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Mountain View’s Kyle Chen aiming high with Air Force

Senior in rare company as a first-generation Chinese American going to D-I football program

By , Columbian staff writer
2 Photos
Mountain View senior Kyle Chen, right, runs toward the end zone Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, during the Thunder's 28-26 loss to Kelso at McKenzie Stadium.
Mountain View senior Kyle Chen, right, runs toward the end zone Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, during the Thunder's 28-26 loss to Kelso at McKenzie Stadium. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Kyle Chen unzipped his coat pocket, pulled out his cell phone and opened up Instagram.

“I have to show you this,” Chen said during a recent sit-down interview.

Two weeks before Wednesday’s National Signing Day is when Chen, Mountain View High’s multi-year all-league defensive back and receiver in football, got a congratulatory message from a stranger after Chen announced on social media his verbal commitment to play football at the United States Air Force Academy on Jan. 15.

Why is it so memorable for Chen, who is Chinese American? Like Chen, that high school football player identified himself as Chinese American and was inspired to see Chen go onto play college football after high school.

“That was really cool to see,” Chen said. “It’s crazy, because I’m a 17-year-old guy still in high school.”

As a first-generation Chinese American about to embark on Division I football, Chen, whose Chinese name is Chen Liang, knows he’s in rare company. According to the NCAA Demographics Database, only 2 percent of all Division I athletes in 2022 identified as Asian and just a fraction of them played college football. In 2019, just 0.3 percent of Division I football players identified as Asian.

That isn’t stopping Chen’s mission to make an impact at Air Force and pursuing an NFL dream. He strongly believes Asian Americans are underrepresented in American sports.

“Definitely,” Chen said. “Just in the NFL, I can count on my fingers the number of guys there.”

Chen’s parents, Wendy Weng and Tom Chen, immigrated to the United States from China in the 1990s. Kyle Chen self-described his upbringing with his older brother, Kevin, as a “stereotypical Asian kid.” It took time for sports to be part of their daily lives. He wasn’t aware of what American football is until third grade, and it’d be another five years before he gave the sport a shot as a Shahala Middle School eighth grader. He went onto be a four-year starter at cornerback and safety in high school.

“It came easy for me,” he said of football. “It came natural.”

Air Force head coach Tom Calhoun made a final visit to Mountain View last week. Chen isn’t the only Mountain View football player planning to sign a letter of intent with Air Force on Wednesday. Teammate and friend Jacob Martin also plans to sign with Air Force, making the duo the first skill-position players head coach Adam Mathieson has coached at Mountain View to sign with FBS schools.

When it comes to recruiting high school athletes, the Air Force fit is one of a kind, Mathieson said — not just high academic achievers, but also character-driven leaders.

“I’ve learned way more from them than I’ve ever taught them,” Mathieson said of Chen and Martin. “Just on how you treat people and how you prepare.

“With these (military) Academies, they’re looking for somebody different.”

As he’s matured, Chen said he’s gained a greater appreciation for representing his Chinese heritage on the football field. That’s why it’s no surprise he wants to inspire the next generation of Chinese Americans and Asian American athletes.

Then again, he already has at 17.

“I’m definitely more proud to be Asian in the football community,” Chen said. “Before, I wanted to be a good football player. I wanted to be like everyone else. But as I’ve grown up, I realized this is something that not a lot of Asians get to do. And I get to represent my community, my heritage and I’m definitely more proud of it now than I was before.”