The words “sneaky little boy” aren’t the ones that come to mind when you stand across from Jacky Chen.
Chen is 6-4. He’s 302 pounds. He’s a boulder with tattoos.
But ask Jacky or his mother or anybody else who knows him, and they will tell you Jacky’s unlikely football journey never would have begun — let alone reached the NFL as an undrafted Vikings rookie — had Jacky not been a very “sneaky little boy” with a mother dead set against him playing football seven years ago.
“He tricked me to play football,” says his mother, June. “I’m still not over it.”
She sounds like she’s kidding. But not entirely.
June and her husband, Tony, were born in Beijing. They go by June and Tony, but their given names are Jia and Tao. Neither had heard of American football until long after they had moved to New York City as young newlyweds so Tony could open a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan in 1994.
They had their children in the United States. First came Rita, then Jacky. Rita swam so well that the University of Maine gave her a scholarship. Jackie loved football, played “Madden” every day and still spent seven years in a pool doing the breaststroke because it was safer than football and easier for June to drop both kids off at the same place after school.
One day, Jacky told June he was “retiring” from swimming. She asked how he planned to spend his after-school hours. His answer? You guessed it. Football.
“I said, ‘Oh, no. No, no. That’s not good,’ ” June said. ” ‘That’s collisions. That’s too strong of an impact for your body. You’re going to get concussions. You’re going to be like out of your mind when you get old.’ All I heard about football was reports about retired NFL players and all the dangers about them bumping into each other and what it did to them.”
Jacky wouldn’t accept no for an answer. He was a sophomore at Port Jefferson High School on Long Island.
“I wanted to play football so bad, I had to do something,” he said. “Whatever it took.”
Jacky had the Port Jefferson football permission slip in hand. He waited for a moment when June was distracted. He gave her the slip. Literally and figuratively.
“I said, ‘Mom, you got to sign this,’ ” Jacky said. “I said, ‘It’s for a field trip.’ “
Two weeks later, June asked Jacky where he’s been after school.
Jacky fessed up. He told her he had been at football practice. He said his father “was cool with it.” June softened because Jacky, “that sneaky little boy, just loves football so, so much.” She even went to one of his high school games.
“I grew up in China; it’s not our culture, so when I watch the game I didn’t understand,” June said. “This sport, it’s crazy.”
Jacky played offensive tackle. He was 6-4, but “240 pounds, soaking wet” his senior year. No colleges were interested except for Pace University, a Division II school where Chen played on the Westchester County campus just north of New York City.
“At our level, we have to go for the long-bodied kids who are skinny and pray we can develop them,” said Conor Gilmartin-Donohue, Pace’s offensive coordinator.
“Plus, he was a 6-5 kid named Jacky Chen, so he kind of caught everybody’s attention,” added Stephen Gruber, Pace’s defensive coordinator and the guy who scouted Jacky.
Not on anyone’s list
Chen was going to redshirt his freshman year in 2018 because he wasn’t ready to play. Then Pace lost four offensive linemen in one week. Chen was forced to start a game at left tackle against Long Island University-Post’s Jake Carlock, an edge rusher who was turning some NFL heads.
“Let’s just say it was a baptism by fire for Jacky. To say the least,” Gilmartin-Donohue said.
“But the cool thing about Jacky is he never flinched,” Gruber said. “Jacky has a unique ability to always be positive.”
Chen turned no heads in 2019, then the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season.
“As you can imagine, the restrictions in Westchester County were probably the most severe anywhere,” Gilmartin-Donohue said. “We couldn’t do much of anything. Jacky and some of the other O-linemen were sneaking into the weight room to lift. People were getting upset. Jacky just wanted to get better.”
Chen didn’t. Not that year. Pace finished 2-8.
“Things just hadn’t clicked for Jacky,” Pace head coach Andy Rondeau said. “His junior year was rough, man. Rough.”
Chen’s senior year, Pace opened with East Stroudsburg and its NFL edge-rushing prospect Deshawn McCarthy, who had three sacks against Pace the year before.
NFL agent Joe Linta, who lives an hour away in New Haven, Conn., came to watch McCarthy — and ended up putting Jacky on the NFL map.
“By the end of the first quarter, I was disinterested in McCarthy,” Linta said. “I’m about to leave and Jacky caught my eye.”
Linta went home and called a bunch of his NFL contacts in scouting, asking about the guy who dominated Deshawn McCarthy.
“Every one of them said, ‘Nah, not on any of our lists,'” Linta said. “He wasn’t on anybody’s list.”
Linta has been doing this a while. He once represented three-fifths of the Vikings offensive line – Matt Birk, Mike Rosenthal and Adam Goldberg. Last year, Linta had eight clients make an NFL team after not getting an invitation to the scouting combine.
Linta got the word out on Chen, who kept playing well during a 6-4 season. Twenty NFL teams showed up on Pace’s campus. The 49ers did a personal workout. The East-West Shrine Bowl gave him an invite, and he held his own.
“Going against D-I guys and Power Five guys was all mental,” Chen said. “If I can do in here [pointing to his head] I can do it because I’m just as big and strong as they are.”
Linta has a special connection with Jamaal Stephenson, the Vikings’ senior personnel executive. Stephenson went to Brown University. Linta’s son played quarterback at Brown. Ten minutes after the draft ended with the Vikings selecting no offensive linemen, Chen was on the team.
“It wasn’t some arduous negotiation,” Linta said. “I could have gotten Jacky in a couple of places. The Vikings liked him. Jacky is the consummate practice squad player who can develop into a guy who definitely can play in this league if they are patient with him.”
Asian Americans in the NFL
June, meanwhile, is coming around to football. A little bit. Thinking 2022 was her son’s last year of football, June and Tony went to every one of Jacky’s games.
Now Jacky Chen, 22, is one of eight Asian Americans in this year’s NFL rookie class. June is proud of that feat and probably knows deep down that Jacky’s independent streak can be traced to his parents and an American dream that comes true every morning when they open their restaurant, Tao’s Bao, in Stony Brook on Long Island.
“We were young, naïve, out of mind when we come here,” June said. “Just go far away from home. Just get away from your parents. Be free.”
Jacky’s girlfriend, Kayla, is pregnant. June wasn’t happy at first.
“I wanted to kill him,” is how she put it. “In my culture, if you don’t get married, you don’t have children.”
“I’m falling in love with the baby that’s going to be here very soon,” she said.
It’s a boy. And he might have the perfect birthdate for the next generation of free-spirited Chens.
“The due date,” Jacky says with a proud-papa smile, “is July 4th.”