When he was around 7 years old and still living in South Korea, Penn football senior linebacker David Park’s parents took him to piano lessons. He had already demonstrated a love for athletics — specifically, soccer — but they figured it would be a good idea to try a variety of extracurriculars.
“They just wanted me to be exposed to a lot of things,” he said.
The only problem?
“My teacher literally told me, like, ‘You suck.’”
Tragic as the abrupt end to Park’s burgeoning career as a concert pianist was, it was probably for the better — he got back to kicking a soccer ball around between classes, playing any time and with anyone he could.
“When he was young, he was one of the guys who just couldn’t stand still. He just had that sort of personality about him,” Park’s mother, Nan Lee, said.
“I always dreamt of becoming a soccer player professionally,” Park said. “But it wasn’t anything I could grasp, honestly, because I was so young.”
Eventually, realities far more sobering than the naivete of youth obstructed his childhood dreams of professional soccer, and hopes for a better education brought his family to immigrate to the United States.
Suddenly, Park found that his new classmates were preoccupied with other, unfamiliar sports — ones involving an odd combination of tackling, sprinting and complicated footwork more intuitive for a soccer player.
“[Soccer] was less accessible, and I didn’t really have anyone to play with,” he said.
So he picked up a football.
While his passion for soccer was stifled by the sport’s lack of mainstream popularity in the States, Park’s athletic ability couldn’t be suffocated. He worked his way through North Gwinnett High School’s freshman and JV football squads, toiling on special teams. He found himself starting — then captaining — the varsity team.
“High school football in Georgia is huge,” Park said. “It was a phenomenal experience. We consistently had over 10,000 people at our home games.”
It was a long way from Korea, where he kicked a soccer ball around with his friends between homework, classes and ill-fated attempts at piano, and where football — with its distinctly American blend of aggression and strategy, pure physical chaos and finesse — was unheard of to Park.
A football family now
The scene, as it must have appeared to his family for the first time, might have been overwhelming — more than 10,000 fans packed into a Georgia high school football stadium, abuzz with pre-game adrenaline.
Players lined up on the field, bracing themselves for the inevitable physicality. Park, standing somewhere amidst it all. It all must have seemed very novel — foreign, even — to a family who had never seen the sport before.
But for David’s parents and sister, amongst even the deafening roar of the crowd and the chaos of the game, there was only one person on that field who really mattered.
“It really didn’t matter how many people were there, because I just went to the game to see him play,” Lee said.
“I was just having fun watching him play on the team,” his sister, Janie, added. “When I was watching it in person, it was even better, because you got to see him playing, see the crowd yelling.”
The intensity of the situation was not lost on David — but he didn’t allow it to engulf him, either.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” David said. “A lot of tension. But once you get your blood flow going, once you get into the game, everything else doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Like a celebrity”
The recruiters started coming during his junior year and met with David and his parents.
“You feel like a celebrity,” he wryly noted of the process, “Because you get called out every fourth period. Like, ‘Park, report to the field.’”
Between the Division I recruiters and daily trips out of class, the prospect of playing sports in college — a lifelong dream — was suddenly snapping into focus. He committed to Penn and swapped his number 99 for 54, a jersey number he wears to this day.
David’s days at North Gwinnett — with the unmistakable fanaticism characteristic of huge football high schools — certainly taught him some of the most important skills needed to succeed in college.
“Keeping composure,” David noted, “Being able to handle pressure.”
And then, by far the most important, he said with a smile and a laugh: “Having fun with my boys out there.”
So much in the balance
But college presented an entirely new set of challenges, both on and off the field.
“In high school, if you’re the strongest or the fastest kid on the team, you’ll probably play,” David recalled. “Here, if you don’t perform well, there’s the next guy up — everyone is just as talented as you. You have to be consistent.”
Then there were academics, which had long been a priority for Park and his family, but had suddenly become a lot more challenging.
“I kind of had trouble balancing school and football,” David said. “I think I dug myself a hole in the first two years, and it was tough getting back out. Sophomore year was tough, and I think it just overwhelmed me.”
For all the difficulties — balancing practice with homework, game preparation with classes, games themselves with studying — football provided a constant for David. The academic stress and chaos of being a student-athlete all faded away with the snap count. The adrenaline switched into focus. The physicality into determination. The crowd into ambient noise.
“Football is like an outpouring of stress, or frustration, or anything. It just clears my mind when I’m on the field,” he said.
With that constant, David began to refocus. Throughout his junior year, between seeing his first varsity action and playing in nine games over the course of the season, he sought tutoring for classes and asked his professors for help.
Between his seven tackles — two of them coming in his season debut against Lafayette — and first career sack against Columbia, he found time to meet with Engineering advisors and to consult with classmates. He was determined to succeed, and his parents — while supportive as ever — trusted him enough to let him succeed by himself.
“David didn’t want us to be worried because he wanted to show that he could do it by himself,” Lee said. “All we could do is call him and ask, ‘Did you eat dinner?’ He tried to manage his time, he basically did it by himself.”
Another fan in the stands
Suddenly and precisely, things off the field came together just as well-executed plays did on the field. His father, who had lived in South Korea for years after the rest of the family moved to the United States in order to continue working, moved to Georgia. What used to be a twice-a-year visit became dedication.
“My dad actually came a couple weeks during my junior year when I finally got to start and get a lot of playing time. Ever since then, he kept trying to learn the game,” David said. “My senior year, he came for two months and basically came to all my games [over the course of] six weeks. And he just loved watching me.”
Park’s rapidly growing on-field success culminated in Penn’s Oct. 5 victory against Dartmouth, which went into four overtimes and required a miraculous play from Park.
With junior kicker Riley Lyons poised to give the Big Green a victory with an easy 21-yard field goal, Park blocked the kick as time expired and sent the game into overtime. This provided the turning point in one of the most exciting wins in Penn history and a spectacular highlight of an otherwise lackluster season.
For many Penn football fans, the play against Dartmouth will come away as the defining moment of Park’s football career. But there’s a lot more that will inevitably be left out of the highlight reel.
The energy behind a touch of the soccer ball in a soccer-crazed country, sure to induce nostalgia.
The team that went a long way toward teaching a new student how to speak English.
The teachers and advisors that kept the play call audible beneath the roar of bioengineering classes and graduation requirements.
And the trust of parents, of course, who lived alone, drove countless miles and learned an unheard-of sport to support a career far more richer than a blocked kick against Dartmouth one October Saturday.
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