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  • Writer's pictureNelson Austria

Under the Helmet

I’ve always taken pride in who I am, and a big part of that is understanding where I come from. From my parents speaking Tagalog to my mom cooking Filipino food, the culture and language of my motherland has been rooted in my identity ever since I was little. To this day it still rests there; the sun from my native flag embellished on my headband proudly, underneath my helmet every time I strap up to take the football field.

When my family moved from the Philippines to the States 19 years ago, I don’t think they expected to raise three football players. As most Filipinos do, my brothers and I began playing basketball. It was what our dad, uncle, and cousins did, so no one was surprised when we all took to it at such an early age. My brothers and I grew up like every other kid with hoop dreams, as a Michael Jordan poster hung up in our room. Unlike other kids, though, we also admired players like Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin. As Asian-Americans growing up in the States, we didn’t see many players that looked like us. The realization that there weren't many Asian basketball players hit us especially hard when it came to pick-up basketball games at our local gym. Those games always went the same way.

“Aye, lemme pick up Jeremy Lin over there,” the other players would shout, as I was one of the few remaining kids who hadn’t been chosen to a team. “How the hell do they mix up a Chinese guy with a Filipino?” I remember thinking to myself. Despite the drastic difference between the two, people just seemed to merge all Asians together. Apparently, playing basketball and being Asian was enough of a connection for the other players.

Each pick-up game was a rinse and repeat of racist jokes and Asian stereotypes. “Ask the Asian guy the score! They’re good at math.” or “How did you miss that? Open your eyes!” were some of the jokes I heard the most. The originality of jokes got worse and worse every day on the court. After the games it was always the same as well, even if we won: “Jeremy Lin ain’t so bad after all.” Did my real name even exist to them? I could hang 20 points on someone on the other team, but somehow they were still able to make me feel like I was inferior. Nothing I did on the court seemed to matter to them, because in their minds, I was just some random Asian kid who they refused to give any credit to.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I decided to swap sneakers and shooting sleeves for cleats and shoulder pads, taking up football like my older brothers did before me. However, Asian representation in the sport of football was close to none. I was out of my element and everyone knew it. The shoulder pads and helmet felt foregin to me. I felt lost on the first day of practice. “Offside” penalties haunted me. When everyone ran right, I went left out of sheer confusion. Football didn't come naturally to me like basketball did. I struggled to get a feel for the game and the movements that came with it. I was told numerous times by peers that I should’ve stuck to basketball.

“Asians don’t play football, man. Give it up,” I remember staying up late that night after my first practice and thinking about that sentence. I came very close to giving up and quitting the team. “They’re right,” I thought.

But then I thought a bit deeper. Asians don’t typically play football, but what if they did? And more importantly, what if they were good at it? At that moment, I made a decision. I decided that I wasn’t going to let the stereotype of my race define me. I decided that I was going to prove everyone wrong and show them why I belong. I decided that I wasn’t going to let what happened on the court happen again to me on the field.

I didn’t see much playing time my sophomore year, but come junior year, I had begun to get snaps during JV games. This built my foundation and my confidence for being a football player. Soon thereafter, I began putting extra time into the weight room to become faster and stronger. I eventually developed into one of the strongest players on my team. My maximum bench press, back squat, and deadlift totals tallied over 1,100 pounds when combined, solidifying my place in our team’s coveted “1,000 pound club.” At that point, I began receiving recognition from my coaches and teammates.

After a successful offseason of getting faster and stronger in preparation for my upcoming senior high school season, my team began to realize that we were one of the best in the state. As senior year rolled around, it was time to showcase the hard work I had put in and prove to everyone that I belonged. Everything I worked towards was coming true.

After a hot 5-0 start to the season, Week 6 brought a cross-town rival to our turf. This was a highly anticipated game for our school. It was homecoming week, so there was a sense of energy throughout the halls in the days leading up to the game. Each practice that week had more purpose to it than usual. The hits were harder, and the drills were longer. Everyone was determined to make a statement and run the scoreboard up on the other team.

When Friday night rolled around, we took the field in our all-black uniforms, with the student section coordinating in a “blackout” dress theme. The noise was so intense that we could barely hear the announcers. Players jumped up and down, yelling out of pure excitement and energy. We felt like wild dogs in cages, waiting to be cut loose. Before you knew it, we were up 42-0 going into the second half.

As the 3rd quarter began, the onslaught continued. The offense had scored on the opening drive and brought the defense out to hold the other team yet again. After pinning them in their half of the field, the defense held its ground. We forced a 3rd and long, and knew that the other team was going to try to throw the ball. Our coach called a blitz from the sideline, anticipating that the QB would have to wait for his receivers to reach the first down marker before throwing the ball, giving us plenty of time for us to get to him before he had to throw it. The blitz worked–we flushed the QB out of the pocket, but he made one of the linebackers miss. I sprinted across the line of scrimmage with spirited aggression and laid him out behind the line of scrimmage.

“Number 50, Nelson Austria in on the sack to force a 4th and long for the away team,” the announcer yelled. My teammates jumped on me in celebration while the stadium roared with pride, and then amongst the chaos I heard, “Get off our quarterback you ‘chink.’”

I felt my stomach drop. What? I’d never been called a “chink” before. Suddenly, I didn’t hear the crowd, or my teammates. I didn’t hear anything besides the word “chink.” It reverberated in my skull like an echo in an empty room. I felt as though a spotlight was on me, with a sign on my forehead that read “chink.” It was like the pickup basketball games all over again. Every racial joke rushed to my memory at that exact moment, clouding my head as I was getting called to sub off the field.

Then, out of nowhere, I hear a thunderous voice from behind me say, “He’s Filipino and he just lit up your quarterback!” I turn around and see my teammate coming to my defense and jumping on me to celebrate me for sacking the quarterback. As I jogged towards the sideline, the rest of my teammates were in a frenzy over what just happened. I was swarmed with high fives and helmet smacks almost making me forget about the racial slur that was just thrown my way. After the area cleared, I bowed to the crowd. All of this commotion for a Filipino football player.

At the time, I didn’t feel like I did much on the field as a football player. I wasn’t a standout player for my team, and I wasn’t going to a big Division 1 program like some of my other teammates. But, I felt like I established myself as a Filipino-American football player. I had proven people wrong.

People told me that Asians were not football players, and that I should’ve just quit, and there were times that I almost did. But instead, I threw their words to the side and worked to become what they said I couldn’t. Now, I find myself playing at the collegiate level for the same sport that once intimidated me because I didn’t fit the typical mold. I silenced those who doubted me and have shown others that your skin color and ethnicity do not determine what you can and cannot do. I continue to remind everyone of that each time I take my helmet off, showcasing my Filipino headband, with the bright yellow sun and stars, and the blue and red stripes. I wear it with pride and wear it loudly. I tackle my opponents head-on, with the sun of the Filipino flag striking first and leading me in every game I play.


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