Dat Nguyen (pronounced win) figures he got his work ethic from his father and his good manners from his mother. But neither he nor anyone else has any idea where he got his size. At 6'1", 232 pounds, the Texas A&M freshman linebacker towers over his family and is, by all accounts, the biggest Vietnamese anybody in south Texas has ever seen. Dat's father, Ho, guesses his youngest son drank too much milk, but his mother. Tarn, surmises that Dat ate more than his share of fried rice and broccoli, which she also suspects contributed to the failure of the family's Chinese restaurant six years ago. Of course, as the only member of his family born in the U.S., Dat has also reaped the benefit of a lifelong acquaintance with hamburgers, his favorite food.
Though Dat was born in the U.S., he was conceived in Vietnam. Tarn was four months pregnant when she and Ho and their five children tied their fishing village south of Saigon a few days before it fell to the Viet Cong in April 1975. In the middle of the night the Nguyens boarded a fishing boat with some hundred others and embarked on a perilous journey that included the dodging of Viet Cong gunfire, a missed hookup with an American ship and three months at dock in Thailand. The family was finally flown to Fort Smith, Ark., where Dat was born. After brief stays in Kalamazoo, Mich., Fort Worth and New Orleans the Nguyens moved to the Texas Gulf Coast city of Rockport—a near translation of the name of the village they had left behind, Ben Da (Port of Rocks). Since then Ho and Tarn have shrimped, built boats, made nets and run a restaurant and a marine-supply store. They are proud of Dat's success, but their work has allowed them little time to learn to appreciate football, "I know it's dangerous; I hope Dat is careful," says Ho, who has seen few of Dat's games and has almost no understanding of the skills his outsized son brings to the sport.
Last year Nguyen, who can run 40 yards in 4.6 seconds, notched 97 solo and 90 assisted tackles, averaged 41.3 yards a punt and 10.9 yards a carry as a fullback and scored 27 points (11 of them as a kicker) for Rockport-Fulton High. He also averaged 19 points a game as the center on the school's basketball team. "He would have made a good cheerleader too," says Pirate football coach Bob Pyssen, who compares Nguyen's on-field intensity with that of former Chicago Bear linebacker Mike Singletary, who happens to be Nguyen's hero. "His eyes get big and very focused, just like Singletary's," says Pyssen. "He sees the faking and usually ends up where the football is. And when he hits somebody, he's like a stick of dynamite—the other person explodes backward."
Nguyen had no idea how good he really was until last Dec. 1, the first day of the recruiting period, when Michigan coach Gary A Moeller appeared on his doorstep at 10 a.m. sharp. Not far behind were representatives of Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Texas. Nguyen had dreamed of playing at Michigan as a kid because, among other things, he says, he "loved their helmets." The recruiting visit to Ann Arbor was his introduction to plane travel, lobster and snow. But A&M's proximity and powerful linebacking tradition won out. "I just woke up one day and said, Tm an Aggie,' " says Nguyen.
The Aggies are happy to have him. "Dat's relentless, reckless style will fit right in," says A&M assistant coach Shawn Slocum, who sees Nguyen one day fitting in at inside linebacker. "And he's obviously very strong. I've also seen him dunk—with authority."
That, of course, is no small feat.