while now. Justin lived with his father during his senior year at Notre Dame so they could maximize his time prepping for the NFL. Around the house, he would see his dad cooking and cleaning, hoping to maintain some consistency in his son's life. His dad goes to all of the games too. Every once in a while, Justin hears kicking critiques from his dad, who analyzes his motion from the stands.

One thing Jiseop never expected: other Korean parents coming up at games to ask him not about his son but himself. A few weeks back, when Notre Dame played Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, a Korean woman tapped him on the shoulder.

"Are you Justin's dad?" she asked.

"Yeah," he responded. "How'd you know?"

"I went and looked through the internet," she responded.

When Korean American parents began realizing the lengths of Justin's success, they took notice, like often happens when a Korean achieves mainstream success. Justin watched all of this happen slowly. His father began answering all the questions from other parents who asked about the U.S. education system. They asked Justin about how his father helped him get to where he is today and what they can do to help their own immigrant children.

Justin Yoon and his pendulum-like kicking stroke.
Justin Yoon and his pendulum-like kicking stroke.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Dating back to Milton Academy, Justin and Jiseop monitored any local Korean Americans who expressed an interest in kicking and football. When Justin was an upperclassman, he convinced Min Kyu Park, then a sophomore soccer player, to switch to football, train as a kicker and be his successor on the Milton football team.

Park ended up going to Williams College to kick on their Division III team, replaced by another Korean American, JJ Mun. Mun came to Milton Academy after noticing Justin's success at Notre Dame, hoping the school could produce another Division I kicker. "It was really cool to see a Korean American do that," Mun says. "He had to be my idol. And then it became motivation for me to beat the records he set at Milton."

MacDonald says another Korean American freshman kicker is waiting to replace Mun, who goes to college next year and is being recruited by DI programs like Princeton and Yale. "They aren't at Milton without Justin," MacDonald says.

The Yoons talked to the Park and Mun families, to explain the road Justin took to Notre Dame, to explain the value of letting your kids invest time in sports and how their kids could get to an even better college because of sports. These conversations, Jiseop says, often go in one direction: the parents not fully understanding or taking his advice to heart.

"Without Justin, they would have been like, 'Well, how will you do this?'" Park says. "Cuz I was always completely in the dark before I met Justin. So I think they would have not really trusted it."

Justin could become the third Korean American kicker in NFL history next year, the first since Koo in 2017. John Lee arrived first in the NFL in 1986 with the then-St. Louis Cardinals, chosen in the second round, before going 8-of-13 on field-goal attempts and getting released the following offseason. In short, the reputation of Korean Americans at kicker is like Kobe Bryant's soiree into rap: succinct and kind of a mess.

With no precedent for success, the parenting advice may begin to stick more regularly if Justin becomes the first Korean American with a multiyear NFL kicking career.

He tries not to think about the potential cultural implications his success could creates within his community. He blows off steam by playing Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers on the Nintendo Switch. He's working through Dexter (he's been warned about the ending) but needs someone's Netflix password. He doesn't drink alcohol.

His dad doesn't want to think about it, either. Jiseop pauses when asked if his son can make the NFL. For maybe the first time, he doesn't know the answer to a question about Justin's life. "There's no guarantee he's gonna make it," Jiseop says. "So I'm busy working on that," trying to put his son in the best position to cope when his fate is no longer in his father's control.

Justin still gets reminders from his dad that he needs to improve the length of his kickoffs to stick as an NFL kicker. The discipline, instilled morning after morning of practicing field goals, holds him together for now. He long lost track of how many balls he's kicked. Probably tens of thousands, he says, all building to this.

One missed kick could be the difference in a long NFL career and a preseason flameout. In a few months, he will likely be in a training-camp battle, hoping that when he needs his pendulum leg the most, muscle memory takes over.

It will answer the one question his father can't. 


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