For most people, the discovery of such a photograph would elicit feelings of comfort and warmth. But for a 7-year-old orphan, bone-weary after his flight from South Korea to the U.S., the picture brought painful memories of a mother he barely knew who had abandoned him to the care of strangers. The photo showed her gently cradling him as an infant. Why had she defied adoption procedures and carefully hidden the photograph inside the binding of her son's picture album? The boy's mind strained to grasp the meaning of the gesture. It would be two years before he could bring himself to look at the picture again.
So began the American portion of a tale that could have sprung from the imagination of a Hollywood screenwriter. The supporting players include an American serviceman, a Korean woman, two goodhearted Minnesota schoolteachers and a chorus of onlookers—some open-minded, some bigoted. The star of the story is a senior running back at the University of South Dakota named Chul Schwanke, and its climax may see Schwanke making it to the pros. This is appropriate, because it was on a football field that he first earned acceptance in the U.S. "I've often wondered how well he would have been accepted if he had a lisp or walked with a limp," his adoptive father, Robert Schwanke, says pointedly.
At 5'11", 206 pounds, Schwanke has a rare combination of quickness (4.5) and strength that allows him to run both around and over opponents. Coach Al Kincaid of Division I-A Wyoming describes Schwanke, who rushed for 119 yards against the Cowboys last year, as "one of the most hard-nosed running backs we've ever faced." Nebraska assistant John Melton sees him as "a 10-framer—you only need 10 frames of film to know he can play." This fall the Coyotes were ranked No. 1 in Division II for five weeks and finished the season 9-2. Schwanke's contribution: He ran for more than 100 yards six times, scored six TDs and gained 1,162 yards on 220 carries to become the leading career rusher in North Central Conference history with 3,427 yards. Says New York Giant scout Ed Rutledge, while acknowledging the distance from Division II to the pros, "If desire will get it done, he'll do it."
Schwanke's beginnings were not so bright. He recalls being raised in a "house filled with ladies," where his mother had at one time lived, near a U.S. Army base. What did the women do? Schwanke shrugs and says, "They were near an Army base. What do you think?" His mother came to visit him on occasion, and an older woman gave him what care he received. Of his father Schwanke remembers only that "there was this black serviceman who would come around, take me to the base and show me around. I'd always eat until I got sick. He'd treat me to a good time. I wasn't used to that." Korea is a country obsessed with ethnic purity, and little Chul suffered his share of bigots' taunts.
December 16, 1985
Half a world away in the town of Hutchinson, Minn., schoolteachers Robert and Mavis Schwanke, parents of 7-year-old Richard, were contemplating adopting a second child. When they learned about Chul through Lutheran Social Services, their decision was made. Chul arrived by plane on a Sunday night in 1970. On Monday the Schwankes bought their new son some clothes. The next day he was in kindergarten. Welcome to America.
Bigotry doesn't end at the Korean border, and many of the children in his class had never seen a black face or heard of Korea. And he encountered new forms of humiliation. Chul's English was limited, and he didn't know how to ask where the bathroom was at his school. When the inevitable accident occurred, his teacher reprimanded him in front of the other children and sent him home on the school bus with a note to his mother pinned to his shirt.
Now, though, Chul had a real home with parents who told him to ignore taunts. Soon, too, he had friends who stood up for him and, when necessary, shared his pain. "That was important," Schwanke recalls. "It seemed like it hurt them more than it hurt me."
Eventually, he also had football. Chul had almost effortlessly taught himself how to swim and ride a bicycle, and after playing his first organized football game in third grade, he quickly took to the new sport, dominating at every level he played. In high school, Schwanke gained nearly 3,000 yards rushing, scored a school-record 36 touchdowns and was named first-team All-State as a senior. The taunting ceased.
In spite of ardent wooing from several Division I colleges, including Nebraska and Air Force, Schwanke chose South Dakota. He likes the small-town atmosphere in Vermillion, where you know everybody—it's more like a family. Before Schwanke played a single game as a freshman, his coach, Dave Triplett, correctly predicted that Schwanke would break the school rushing record. "We'd be in dire straits if anything should happen to Chul," Triplett says. Obviously, that story has had a happy ending.