From China to Arizona State, Jackson He’s football journey

Jackson He’s adventure as a foreign exchange student started ordinarily enough.

A native of Shaoguan, China, a city in the Guangdong Province about 175 miles north of Hong Kong in the south of China, he was sent by his parents to San Diego, where the plan was to have him spend a year finishing high school, then attend an American university. It likely would have worked out like that, too, if not for a chance encounter with a parent on campus shortly after his arrival.

“They just came up to me, like, ‘Hey, you’re pretty big, man, you look like a football player,'” He recalled. “You should play.”

He, 23, who was 17 at the time, was only vaguely aware that football even existed, but figured he would give it a shot. “OK,” He told the parent. “I got nothing else to do.”

What started out as something to kill time and help him acclimate to a new country turned into a passion, setting in motion an unlikely series of events that took him from San Diego to North Dakota, back to China and to Arizona State last fall, where he joined the Sun Devils as a walk-on running back. In the Territorial Cup on Dec. 11, He got into the game in the fourth quarter and provided one of the most talked-about moments of the college football season, scoring the final touchdown in ASU’s 70-7 win to punctuate the end of Kevin Sumlin’s three-year tenure as the Arizona head coach.

With his name in Chinese characters on the back of his jersey, He’s touchdown went viral. His name started trending nationally on Twitter and generated media attention back home in China, as He was believed to be the first Chinese-born player to score a touchdown in a major college football game.

This week, his jersey was shipped to the College Football Hall of Fame, where it is expected to be displayed alongside the jersey of another trailblazer, Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller, who became the first woman to score points in a FBS game this season.

For those who were around when He was first introduced to the sport, the idea that his jersey will be displayed in Atlanta, among those of football’s legends, is surreal. Not only was everything about the sport brand-new for him, but he picked it up while learning English. As part of the high school program, He was housed with other Chinese students and still regularly spoke Mandarin away from school.

“My English was not that good and so when I said something, I was just saying very, very confusing words to them,” He said. “So my teammates really couldn’t help me that much because they couldn’t even understand what I said.

“I kept talking to them, I don’t want to be shy and I talked to them all the time and they finally feel, ‘Oh, this is what he said.’ And then they actually helped me a lot with football and stuff.”

His name is He Peizhang — the family name is said first in China — but He chose “Jackson” as his American first name when he arrived to make communication easier. He credits his Michael Jackson fandom for the inspiration.

Christian Dufresne, the high school team quarterback and son of the school principal, said He is being hard on himself in recalling what the language barrier was like — at least compared to the experiences of many of the school’s other international students.

“Jackson was one of the ones that fit in really well with all of the students already on campus just because he understood English so well and was able to speak it very well,” Dufresne said. “So we’re able to interact with him pretty easily, as compared to the other students who may have been learning that language still.”

He was one of two Chinese students who went out for football on the same day. While the other one didn’t stick around, He took to the sport right away.

“He had a great attitude and was a big kid, so we thought he could help us on the line,” said Ron Allen, his high school coach.

Lutheran High, which has since been renamed Victory Christian Academy, is a small school with a limited roster, so even though He was new to the sport, he was used at both offensive guard and on the defensive line in his introductory season. He said he didn’t tell his parents he joined the football team until after he played a couple of games because, at first, they weren’t supportive of the idea.

“The news they heard about football was concussions and breaking bones,” He said. “And then they’ve been supportive ever since.”

That first season was supposed to be it — one and done. He completed the required coursework to graduate and could have enrolled in college, but upon learning he qualified for another year at the school, he made the choice to return. Football brought him back.

In the offseason, things started to click. Allen recognized He’s athleticism would be better suited at running back, where he showed he had the capability to be a bruising ball carrier.

“I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to ball out this season and then go D-I,'” He said. “It was easier as far as rules and stuff, but it was still my second year and first playing running back. I love to run and run people over. There was still a lot of technical stuff I needed work on.”

His first career carry came near the goal line after a long Lutheran drive. As He later showed for Arizona State, his physicality figured to be an asset in a short-yardage situation. Except this time, he fumbled and the other team recovered the ball, nearly returning it for a touchdown.

“After that, our coach said, ‘You need to carry this football around with you every day at school,'” Dufresne said. “And he did just that. Literally, for the rest of the football season, and honestly, the rest of the school year, he carried the ball with him to every single class he was in. Carried it at lunchtime, and from what I can recall, I don’t think he ever fumbled again that season.”

Due to a lack of numbers, the team had its season cut short and played just seven games, but He showed enough promise to keep his football dream alive. Allen reached out to his alma mater, the University of Jamestown, an NAIA school in North Dakota, and coach Josh Kittell was willing to give He a chance.

“Physically, he was talented,” Kittell said. “He was a strong kid that could run.”

But the jump from a small high school to college ball, even at the NAIA level, was significant and especially tough for someone so new to the sport. Jamestown brought He in with the idea of using him as a fullback or tight end, but eventually switched him back to running back, where he was more comfortable.

After redshirting his first year on campus, He carried the ball 80 times for 353 yards and a touchdown in what wound up as his only season for the Jimmies in 2017. The two years he spent in North Dakota were crucial for his own player development and later being able to walk on at Arizona State, but maybe his most important takeaway from his time there wasn’t football related.

“It was cold,” He said. “It was my first time seeing snow. I was excited for a few days, but after that I was so tired of snow.”

After the program experienced a coaching change, He decided to head back to China with the goal of one day returning to play college football at a different school. While football isn’t popular in China, he did find a league to play in. The quality of the play wasn’t what he had grown accustomed to, but it kept him sharp as he planned his next move.

“I applied to different schools and luckily Arizona State accepted me,” He said. “And then I looked online and found out Arizona has a lot of sun.”

That was all he needed to hear.

Shortly after he arrived on campus in October 2019, He walked over to the football building, went up to the third floor and told the front desk he was there to join the football team. An on-campus recruiting staffer came out to meet with him, He shared his highlight tape from Jamestown, and a short time later he was practicing with the team.

He instantly became a source of positive energy around the program and developed a good rapport with the team’s equipment staff.

“One day, he came up to the window and started saying, ‘You know what would be funny? If I had my last name on my back in Chinese. That would be so cool, wouldn’t it?'” ASU senior equipment operations coordinator Jerry Neilly said. “We all looked at him and were like, ‘We’re not sure if we can do that, but for you, we’ll look into it.'”

An intern, Jared Kutsch, entered He’s actual name, He Peizhang, into Google translate, and the program correctly returned the Chinese symbols — 何佩璋 — which were sent to Adidas for a nameplate to be made. The staff members wanted it to be a surprise for He, so they didn’t check with him to make sure it was correct before submitting the request, and they were a little worried to show him the final product when it came back a couple of weeks later.

“When they pulled out the jersey, I was in tears,” He said. “To actually see my real name on the back of my jersey means something different. And it was in Chinese letters, that’s even crazier. I really appreciate the equipment people. I have so much love for them. I love them.”

Before the season began, Arizona State’s sports information department sent out an inquiry to its peers around the country: Has there ever been a Chinese-born player at the FBS level before? The research didn’t turn anyone up, so when He scored against Arizona, he was believed to be the first Chinese-born player to do so.

Turns out, that wasn’t completely accurate. A few weeks after He’s touchdown, word reached Arizona State that the distinction likely belongs to Herman Lam, a receiver for Georgia Tech from 1969 to 1971, who was born in Hong Kong — then under British rule — and moved to Augusta, Georgia, when he was 9 years old. Lam caught touchdown passes against Notre Dame and Duke in 1969 and finished the season as the Yellow Jackets’ leader in receiving yards (273).

After He’s touchdown, several family members and other people shared articles with Lam about the accomplishment. It didn’t bother him that his own accomplishment appeared lost to history, but he was surprised to learn it had stood alone for so long.

“My impression was, ‘How can that be between when I did it 50 years ago to now? You’re telling me no other Chinese player has scored a touchdown?'” Lam told ESPN. “I would think there would be other people. They may not have been born in China, maybe they were born in the U.S. to Chinese descendants. So it is kind of interesting.”

Regardless of the history around it, the touchdown reaffirmed to He that he was right to continue chasing his football dream.

“I appreciate all the support and love from people back home and people here,” He said. “But that just made me want to get better, made me want to perform even better, like my anticipation for myself is getting higher and higher. I need to do better every day.”

A redshirt junior this season, He has two years of eligibility remaining and isn’t sure what to expect in the future. But even if he never plays another down, He has cemented a special place in Arizona State lore.

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