By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Rich Lee-Kim first played football in the fourth grade. However, he was told that he needed to play with the sixth and seventh graders because he was bigger than all of his classmates.
The 24-year-old is now 6’1″, 278 pounds, and plays defensive line for the Snohomish Vikings, the defending champions of the Northwest Football League (NWFL). The semi-pro league comprises 10 teams in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.
Lee-Kim loves the game, though his parents were initially against him playing. “I can only remember that my parents did not want me to do it,” said Lee-Kim. “[They said] that there is always going to be people bigger than you.”
Once Lee-Kim started playing, they developed other concerns. “My parents were worried about my safety.
Will the coach care [about it]? They were also worried that I wouldn’t [get to] play,” Lee-Kim said.
Nevertheless, Lee-Kim was a standout football player at Lake Washington High School. He received 11 scholarship offers to play football at smaller schools. He chose to play for Central Washington University.
Unfortunately, the scholarship fell through, and he returned to the Seattle area to attend a small Bible college. Lee-Kim went on to receive a paramedic certification. His goal is to become an emergency medical technician in addition to serving as a youth minister.
Lee-Kim’s religious faith helped him become friends with former Seattle Seahawks players Heath Evans and Shaun Alexander. “They are huge inspirations,” said Lee-Kim.
This year was Lee-Kim’s first year playing semi-pro football, which he first heard about through a friend. The league comprises former college and high school football players who did not compete in college. Players in the league vary in age from 19 to 54 years.
The NWFL operates as a nonprofit organization, and the players are not paid. “We play for the love of the game,” Lee-Kim said. The league begins practice in March and plays through the summer months. The team practices two to three times a week and has games on the weekends. Most players balance work and family in addition to playing football.
Since the league is nonprofit, teams must fend for themselves when it comes to equipment. Lee-Kim’s head coach provides basic equipment, but miscellaneous items are the individual player’s responsibility.
Lee-Kim estimates that he’s spent about $450 on items such as cleats, tape, protective gear, and other articles to play football. Lee-Kim says that he is very conservative in his spending and that other players easily spend more than $1,000 on equipment.
It is also expected that players will take care of any football-related injuries on their own. An injury can be costly because many players do not have health insurance. This season, Lee-Kim has had three broken fingers, including his middle finger.
“It split down the middle,” said Lee-Kim. The injury required surgery. He has had sprained ankles and a broken rib. He also recalls dislocating his shoulder in the second game of the season. “It ripped out of the socket.”
Heritage and ethnicity
On the field, Lee-Kim wears a bandana of the South Korean flag under his helmet. As a Korean American, Lee-Kim sees racism in football. Originally from Minnesota, Lee-Kim experienced a lot of racism growing up.
One of his only friends was the only Black person in his town.
During this past season, Lee-Kim said that he received stares and remarks from players about how Asians do not play football. The NWFL has only a few Asian American players.
Despite derogatory remarks, there are many positive aspects. After a game, a young Japanese kid wanted to meet Lee-Kim because he recognized that Lee-Kim was Asian. Lee-Kim remembers the parents of the child saying, “He wanted to meet you right away. They haven’t seen a full Asian [football player].”
Prior to meeting Lee-Kim, the child was not sure if he should play football. After the meeting, he began playing.
“I believe that Korean Americans can make it in football,” said Lee-Kim. “[But] the only sports Korean people really play are tennis and badminton. One of the reasons … is that parents are in the old-mindset of Korea. Education first and sports is a hindrance. A struggle with a lot of the younger generation [of Koreans] is that they want to get involved in sports but are deterred because parents feel that sports are not productive.” Lee-Kim hopes to change this way of thinking.
Lee-Kim intends to work out this offseason and return to the Vikings for another year. He hopes that his play will catch the interest of an Arena Football League team. Arena football is a variety of gridiron football, which involves playing indoors (in an arena) with fewer players and a smaller field. This results in a faster and higher-scoring game. He was contacted by AFL scouts after several games this season.
Wes Fischer, head coach and owner of the Snohomish Vikings says Lee-Kim was very valuable to the Vikings this season. “He’s very capable and has all the tools to move up to another level,” Fischer said of Lee-Kim’s prospects of playing in the AFL. ♦
Jason Cruz can be reached at email@example.com.