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Jackson He Makes History As 1st Chinese-Born Player To Score Touchdown IN FBS History

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Arizona State University wraps up its pandemic-shortened football season this weekend. And the Sun Devils probably won't be playing in a bowl game. But suddenly there's a lot of interest in ASU football after one of its most unlikely players made cultural sports history. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Last Friday night, Arizona State was cruising to a lopsided win over rival Arizona. In the fourth quarter, the Sun Devils were a yard away from scoring again. Little U's junior running back, Jackson He, born in China, took the handoff. One defender stood between him and the end zone.

JACKSON HE: In the end, when I saw that person right there, I was like, man, I got to man up. It's one yard. I got to beat him.

GOLDMAN: At 5'9'', 220 pounds, Jackson He beat him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Dragging the legs. And he is there.

GOLDMAN: Jackson He became the first Chinese-born player to score a touchdown in a top-tier, Division 1 football game. In a giddy postgame interview, He promised bigger things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HE: You know, it's just a start. Chinese can ball, too, you know? Yep.

GOLDMAN: Flash back five years, and this baller was a disoriented 17-year-old from Shaoguan, China who'd been sent to the U.S. by his parents for better educational opportunities. He landed at a high school in Southern California. One of the first steps in embracing a new culture was Americanizing his Chinese name, He Peizhang (ph).

HE: I really like Michael Jackson. Like, (singing) beat it.

Like, you know? Like, I was just so into it. And then it was like, oh, man, I'm going to just get Jackson as my, you know, English name.

GOLDMAN: His determination to not be shy and to embrace a new world led him to try high school football and a steep learning curve.

HE: I don't know nothing about, like, touchdown or, like, holding, you know, like, penalty stuff. When the ball gets on the ground, like, should I go pick it up and stuff. It's just crazy (laughter).

GOLDMAN: He learned the rules and fell in love with the physical contact and the strategy, like a chess game, he says. His college football career began in North Dakota, way too cold, and continued at sunny Arizona State, where he waltzed into the football offices last year and announced his intention to walk on the team. He doesn't start, but he's impressed coaches with his smarts and eagerness. It earned him playing time against Arizona and history and fame, which, says Arizona State Player Personnel Director Ryne Rezac, could open up a new football pipeline to China.

RYNE REZAC: You know, with Jackson doing what he did, though, I think it's going to open some eyes and possibly open some avenues for some kids over there if they want to play some American football.

GOLDMAN: Possibly open some avenues? Jackson He is certain. I may be the first one to score, he says, but I won't be the last. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASHROU' LEILA SONG, "3 MINUTES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.