More than a number: How two Hmong football players fell in love with a game

Seniors Pheng Thao (left) and Noah Her (right) are both on the Clovis varsity football team and are good friends on and off the field. PHOTO BY PAUL MEADORS

What if I told you there are two boys who play high school football in Clovis who sometimes come home after their rousing Friday night games to total silence? Nothing but deafening silence. Win, lose, no matter, just the same. No “Atta boy!,” “Great game son!,” “We’ll get them next time!” hugs, or a simple pat on the back.

Every Friday on the Clovis High sidelines stand No. 19 and No. 2. They aren’t the stars of the team. In fact, they are the smallest two on the team, virtually lost among a sea of blue and gold helmets and jerseys, playing a game they are not supposed to be playing.

But No. 19 and No. 2 certainly have names. And a story. And a love for the football program that has shaped their lives forever, that through struggles and doubts they have been embraced by a band of brothers that will never be forgotten.

Their names are Phenghoua Thao and Yengkong Her, and they serve as a reminder that every player underneath the helmet has a story to tell.

They are certainly more than a number. 

Under a sunset sky, sitting on rickety metal bleachers after a recent football practice they share stories of their family’s plight from Laos, of parents who don’t see the value in football, of teammates who have encouraged them in ways that make them feel 10 feet tall. They profess their admiration for a head coach who has become a father figure, and during our 55-minute conversation they mention the word “brother” or “brotherhood” exactly 23 times.

Pheng Thao (No. 19) and Noah Her (No. 2) stand together during the National Anthem between Nolan Freeman (left) and Keanu Williams (right) before a Clovis High School football game on Sept. 30 against Clovis East. Thao and Her are of Hmong heritage and have found a strong brotherhood with the Clovis football team. (COURTESY OF STAN MIYAKE)

These two Hmong seniors are the smallest two on the Clovis Cougars roster – Thao is 5-foot-7, 145 pounds, Her 5-foot-5, 135 – but look at how their chests puff out proudly, honored to be called Clovis Cougars. Of course their chests swell with pride – they have hearts as big as Mount Everest underneath.

They prefer to be called Pheng and Noah and are a rarity among the Hmong community; they play tackle football, an American game foreign to their culture.

However, for 17-year-old Thao and 16-year-old Her, football is much more than a game.

“When I wake up in the morning, football practice gives me purpose,” says Her.

They are both speedy, quick and play – and they’ve found a home at slot receiver. Teammates say if they were taller they would not be just good but great football players. Thao plays a little more than Her, and complements a strong Cougar receiving corps.

“They are such great inspirations and are great people on and off the field,” says senior teammate Cristian Loera, a starting defensive back. “Noah has grown so much in the past year. Last year, he was a little shy on the field but now he has progressed and takes every snap he can get. He is always giving full effort and never takes a play off.

“Pheng is a phenomenal player and is always looking at ways to improve. He inspires me so much. They are true brothers I can always count on.”

The relationship between the team and the two boys are truly symbiotic in more ways than just football. Last year, Her had an undisclosed issue at school, and when word got around the football team, well, let’s just say the problem got solved quickly.

Oh yeah, and Thao scored a touchdown in the team’s season-opening 42-14 win over Modesto.

But more on that later.

Both are extremely polite, at first shy and reserved but open up quickly. And during our conversation and while listening to their heartfelt emotions, my own childhood memories start to flood as I am taken back to 1981 when my parents (my father is a Vietnam veteran with a heart for the Vietnamese people) sponsored a young family of four from Laos to come to the United States. My parents met the wide-eyed family walking down the ramp of the plane straight from Thailand and set up a place for them to live in Dinuba, giving them a chance at a new beginning. It challenged me then as a 9-year-old; Who were these people who looked different from me speaking a language I had never heard?

The image I remember most was the father, Somvang; kind eyes, big muscles on tiny body, back laced with scars from the flying bullets that grazed his skin when he crossed the Mekong River evading Viet Cong soldiers.

They assimilated fairly quickly (their first night they slept on top of the sheets, not knowing they could crawl underneath), learning English and gaining steady employment. They even watched over my younger brother and I on more than one occasion and once Somvang offered the fatherly advice of “don’t wrestle” three or four times and, you guessed it, we shattered our family’s 1930s lamp when I performed a “suplex” on my brother.   

“They became my second family,” I say.

“Kind of like my second family, my football team,” says Her.

There are 101,096 Hmong living in California out of 260,000 total in the United States. The greater Fresno area boasts the second most settled population in the U.S. with 31,771, according to the last United State Census Bureau in 2013.

Both boys are second generation Hmong, their parents born in Laos except for Her’s mother, who is from Alabama. Thao is the second youngest of eight (four brothers and three sisters) and would be the second in the family to attend college. Her is one of four boys in his family; his youngest brother, a very talkative and active kindergartener, is the apple of his eye. 

On Senior Day on Aug. 18, when the football parents are honored with flowers and stand on the field, Thao’s parents did not show up because they were out of town. Instead, he asked his second father, coach Rich Hammond, to stand in the gap.

Her’s parents were there for the on-field ceremony and watched the first quarter of the game before leaving for home, snapping a few pictures later posted on Facebook. Yet, not a word was spoken to Her about that night. 

To be fair, to understand how first-generation Hmongs view education and sports, it’s critical to understand their plight. The Hmong started arriving in the U.S. in 1975 due to the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the harsh living conditions, then fled to Thailand and scattered after the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. It was only then the name Hmong existed in the way it’s used today. After the first wave in 1975, the second wave arrived in the early to mid-1980s and the third wave in the early 1990s.

The traditional Hmong were considered minorities in Laos and did not have any form of an educational system, and thus, those that live now in the U.S. place a high value on education, believing it will bring them up the social ladder. First generation Hmong view education as something no longer needed for themselves, but necessary for the youth.

“At first my parents are like, ‘Why are you doing that sport? Is it going to benefit you?’” Thao says. “But I just say that I do it because I love it. When our parents came from Laos they didn’t know much. All they know is that to be successful you need to stay in school.”

As with nearly every Hmong, when Her’s father arrived in the U.S. he didn’t know any English, and in order to get to school he had to learn how to fix his bike on his own.

“At first they didn’t want me playing, they didn’t want me to get a concussion,” Her says. “At home I really don’t talk to my family. I’ll get home and just take a shower and I can’t wait to wake up the next day. I look forward to coming here.”

Thankfully, not all hope is lost. Two weeks ago, Her’s mom, per his request, prepared a traditional Hmong dish to share with the team before a game – egg rolls.

“I’m a senior and I wanted my teammates to know how much I appreciate them,” he said.

The team scarfed them down like they were going out of style, the lineman, of course, downing the most.

Tackle football is almost an afterthought in the Hmong community – most play soccer or volleyball. However, flag football is exploding among the youth, a game predicated on quick and agile athletes – a perfect blend.

Pheng Thao runs for a touchdown, the first of his high school career, in Clovis’ 42-14 win against Modesto on Aug. 17. Noah Her (not pictured) was also in on the play. COURTESY OF STAN MIYAKE

In fact, both Thao and Her play in a flag football tournament every year during the Hmong New Year celebration at the Fresno Fairgrounds.

“Those games get pretty intense, they play for money,” Thao says with a laugh.

Thao has the ability to play football at the Division III level and has the grades to attend a university. Her wants go into the field of child development after high school: “I really want to help young people.”

Thao started to play football in the seventh grade then gave it up for a year and switched to volleyball. But, “it didn’t feel right” and he went back to football where he played at Clark Intermediate.

Her was more focused on soccer when Thao encouraged him to play football his sophomore year, and he hasn’t looked back.

“I was nervous at first and I thought all the players were going to be mean,” Her says. “But they were really nice. Ever since then I starting loving football.”

And just how nice are these teammates? There is Thomas Brown, a big ol’ lineman, who wanted to learn the Hmong language and took a class at Clovis High. The verdict? It was tougher than he thought due to the language’s eight tones that are difficult to figure out.

There was also a magical moment back in May while on a team bonding trip to Hume Lake when Her was paired up with two unlikely sources, a big ol’ lineman and a rather large running back, and went on a nature walk. It was then Her realized: “They are just normal people, I wasn’t intimidated, it really opened my eyes more.”

And they love their coach, Rich Hammond, the architect of Cougar football in his 11th year. Last year Thao couldn’t afford to pay for the combine so Hammond waived the fee. And when he needed a physical this season to play, he took him to the doctor and paid for that too. There are the numerous rides home after practice.

“Coach Hammond is like a father figure to me,” Thao says with tears in his eyes. “I love him so much.”

“One of the great things about football is there are all kind of shapes, sizes and backgrounds that come together,” Hammond said. “Some of those traditional barriers instantly get broken down. Anybody that comes out is accepted and becomes brothers.

“Our guys really admire them because of their work ethic, energy and positivity they bring.”

They were on the field at the same time, the ball placed at the 1-yard line in a 35-14 blowout in Clovis’ first game of the year against Modesto. Coach Hammond called the play, “12 clean go” – the ball was going to Thao on a jet sweep from right to left. He was nervous when the team broke the huddle – this could be it, my first high school touchdown – he thought. The quarterback, Jake Saunders, lifted his heel, signaling Thao to go in motion and then the handoff and …. touchdown Clovis! Final score: Good Guys 42, Modesto 14.

And you know who threw a block that freed Thao, laying a perfect path into the end zone? Of course, none other than No. 2, Noah Her.

After the game, Hammond hugged Thao: “I promised you a touchdown, I got you a touchdown.”

“Scoring that touchdown was the best feeling ever, I couldn’t stop smiling,” says Thao, and it’s true, to this day he still hasn’t stopped.

As the sun drifts farther down and finally sets while sitting on those rickety metal bleachers across from Lamonica Stadium, the two boys take turns sharing life lessons they’ve learned from playing football at Clovis High.

“You can do anything, nothing is impossible.”

“You get hit hard but just get back up.”

“When I talk in class I always have to mention my team.”

“Football is one of the best decisions I’ve made,” Thao says. “I play for my teammates, not for myself.”

Her then gazes off into sky that has turned from blue to purple to dark and exhales, as if reminiscing about the past and the reflecting on the present.

“I just really love my team.”