Linebacker Dat Nguyen left Texas A&M University as quite possibly the best and most decorated defensive player in school history.
The College Football Hall of Famer was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys and spent seven seasons as the team’s defensive leader. After battling various injuries throughout his career, Nguyen retired after the 2005 season. He retired as a top 10 tackler in Cowboys team history.
Upon his retirement, Nguyen spent time as an assistant linebackers coach, eventually returning to his alma mater as the inside linebackers coach at A&M where he helped mold a young Von Miller.
In this edition of Card Back Q&A, he talks with us about being the first NFL player of Vietnamese descent, playing a full game with a broken wrist, his relationship with enigmatic coach Bill Parcells and much more.
Tony Reid–The back of your 1999 SP Authentic rookie card mentions that you became the first player of Vietnamese descent to play in the NFL. How special was that fact to you?
Dat Nguyen-It is truly an honor. I was a pioneer. I thought I was the Jackie Robinson of football. I thought I broke the barrier. I was hoping there would be more Vietnamese Americans or Asian Americans playing football. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many guys out there. It is an honor, truly, but I was hoping we would have more Asian descent NFL players by now. I was the first. There were a lot of people that had a hand in it. There were a lot of people that helped me through the process of getting the opportunity to be the first. I owe a lot to a lot of people, not only to Texas A&M and my coaches but my high school coaches and high school teammates and even the support in the community in Rockport (TX).
TR–The back of your 2002 Fleer Platinum Unsung Heroes card states ‘Dat Nguyen showed his toughness in the 2002 season opener. Despite breaking his right wrist during the Cowboys loss to the Texans, Nguyen finished the game and tied for the team lead with 7 tackles and a sack.’ What are your lasting memories from that incredibly gritty performance?
DN-Its crazy. That happened in the first series on the first third down. We ran a zone dog and I went inside to the running back and his helmet just hit me right on the wrist. We got out on third down. I went to the sideline and I sat on the bench with Dexter Coakley. I looked at him and told him I thought I broke my wrist. I put my wrist on the bench and it went pop, pop, pop, pop every time I put pressure on it. We taped it up and I took a couple pills and played the whole game with it.
TR-One of the statements on the back of your 2003 Topps Total card was that you emerge as the leader for any of your teams. Can you just speak to your leadership qualities in general and how that transitions to the huddle and on the field?
DN-I think it’s a natural deal as the Mike (middle) linebacker. You are technically the quarterback on the defense. You are the natural play caller. You get everybody aligned and make the call and get everybody on the same page. That was the fun part about it. Playing the game of football wasn’t just calling the plays and getting lined up and doing my job. It was a chess game. Now they have the head sets and they call it in and you echo it but back then we had signals. We had hand signals between myself and Coach Mike Zimmer. We could talk about it. Are we going to play Cover 4 on the back end? Do we want to play Cover 6 or Cover 8? We had sign language. That’s what was cool for me.
I don’t know about being a leader, as a professional athlete you are wired differently. You have the natural instinctual ability, when you make it to that level, which is so small, everyone is a leader. I was just fortunate to be the one to call the plays. It gave me a little more responsibility. Some guys never wanted to learn how to call the signals. They would get too overwhelmed or they lose their focus. They just wanted to line up, know they play and do their job. We didn’t win many games when I was playing but the games that we won, especially late in the season, I would sometimes call the plays in Vietnamese. Players would get mad at me. I would get guys that wanted to choke me out there on the field because I was messing with them.
TR- The back of your 2005 Topps card says ‘Bill Parcells’ history suggests he favors jumbo size middle linebackers but the sub 6′ Nguyen has won him over with the results. The Cowboys head man went so far as to say that Dat could have played for any team he’s ever coached.’
That’s incredibly high praise from a guy who generally doesn’t offer it, at least no publicly. What was it like to win over Parcells and how was your relationship with him?
DN-He is a unique man. He is so brilliant. I learned more football in the four years that I was with him than I did in the prior 15 years of playing. They guy is a phenomenal leader and motivator. He is a soft teddy bear. He tries to front like he is mean guy and tough guy but as long as you work hard, play hard, play smart, don’t make a lot of mistakes and as long as he can trust you, you are in his circle. I am very thankful and fortunate to be in his circle. He is so knowledgeable. He shares so much, not just about the game of football but about life. The short time I was with him we developed a great relationship. We still have a great relationship today. If I ever need anything I text him and he texts me back. That is the cool thing about Coach Parcells. He has so much wisdom and so much knowledge that he is willing to share with us. He didn’t want those midget linebackers up there, he wanted the big boys.
There’s a book about Dat Nguyen’s life you can check out on Amazon.com.