Now Koo is the second highest-paid kicker in the league, having signed a five-year contract extension with the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year.
But not everything went smoothly for the South Korean native.
Despite a collegiate career with Georgia Southern in which he converted a team record 88.6% of his field goal attempts and was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award for Best Kicker in the Nation, Koo was not drafted in 2017 and signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Chargers shortly thereafter.
He quickly impressed, winning the starting role in the preseason against reigning kicker Josh Lambo, but a long-term place on the team proved elusive.
It was that moment early in his career that taught the then 23-year-old rookie about life in the NFL.
“It taught me that this is never over. You have to compete every day. You have to produce, it’s a production business. That’s what the head coach told me when I was fired. That was a great learning experience for me.”
With nowhere else to go, Koo was forced to turn to a fairly familiar environment – somewhere he didn’t think he’d ever find himself again.
“When I ran out of money with the Chargers, I moved back home to my mom and all you have to do is wait for a call, for a practice session,” he says.
“And when it comes, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, fine. I’m ready to go.’ Then it works [the] off-season [and] two or three months pass [and] no call comes: ‘What am I going to do with my life?’”
Soccer players and athletes in general are particularly used to having their daily activities planned out for them at all times, whether it’s film studies, meals or training. Without that, Koo lost his sense of direction.
“I think in my football career, like high school, college and then to the Chargers, I’ve always had something to do, on a team. You feel almost empty because [when] you wake up, nobody tells you anything,” says Koo.
Exposure to other NFL free agents helped him regain a sense of team ethos and structure that he had been missing.
“I learned a lot. I wasn’t the only one who went through it. It was almost therapeutic for me to go to the gym [with] Guys going through the same things and we compete but also share our journeys,” explains Koo.
He credits those moments of early adversity with helping him become a pro and an even better student of the game, though he says he has a lot more to learn as his career progresses.
“Coming out of college, I felt like I knew everything, but [in] Reality, I didn’t know anything,” says Koo.
“I’ve decided to drop that ego [and] Ask questions. I wanted to learn, I wanted to see what went wrong and very soon after that I realized I was a pup in this business. I kept having to ask questions. Of course I have to learn a lot and still have a long way to go.”
Koo lived in South Korea until he was 12, before moving to the United States to attend sixth grade.
“I grew up watching football for the school team. That was really my main focus. I wasn’t really great at school,” he says.
He describes the transition to the United States as “tough,” an experience compounded by his lack of English skills. Koo cites sport as a catalyst to learn the language and make friends in a foreign country.
“I feel like I learned English a lot faster because I played sports,” says Koo. “I was forced to throw myself out there and socialize with different groups of friends and meet different people. It definitely bridged that gap for me.”
Koo first found soccer through his friends, who noticed his soccer talent and wanted him to toast or toast in their games.
“And that’s when everyone saw my leg strength, because [of] Soccer, so kicking came naturally to me. That’s when I was asked to sign up for football and I signed up this summer.”
Koo particularly remembers sitting in a car with teammates on his way to practice one day, not even knowing how to communicate with them.
“I didn’t know how to ask, like, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing this weekend?’ At the time, I didn’t know how to phrase it or even form a sentence,” explains Koo.
Despite the fear of sounding “stupid,” he managed to muster a phrase that changed his fortunes.
“I remember just saying, ‘I’m bored,’ and they just asked [me] Questions like, “Now? In the car to practice?’ I was like, ‘No, no, no, on the weekend.’ So they called me that weekend to hang out.”
A South Korean immigrant in the United States, Koo said he noticed racism growing up but chose “not to respond or react to it.” He didn’t take any racist remarks to heart, knowing that everyone has their own opinion, valid or invalid.
“Everyone has something to say. Everyone can say something if they want. It’s not really my responsibility to soak it all up and absorb it [it]. I decide what to pay attention to [and] what I don’t want to pay attention to. I think that’s also the mindset I had when I was younger,” says Koo.
Koo likens how he deals with negativity now as one of the NFL’s highest-earning kickers to dieting, where he chooses which comments to eat and digest. He says his mindset has to be “bulletproof” when he takes the field; External adversities could harm his performance.
“Whether it’s about racism or adversity, we’re hitting a ball… we need to get out of there and next time we need to focus on the next snap now. That can’t stay with me because it will affect my next kick,” says Koo.
“My father taught me from a young age [that] If you’re good enough, your talent speaks for itself,” he adds.
And when the kick is in the air, only the result counts.
“You’re white, black, Asian or whatever. [The] Soccer doesn’t know who’s kicking it. And when the ball flies, they don’t know who kicked it and they just see the results and they see the ball and they’re like, ‘Okay, that kick is good,'” says Koo.
“Make a plan and follow it”
Koo understands the place football can play in the world and what its story can mean for the next generation of Asian athletes who aspire to play in America’s top division.
“It is [something] we’ve talked a lot. It’s a very heterogeneous group of people in this dressing room. Everyone comes from different places, backgrounds, families but we all have a common goal and we work towards that together and towards this sacrifice that we not only have to work hard for ourselves, [but] for something bigger than you,” muses Koo.
“I think representation is big because growing up in football there was nobody who looked like me. It was harder for me to imagine [if] He does it, I can do it.
“If you look at my story, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t know what football was. I struggled to say, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ I think anyone who has a dream and pursues it and works hard can make a plan and pursue it.”