Chances are Georgia’s Herschel Walker, Florida’s Tim Tebow, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Tennessee’s Peyton Manning are all names considered when ranking the greatest Southeastern Conference football players of all time.
Narrow it down to defensive players, and things get dicier. Alabama’s Lee Roy Jordan is a great option. Tennessee’s Reggie White is a fine choice, too. Ole Miss’ Patrick Willis and Texas A&M’s Von Miller are solid picks as well.
One of the most overlooked defensive SEC players of all time might be another Aggie: Linebacker Dat Nguyen. You’d be kidding yourself not to include this hard-hitting middle linebacker on the Mount Rushmore of Aggies and greatest NCAA tacklers of all time.
Dat Nguyen College Career
The 5-foot-11, 238-pound Nguyen was doubted his entire career, but his numbers spoke for themselves during his days in College Station, Texas, from 1995-98.
Nguyen led the Aggies in tackles for four consecutive years — the only player in school history to do so — racking up a TAMU record 517 tackles, six interceptions and two touchdowns. The Vietnamese-American wasn’t far off from the NCAA career tackles record of 545.
Dive into his All-American senior season and you’ll find even more jaw-dropping stats: 147 tackles (20 for loss), four sacks and two interceptions. He won the Badnarik Award for college football’s best defensive player and should’ve won the Butkus Award, too. He was as irreplaceable as it gets for TAMU’s memorable 1998 Big 12 Championship season.
The New York Times described him as a “tornado in cleats, a player who would wipe out blockers twice his size and sniff out a play before it developed.” His nickname in college? Double Digit Dat, because he routinely packed the box score with double digit tackles.
You get the point, he was really freakin’ good. In fact, here’s a list of the awards he won while in college:
- 1998 Chuck Bednarik Award
- 1998 Lombardi Award
- 1998 Jack Lambert Award
- 1998 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year
- Three-time First-Team All-Big 12
- AP All-Time Big 12 Team
- Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame
- Texas A&M Athletic Hall of Fame
- College Football Hall of Fame
- 2003 Second-Team All-Pro
Nguyen, a National Football Foundation Hall of Famer, carried that success into the NFL even though he was undersized. The Dallas Cowboys selected him in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft, and played in 90 games over seven seasons under head coaches Chan Gailey, Dave Campo and Bill Parcells.
Neck and knee injuries cut Nguyen’s career short, but he finished 10th on the Cowboys all-time tackles list (516) and led the team in that category three different seasons. He also added four forced fumbles, six sacks and seven interceptions.
However, it’s what Nguyen has done since retiring that makes him one of the more intriguing former players in recent memory.
Dat Nguyen Now
Dat Nguyen joined the Cowboys coaching staff for a few years as an assistant under Wade Phillips from 2007-09 and as an inside linebackers coach at his alma mater from 2010-11. He told the Houston Chronicle there was “no chance” he’d be retained when Kevin Sumlin took over as head coach.
Like many former NFL players that enter the media industry, Nguyen tried his hand on-air. He co-hosted a sports radio talk show with Jason Minnix on ESPN San Antonio.
Now? Nguyen owns his very own Chick-fil-A franchise in Montgomery Plaza in Fort Worth, Texas. He bought it in 2016 and told WFAA he operates it, well, like a football team.
“I am the coach. We have coordinators and we have players. It’s no different than football. Everyone has a position they are responsible for.”
— Chick-fil-A Franchisee and Former Texas A&M Linebacker Dat Nguyen
While it’s no Super Bowl, Nguyen chose to own his own Chick-fil-A — a company known for its hospitality, Christian-based values and, of course, delicious fried chicken — because he preferred the stability that coaching didn’t bring.
Nguyen and his college-sweetheart-turned-wife Becky have three daughters and twin boys. Owning a restaurant gives him time to spend with his family.
Nguyen was born in a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith, Arkansas. His parents and siblings escaped Saigon in South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War, and while making the trek to the states via boat almost sank near Thailand during a storm.
Nguyen grew up in the gulf coast city of Rockport, Texas, where he starred at linebacker and punter for Rockport-Fulton High School. Many Division-I programs like Michigan, UCLA, Notre Dame, Texas and Florida offered him football scholarships.
While plenty of athletes have gone on to own their own restaurants, usually donning their name (Michael Jordan has restaurants in Chicago and New York, Brett Favre in Green Bay and Wayne Gretzky in Toronto), how many can say they own a franchise as reputable as Chick-fil-A?
I’d say Dat’s pretty cool.
This post was originally published on June 18, 2019.