When former Patriots offensive tackle Eugene Chung was pursuing an NFL coaching job this offseason, a comment made by one of his interviewers struck a chord. As Chung sold himself, running through his accolades, experience, and everything he could bring to the organization’s staff, the interviewer interjected.
“It was said to me, ‘Well, you’re really not a minority,’ ” Chung told the Globe on Tuesday.
Chung, who is Korean American, froze.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. The last time I checked, when I looked in the mirror and brushed my teeth, I was a minority,’ ” he said. “So I was like, ‘What do you mean I’m not a minority?’ ”
The interviewer responded, “You are not the right minority we’re looking for.”
Chung was dumbfounded.
“That’s when I realized what the narrative was,” Chung said. “I was blown away, emotionally paralyzed for a split second. I asked myself, ‘Did I hear that correctly?’ ”
He asked the interviewer to elaborate. The question, Chung says, was rhetorical because he already knew what the interviewer was implying.
“I asked about it, and as soon as the backtracking started, I was like, ‘Oh no, no, no, no, no, you said it. Now that it’s out there, let’s talk about it,’ ” he said. “It was absolutely mind-blowing to me that in 2021, something like that is actually a narrative.”
The remark was shocking and heartbreaking to Chung, who has multiple years of NFL coaching experience and is working to become the league’s first Asian-American head coach.
The NFL has attempted to address its lack of diversity, instituting — and updating — the Rooney Rule to mandate that organizations interview at least two minority candidates for head coaching and coordinator openings. The owners also passed a resolution in November that rewards teams for developing minority coaching talent with draft compensation.
“It’s continually keeping a focus on this, adapting, looking to see what areas we can improve on, and that constant evolution of improvement, to try to make sure we’re doing everything appropriate to give minorities an opportunity to advance in the head coaching ranks or the coaching ranks in general,” commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time.
Despite the league’s push for diversity, minority candidates are still being passed over in the coaching cycle, and the effectiveness of the rule has annually been called into question.
After his playing career ended, Chung worked in the private sector for a decade before returning to football. He earned his first coaching gig in 2010, when he joined Andy Reid’s staff as assistant offensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Reid left for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, and so did Chung, who maintained the same position.
Chung returned to the Eagles in 2016, this time joining the staff of Doug Pederson. He took on an expanded role, with responsibilities involving the tight ends and running game in addition to the offensive line, and won a Super Bowl ring for Philadelphia’s victory over the Patriots in February 2018.
Chung parted ways with the Eagles in January 2019 after his contract expired and hasn’t been on an NFL staff since.
“For me, in this profession, I don’t think I’m looked at as a minority,” he said. “Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know.”
Following the interview, Chung began to reflect on his life experiences as an Asian-American. When the Patriots selected him with the 13th pick in the 1992 NFL Draft, he became the first Asian-American to get drafted in the first round. He was just the third Asian and second Korean-American to play in the NFL.
An Asian-American playing in the NFL was so uncommon that prospective agents, pitching Chung to hire them, would ask how he got his last name.
“Well, my dad’s Korean and my mother’s Korean, and that’s his last name,” Chung would reply. “And they were like, ‘Oh, you’re Korean?’ ”
Chung’s post-interview thoughts trailed back beyond his football career, though, all the way to his childhood. He was reminded of the ridicule he experienced from peers at school, in a predominantly white neighborhood in northern Virginia.
Chung remembers hearing racial slurs as well as insults about his eyes, with some asking whether he could see. Others would ask, “How was the rice this morning for breakfast?”
Even as a grade schooler, Chung did his best to stand up for himself, but there were times he would turn to a teacher. Rarely did anything come of his complaints.
“I was told, ‘Just go back to your seat, it’ll be OK. I’ll take care of it,’ ” Chung recalled. “Nothing was done. I’ve been thinking about that and what’s been going on. Nothing has changed when it comes to that.”
Chung sees a parallel between the inaction from his teachers and the comment made by his interviewer: Asians can be an invisible minority. That notion can extend to the response to the rise in violence against Asian-Americans.
“In retrospect, it’s the same thing,” Chung said. “It might be on two different levels, but it’s the same thing. It’s just like, ‘Oh, let’s just push it under the rug because it’s these people and it’ll eventually just go away.’ ”
Just as he did as a child, Chung, now 51, tries to push back whenever he encounters a racist remark.
One time when he was on the field before a game, he remembers hearing a fan shout, “Hey Mr. Miyagi, what do you coach? Karate?” Chung stopped in his tracks, turned around, walked over to him, and confronted him.
“He just cowered away, like most of them do,” Chung recalled.
“I was always proud of my heritage, being Asian and being Korean. Always proud. Never ashamed. Not one day of my life.”
Chung has passed the same message along to his two sons — his oldest, Kyle, is an assistant offensive line coach at Virginia Tech — and told them, “Look, you’re different, this is how you’re different, this is why you’re different. That doesn’t make you any more or less of a person or a player or a coach.”
In terms of what can be done within the NFL, Chung had an abundance of praise for Reid, whom he still considers a mentor. He expressed confidence that coaches across the league are just as accepting. There is a problem, however, in how Asians can be perceived in the hiring process.
“I’m not sitting here bashing the league at all, because there are great mentors and there are great coaches that embrace the difference,” Chung said. “It’s just when the Asians don’t fit the narrative, that’s where my stomach churns a little bit.”
Chung doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to what can be done to improve the narrative surrounding Asian-Americans, but he believes speaking out is a step in the right direction.
“I think that’s what can be done, is to put that information out there and let people know,” he said. “If people don’t know about the temperature of what’s going on out there, they’ll never know.”