This is one guy I always enjoyed watching as a player, always played full out - nice to see him back involved in the game.
Dat's a big hit his latest role
Nguyen tackles coaching with fervor he displayed as a player
01:36 AM CDT on Monday, July 30, 2007
SAN ANTONIO – The slender man wearing the white Cowboys visor, the long-sleeved gray T-shirt and the baggy gym shorts at Sunday's practice used to be one heck of a football-playing dude. At least that's how Bill Parcells once described him.
You can't tell from looking at him.
The round puffy face has been replaced by a strong, angular jaw line. The thick arms and legs have shrunk noticeably. Dat Nguyen, listed at 238 pounds in 2005, couldn't possibly weigh more than 200 pounds these days – and that's soaking wet in full uniform and cement cleats.
No one who meets Nguyen these days will ever believe he played linebacker in the NFL for seven seasons before retiring at the end of the 2005 season after his undersized body finally gave out. He'll have to show off his considerable cache of trophies and memorabilia to prove it.
"I stopped taking supplements and eating the kinds of things that helped keep my weight up," Nguyen said. "It wasn't too hard for me to lose it.
"I just couldn't play anymore. My body couldn't handle the physical punishment anymore."
Now, the 31-year-old is trying to do something he never accomplished as a player: help the Cowboys win a playoff game. He'll be doing it in the classroom and from the sideline as an assistant linebackers coach instead of making plays on the field.
Nguyen never wanted to leave the NFL.
Blame the 3-4 defense, a scheme that requires the inside linebackers to engage in countless head-on collisions with 330-pound guards.
Nguyen did it courageously and without complaint, earning Parcells' respect, until his body finally broke down midway through the 2005 season. His contributions included 665 tackles, six sacks and seven interceptions.
More important, he served as an example for players at every level who were told they weren't big enough. Or strong enough. Or fast enough. Nguyen's heart, instincts and work ethic let him squeeze more from his talent than most.
Like a lot of players, Nguyen had no idea how to fill the hours once his career ended. He solicited advice from his mentors, who told him to take a year off and relax.
So he did.
Nguyen examined business opportunities – no one takes care of Aggies like Aggies – hung out with his wife, Becky, and young daughters, Aubrey and Remi, while trying to find another occupation that gave him a rush similar to running out of the Texas Stadium tunnel.
He had no idea it would be football.
After all, he didn't even look at a game for the first eight weeks of the 2006 season, his first full season out of the league. He wanted nothing to do with the game that had dominated his world for more than half of his life.
"To get away," he said, "sometimes, you have to step away."
Nguyen, though, couldn't get football out of his system. When Jerry Jones presented him with an opportunity to join the coaching staff, he couldn't pass it up.
You have to understand that the difference between playing in the NFL and coaching in the league is a lot like the difference between driving a corvette and a Lamborghini. They're similar, but there's a still a world of difference.
The hours are significantly longer for coaches, who routinely work 14-hour days, seven days a week during the season. Then there's the money.
Nguyen earned more than $1 million during his final season with the Cowboys. Mike McIntyre, who held a similar coaching position on last year's staff, earned about $150,000. That's pretty good money for most folks, but it's a pittance of what Nguyen used to make.
Nguyen doesn't care. He loves coaching.
"This is the first time since I stopped playing that I look forward to coming to work," he said. "It can be a grind, but it's challenging. It's very interesting to me because I thought I knew football, but I'm learning so much every day about the defensive line and the secondary and how they all work together with the linebackers."
He already has earned the respect of colleagues. He studies even harder now than he did as a player. Linebackers coach Paul Pasqualoni does much of the talking in meetings, but when Nguyen presents concepts to the group, he speaks with confidence.
Nguyen was never blessed with great physical talent, so he relied on fundamentals and superior technique to excel. No one was better at telling his teammates what play to expect based on formation and down and distance.
He's still disseminating the same information, only he does it as a coach instead of as a player.
"I saw him at a restaurant with a baseball cap on last year, and I thought he was a frat boy. I didn't even recognize him," Bradie James said. "Now, he's one of my coaches. I still can't call him Coach Nguyen. I just call him Dat."
That's OK with Nguyen, who's simply happy to be back in the NFL.
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Even though he's a Cowboy, I always liked Nguyen. He seemed like the consummate team player, and one of those important guys that never quite got recognized for his impact on his team. If he can teach the Boys LBs to play like he did, I might start getting worried though.