How Younghoe Koo's career went from NFL nightmare to the Pro Bowl

Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

IN SEPTEMBER 2017, 23-year-old Younghoe Koo was living the life he dreamed up for himself way back in middle school. A few months after graduating from Georgia Southern as a first-team all-conference kicker, Koo signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as an undrafted free agent. He beat out the incumbent, Josh Lambo, in training camp and was about to become the fourth player born in South Korea in NFL history. On the day he made the Chargers' roster, he became a social media sensation after a clip of him doing a backflip and kicking a field goal went viral (it has now tallied more than 2.3 million views and 8,400 retweets).

"It very much felt like a dream," says Ava Maurer, Koo's girlfriend since eighth grade.

But the next four weeks were more like a nightmare. The Chargers went 0-4. Koo made just three of his first six field goal attempts, missing a game-tying attempt against the Denver Broncos in the season opener and a game-winning attempt against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2. A month into his first professional season, Koo found himself walking out of the Chargers offices a free agent, his locker packed up into bags.

"I played it cool, but emotionally ..." Koo says, "I was emotional. I was just there, and then the next thing I know, I'm unemployed. I didn't really know what was going on, man. I didn't know what to think. It was my first time experiencing that."

On top of the shock of a life without football for the first time in more than a decade, suddenly a deal that Koo had made a few months earlier came into sharper focus. Before he graduated, Koo was constantly fielding questions from friends and family, who reminded him of the slim chances of getting one of just 32 kicking jobs. So when he left Georgia Southern, Koo gave himself a deadline to make it in the NFL. Three years, and only three years. When the clock ran out, he would force himself to find something else to do with his life.

Standing outside the Chargers' facility, three years didn't seem like very long at all.

But giving up before the clock ticked down wasn't an option.

"I tried to get a backup plan, this and that, but it just never sat right with me. I felt I was wasting energy," Koo says. "If it doesn't work out -- then I'll put all my energy into something else. But I can sit at a desk and get a job when I'm 40. I can't kick a ball when I'm 40."

WHEN KOO'S DEADLINE came up in April 2020, his life couldn't have felt further from that day in Los Angeles. This season, the now-26-year-old Atlanta Falcon finds himself as the top point scorer in the NFL, November's NFC Special Teams Player of the Month, a point-scoring miracle for fantasy football owners and a social media sensation among football Twitter.

"If something's not going as planned, if he gets cut, that only makes him work harder," Maurer says. "So I knew that although [getting cut by the Chargers] was upsetting at that moment, it wouldn't stop him."

All that work and on-field success didn't go unnoticed: As of Monday, Koo is also a Pro Bowler.

"It's cool," he said Tuesday after the announcement. "Still got two more games, though. I'll enjoy it after the season."

Koo's path to the NFL has always been unconventional. He moved to the United States with his mother as a sixth-grader and didn't speak any English when he first enrolled in school in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a short ride from New York City. At first, Koo gravitated toward the familiar -- kids who came from similar backgrounds, spoke fluent Korean and ate the same foods.

But his dad, Hyungseo Koo -- a business professor who stayed behind in Seoul but visited for a few months every year -- encouraged him to branch out so that he could learn English from his new classmates. In a predominantly white suburb (82% white, 2% Black and 13% Asian, according to the 2010 census), Koo bonded with the school's other minorities, many of whom played football (and helped Koo develop a slight Bronx accent while teaching him English pronunciations).

Koo grew up playing soccer, but one day in sixth grade, John Byon, a Korean American classmate, invited Koo to play football at recess. Byon told him to kick the ball to start off the game.

"I s--- you not, it was straight out of 'The Sandlot.' Straight out of a sports movie," Byon told me in 2017. "The ball just flew over the field we were playing in and over the fence. It was like, 'Oh my god. You have to play football.'"

"I didn't know what kicking was," Koo says. "My parents didn't know what football was."

Koo soon joined a team and became a star wide receiver and cornerback, with his kickoffs regularly reaching 50 yards on the 80-yard pee wee field. By seventh grade, his coaches began telling Koo's parents that his foot could one day grant him a career in professional football. "He's just kicking a football," Hyungseo told Koo's middle school coaches. "What are you talking about?"

The Koos faced a decision: Ask Younghoe to put all of his effort into academics to get into the best college possible or put it into sports to pursue a career in the pros.

"When I was in Korea, you don't have the opportunity to play sports unless you give up academics," Koo says. "My dad knew I had the athleticism, so he gave me the chance to not have to get all A's but get B's and pursue football, just to go play."

With his mom, a nurse, working long hours and his dad back in Korea, Koo spent many of his days alone at home, learning to cook dinner for himself and managing the balance between his schoolwork and everything he needed to get done for football.

"Even the Korean friends that I had, their parents didn't really allow them to come over because of that," Koo says. "I just felt independent from a very young age."

That early sense of independence -- and the isolation he remembered from being an immigrant and outsider when he first moved to the United States -- has aligned well with the isolation of being a kicker in the NFL. Special-teamers train independently from offensive and defensive players walking through the week's game plans -- and for Koo, success and failure falls solely on the strength and accuracy of his foot.

"As you are coming from a different country and you're learning, you do have to work a lot for yourself and you lean on yourself a lot more," Maurer says. "That does correlate to the kicker mentality, because you're not relying on anyone really but yourself to make that kick. You're not throwing the ball and hoping someone catches it. It's you. It's just you."

BUT THAT SOLITUDE took on a new tone when, in October 2017, Koo found himself out of the NFL and -- for the first time since middle school -- without football in his life.

"Not practicing or anything," Koo says. "I didn't really know what to do."

Eventually, he turned to John Carney.

Carney is a legend among NFL kickers, having played for seven NFL teams from 1988 to 2010 and ranking third on the NFL's career scoring list when he retired. Carney, who hosts an annual summit for collegiate special-teams stars from around the country before the draft, had first heard of Younghoe Koo years earlier. Koo was expected to attend the summit in 2017 but didn't show.

"Younghoe pulled a muscle and went underground for a while, just said he wasn't going to join anybody for training," Carney says. "It was really because he had pulled a muscle and didn't want to tell anyone."

Even after Carney reached out again when Koo made the Chargers' roster, it wasn't until Koo got cut by Los Angeles that he showed up at Carney's door.

"I wanted to knock him out for not coming to me sooner," Carney says.

The pair immediately got to work, and despite Koo's setback with the Chargers, Carney quickly realized Koo didn't represent a long-term project to get back on track for an NFL career. The pair put together a strength and conditioning program and worked on Koo's kicker IQ, which Carney describes as a special-teamer's ability to adjust to a variety of situations and something he works on with every specialist who comes into his facility, looking at things such as working with different snappers and holders, making kicks with imperfect weather and field conditions, onside kicks and working with special-teams coaches.

But all the while, Koo was unemployed -- and running out of money. He jumped from one Airbnb to another in San Diego, negotiating deals with landlords by sharing his NFL aspirations and experience. When his money from four weeks of NFL game checks dwindled, he moved back home to Georgia to live with his mom, where he worked out anywhere he could find goalposts and stayed in touch with Carney.

By late 2018, at the halfway mark of his career clock countdown, Koo realized that, despite the progress he'd made with Carney, he didn't have any new game tape to show teams. It had been more than a year since he'd played a professional game. "Let's say I didn't play in a game, live game, for two or three years," Koo says. "Realistically, it's not going to happen with an NFL team."

At about the same time, the Alliance of American Football was set to kick off its first season, and the Atlanta Legends were looking for players. Koo signed up in January 2019, hoping to use the upstart football league to make another impression on NFL squads.

In eight games with the Legends, Koo was perfect on 14 field goal attempts -- and, more important, was back on the radar of NFL teams. Koo went on about 16 tryouts in the next six months, but no team wanted to grant him his second NFL opportunity.

"He would call me up very frustrated," Carney says. "'It happened again. I went in there, did really well and they gave me a pat on the back and said, "You're No. 1 on our list. We'll keep in touch."' But it was all about building a résumé, getting more exposure, the name getting bigger on a radar."

On Oct. 4, 2019 -- the day before the second anniversary of his release by the Chargers -- Koo joined the practice squad for the New England Patriots, who had just placed longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski on injured reserve. Although he was released 11 days later, this time he spent just two weeks waiting for his next gig: On Oct. 29, the Atlanta Falcons offered him a contract to replace Matt Bryant, the franchise's leading scorer, who was just 9-for-14 on the season.

In his first week as the Falcons' kicker, Koo made all four field goal attempts and both extra points, earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Four weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day in Week 13, he got his major moment in the spotlight, when he helped convert three onside kicks against the New Orleans Saints.

"I was pissed off the whole game because I missed an extra point and a field goal before [the onside kicks]," Koo says. "First one we got, and I wasn't really celebrating or whatever. The second one we got again, I was like, 'Whatever.' Then the third one we got again, maybe I showed some excitement. ... I don't really put onside kicks as a big deal because it's not just me. The guys have to run down and get the ball. If you look at the stats, it's like you kick it there and see what happens."

Koo finished off his first eight games in Atlanta 23-for-26 on field goal attempts.

"We had both said, 'Clearly Georgia is where you were meant to be,' between the AAF on the Atlanta team, and then the Falcons had decided that he was their guy," Maurer says. "We both felt that this was where he was supposed to be."

THAT SUCCESS WITH the Falcons in 2019 meant that when Koo's April 2020 deadline came up, he wasn't searching for a desk job -- he was preparing to join camp as Atlanta's starting kicker.

As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, Koo snuck onto fields across New Jersey, where he was living with Maurer's family, to practice. Sometimes he would get kicked off by security before he could finish workouts. When he couldn't find fields with goalposts, he looked for trees, mentally marking branches as his targets.

This year, he has improved on every element of last year's success. Koo leads the league in made field goals (35) and ranks first in points scored (133) and third in field goal percentage (97.2%). With a 52-yard kick in Week 15 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Koo broke Bryant's single-season record for field goals in a season.

Koo's play this season has made him by far the most successful Asian American kicker to play among the highest levels of football, and one of just a few in history. The then-St. Louis Cardinals drafted John Lee out of UCLA in the second round in 1986, but Lee's career lasted a single season. And while others, including Hines Ward and Kyler Murray, share Korean ancestry, Koo feels the weight of representation.

"He felt like he was carrying a whole community on his back," Carney says. "There were all these Asian Americans pulling for him and that he was responsible to represent."

"I remember watching the NFL and I was like, 'There is nobody that looked like me,'" Koo says. "As a kid, you look to somebody that you can relate to. As crazy as it is, I used to tell myself that I was going to be that guy. ... To have that representation in any industry that you're the minority, it's a blessing. There ain't no pressure in that."

Koo recognizes that his rise to success parallels the explosion of Korean culture in the Western world, with the rise in popularity of food, and dramas and the Oscar wins of Bong Joon-Ho's "Parasite." Sometimes when turning on the radio on the way to the Falcons' facility, Koo hears a BTS or Blackpink song in his native tongue on American pop radio and reflects on how much the cultural landscape has changed since his childhood in Ridgewood, and how it helped shape the mindset that helped him climb back to the NFL.

"The most beautiful thing about this country is diversity. As time goes by, becoming more diverse, it's amazing to be a part of this," Koo says. "[Koreans] are resilient. We're competitive because of where we come from -- our culture, our nation. It's definitely passed down from our parents, from their parents. Being a guy from that culture, I think it shows."

ESPN football analyst Mina Kimes, who is Korean-American, has been following Koo's journey since he made the Chargers back in 2017.

"I know it means so much to so many people," she says. "It's a lot of pressure, for sure. But when I see him succeed, there are a lot of Korean ummas [mothers] and kids who are thrilled, and that's pretty special.

"Any time you have representation that's been missing in any sport, it's exciting for a group of people. As someone who belongs to that group of people, it's uniquely exciting."

She is one of many journalists and fans who took note as the story of his comeback gained notoriety -- and led to the emergence on social media of the #KooHive.

For his part, Koo tries to ignore the rising attention he's receiving, focusing on the week's game, one kick at a time.

"Another lesson I've learned from my rookie year is that I'm very grateful for the support from everyone, but it can disappear overnight if I don't perform on the field," he says. "I try not to ride the emotional roller coaster. Whether I have a good game or a bad game, I try to stay level-headed through it all."

Carney, too, hopes to keep Koo's attention on the field. "I'm very proud of him," he says -- but "I'm going to tell him not to read this article until the season's over."

Koo's not taking this moment for granted either.

"I still have games left, and I learned that it's a production business. It doesn't really matter what I have done so far," Koo says. "That's my mentality. Whatever I have done so far, or what I haven't done so far, is not going to help me make the next kick. The next kick is a whole new one."

Three years after setting a deadline, there is still no backup plan.