June 4, 2014
By Jocelyn Vinoya Serranilla
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Ian Sang Park thrives on blazing trails.
On the football field, the Northwestern offensive lineman shoves and pushes and plows through defenders to make way for his teammates to reach the end-zone.
As a redshirt freshman playing right guard last season, he helped the Wildcats offense record a rushing average of 172.4 yards per game and allowed NU quarterbacks to complete 63.1 percent of passes, the Big Ten's third-best mark in 2013.
But more importantly, Ian is building on a new family legacy that involves a lot of football. Coming from a lineage of medical professionals on his father's side of the family, Ian and his two brothers, who also play college football, are definitely blazing a different path.
"I think football is a great opportunity for anyone from any background to be a part of a team effort and play the game that they love," said Park of his sport's ability to bridge cultural diversity. "Anyone can play, if they work hard enough and be persistent to achieve their goals," he says.
Although Park's father, uncle and aunt followed their parents' profession in the medical field, they have provided an environment for Ian and his brothers to pursue their own passion for football, with condition to put priority on academics. "School should come first and football second," said Park, echoing a constant reminder from home that he considers the best advice he has received from his family. "Dad just wants us to get a good job. Academics are really being stressed and there's a strong urgency to do well in school."
Family support for athletics is just as strong, allowing Ian to earn a spot at Northwestern and his two brothers to play college football, with older brother Alex playing quarterback for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and youngest brother Austin playing offensive lineman for Amherst College in Massachusetts.
"Mom drove us everywhere," recalls Ian of his stay-at-home mother, Lisa, who performed all chauffeur duties for her three boys' athletic activities--which for Ian included football, baseball, basketball and lacrosse. Ian is thankful for the support of both his parents growing up and marvels at the ability of his mother to get them to practices and games on time while his father was hard at work in the hospital.
As he grew older, Ian also grew in stature. He gives credit to his maternal grandfather, the late Thomas Robinson, as the most likely source of his 6-foot-4, 295-pound frame.
"Yeah, I've always been large," he laughs. "I was always the tallest, pretty much. I've always been told that we're tall for a Korean family," noting that his dad is 5-foot-11 and his mom, who is of Irish-Italian heritage, is 5-foot-7. Ian and Alex played together in youth football for one year, but it came to a point where Ian was too big to play youth football. "It was my sophomore year in high school when I got to be taller than him, but I was always built larger."
It wasn't a big growth spurt, he explains.
"I was always taller than my classmates but I never shot up all of a sudden. I was growing maybe three inches a year. Senior year in high school, that's when I became 6-4."
Despite his fierce demeanor and aggressive tactics on the football field, off it, he bows. He remembers his grandparents, who lived in his neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pa., teaching him Korean traditions.
"My grandparents taught me to bow to my ancestors," he says of the traditional sign of respect and remembrance. He recalls New Year's celebrations as an opportune time for him and his family to gather and remember their Asian heritage.
Ironically, Park did not learn Korean until he attended Northwestern University to fulfill a language requirement. He registered for a Korean class and proudly says, "I can read and understand some of it. It's difficult for English speakers, but if I go home and listen to my grandparents talk back and forth, I can now understand."
Ian acknowledges his grandparents' contribution in his upbringing, which he described as "pretty much American with a mix of Korean."
"They adapted to the American culture," says Park of his grandparents, Sang Bok Park and his wife, Inai, both doctors who came to the United States in the late 1960's. "I would spend a lot of time with my grandparents [when I was young] and they would teach me about Korean culture and their experiences."
He may have struggled to speak the language but he easily remembers stories his grandparents told about their experience coming to America from their native Korea. They came with Ian's father, Chong Sang Park, who was five years old at the time, while Ian's uncle, Kyung, was a baby. Once in the U.S., the Parks would welcome a third child, Jeanne.
"Grandpa said he had $300 dollars [when he got to America]," said Ian. "He wanted to give his family a better opportunity and a better life."
With a family to support, Sang, who spoke fluent English, couldn't practice medicine in the US as a foreign-trained doctor. He had to start all over.
"Grandpa had to redo his residency and all that stuff," Ian recalls. He had been a medic in the army in Korea, having attended Seoul National University College of Medicine, a prestigious school in Korea.
His grandfather overcame the roadblocks and eventually became a heart surgeon, obtaining a general surgery residency from Columbia Hospital and then a thoracic surgery residency from Allegheny General Hospital, both located in Pittsburgh, Pa. He retired last year as the director of cardiac surgery of the Heart Institute of Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Jefferson Hills, Pa.
All three children of Sang and Inai became doctors as well. Ian's father and uncle are both cardiothoracic and vascular surgeons like their father. Jeanne is a pediatrician specializing in neonatology.
The Park family settled in Pittsburgh but Chong temporarily moved to Providence, R.I., Ian's birthplace, while completing his general surgery residency. In July of 1995, before Ian turned two years old, Chong moved his family back to Pittsburgh where he obtained his thoracic surgery residency at Allegheny General Hospital. He is currently the director of the Heart Institute of Jefferson Regional Medical Center.
Growing up, Ian viewed his older brother Alex an inspiration. "He was working hard to play Division I football and he was offered a Division I scholarship. Just learning from him helped me, moving forward being what I want to be as a college football player."
Alex's pursuit of a football scholarship had an even more direct effect on Ian's future football career. "When I was a freshman in high school, my older brother was getting recruited by Northwestern," said Ian. "I went to a game vs. Illinois in November, 2008, at Ryan Field." Tagging along with Alex also gave Ian his first feel of Big Ten football.
"My first visit with my brother -- it was my first football game I've ever been to and I loved everything about it -- the atmosphere of game-day in Evanston," Ian said. "It was also cool to see the quarterback, CJ Bachér, who is also half-Korean, play."
Later on, when it was Ian's chance to be recruited, he told himself, "[Northwestern] is the place I wanted to be recruited by." He chose Northwestern over Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Maryland, Vanderbilt and Syracuse among others.
To kids dreaming of playing college football and someday carving their own paths towards their goals, Ian offers this advice: "Just always do everything you can to get one day better. Surround yourself with the right people, like a role model, someone you can look up to."
For Ian Sang Park, the people who helped carve his path from Pittsburgh to Evanston and beyond continue to surround him, helping him become a trailblazer.
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter, become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook, subscribe to the NU Sports Express e-newsletter and sign up to receive promotional text alerts for the latest news, schedule updates and video and to interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!