|Cheng Ho came to America from Taiwan when he was 12 years old, having never heard of football. Now he's a stellar running back for Harvard. (FILE/DAVID SILVERMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)|
When the film was delivered four years ago, Tim Murphy was skeptical. He scanned the information that came with the package with a sense that this was going to be a waste of time. Running back, good academic skills, solid but not spectacular football credentials.
As the football coach at Harvard, Murphy knows there's a shallow pool of talented players who can meet the stringent academic requirements.
Still, he had his doubts. "We recruit the four corners of the earth for good players," Murphy said this week. "But an Asian kid from Georgia? What were the odds?"
The kid's name was Cheng Ho and Murphy was intrigued by his story. Ho had come to Georgia from Taiwan, not as an orphan but from a fractured family. His father had died and his mother was institutionalized with schizophrenia, and the decision was made to send Cheng and his sister to stay with his aunt and uncle - Beatrice and See Woo - in Martinez, just outside Augusta.
Ho was 12 years old, didn't speak a word of English, and not only had he never played football, he hadn't even heard of the sport.
"It was tough," said Ho as Harvard prepared for its Ivy League home opener against Cornell tomorrow. "I didn't know anyone. I didn't speak any English and some people made fun of me."
In Taiwan, Ho thought of himself as a sociable kid. He had friends, he liked people. He liked sports - but not football, because he didn't know anything about it.
Ho thought participating in sports was a good way to meet people as he entered his new life. And in the football-crazy South, that meant football. So as a 14-year-old eighth-grader, Ho went out for football.
"The first time I played, I lined up the wrong way and went in the opposite direction," said Ho, who quickly turned in the right direction on the field and in the sport. "I was absolutely clueless."
But he was a quick study. "When he came to us at Evans High School, we recognized his potential as a player," said offensive coordinator Mike Bibee.
"Cheng was never shy despite the language difficulties. He was always inquisitive. He wanted to learn and in the 14 years that I have been at Evans, we have never had a player with his work ethic. His drive and desire was infectious. He led through example and once he mastered the language, [he] did not hesitate to speak up.
"If I had to choose one young man to give the ball in any situation, it would be him. At the same time, if I had to choose any young man to trust outside the athletic field, he's the one. Cheng will succeed in whatever field he chooses. His character is impeccable and he will not accept defeat nor failure."
Off the field, he was chosen the outstanding male student leader in the school as a senior and was the class salutatorian.
By the time he was a senior, Georgia and Vanderbilt were suggesting he could play football - as a walk-on, which meant no scholarship. And Murphy and Harvard, which couldn't provide athletic scholarships, were putting together a financial package that could work.
Murphy thought he had a find. "But we couldn't get him in," said the coach, who was now on almost as much of a mission as Ho. "In cases like that, we go to prep schools, which can help kids get to the next level academically."
The prep school was Avon Old Farms in Connecticut, and Ho blossomed more as he grew more comfortable in English while boosting his verbal SAT scores. A year after he arrived in the Northeast in 2005, the kid from Taiwan via Georgia was at Harvard, going to class, playing football, and living a dream no one could have envisioned.
A year ago, Ho was an All-Ivy League second-teamer for the league champion Crimson. He was the primary back as the Crimson adjusted to life without superstar running back Clifton Dawson.
This season, Murphy says there is more depth at running back, prompting a ground attack by committee with Ho, Ben Jenkins, and Gino Gordon.
Ho, a 5-foot-10-inch, 190-pound junior, carried 20 times for 108 yards and one touchdown in a victory over Lafayette last week. He added 87 return yards.
He still marvels at the journey he has made in the last eight years.
"Basically, I had to do everything on my own," said Ho, whose sister Tien (a year older) is at Georgia State in Atlanta. "What has happened has been a miracle."
He says his journey to Harvard came the old-fashioned way - with hard work. "At the end of my junior year [in high school], I thought to myself, 'Why not give it a shot?' " Ho said about playing college ball. "I contacted a lot schools, sent out a lot of tapes. Harvard was the only one that called back."
But even Harvard was a long shot. "I wasn't overly impressed," said Murphy. "But he's such a great kid and he's a tremendous competitor. He is such a tough kid with great speed. He made it work."
Ho has worked. He is majoring in economics, with a minor in psychology. He calls home to his mother each week. And last spring he made the journey back to Taiwan for the first time in eight years.
"It was very emotional seeing my mother; it was overwhelming," he said. "She didn't know anything about football, but she knew about Harvard. She just told me to do my best."
Ho says he is trying to do that. "A lot of great people have helped me along the way," he said. "One of the things I've learned at Harvard is that you can make a lot of things work if you work. I can accept failure, but I can't accept not trying."
Ho says he remembers the words his father told him before he died: "Be a dream achiever."
The "Asian kid from Georgia" has certainly done that.