The Arizona State football office gets plenty of unsolicited films and inquiries from prospective players. When He Peizhang showed up in person for a third time, the staff decided to leave it up to running backs coach Shaun Aguano to break the news to the young hopeful that the team didn’t need a walk-on at that position.
Aguano was prepared to send the player on his way. But the more the young man talked, the more Aguano’s interest was piqued. He appreciated his persistence, his work ethic, his backstory, the respectful manner in which he pleaded his case.
Aguano then went to his boss, head coach Herm Edwards, and lobbied for him to give the kid a chance.
With that, He Peizhang, known now as Jackson He, became a Sun Devil.
He is believed to be the first Chinese-born athlete to play for an FBS level college football team, thrust further into the spotlight after scoring a touchdown late in ASU’s 70-7 thrashing of local rival Arizona Saturday night.
He spent nearly five hours doing interviews Thursday. Local outlets, national media, and yes, those from China, came calling. It might have been a tedious chore for most but the smile never left his face.
“He is that guy,” Aguano said. “He has a great energy, a great vibe. He does whatever you ask of him and more. He’s never late, takes notes. He’s a good student. By the time I finished talking to him I was like, `You know what, we have nothing to lose by having him on the team.’ He’s just a joy to have around.”
Tempe is just the latest stop that has taken He from one end of the globe to the other.
The native of Shaoguan moved to the United States at 17 in 2014, coming here with a group of other high school students with the blessing of his parents who wanted him to benefit from educational opportunities in this country. He settled in at Lutheran High School, a small private school in Chula Vista, California (now known at Victory Christian).
It is common practice for the Chinese students to Americanize their name to better fit in. He chose Jackson because he liked the music of Michael Jackson, though admits he became more familiar with it after the pop singer died in 2009.
He never competed much in sports growing up, the primary focus in his culture being more on academics. He played some table tennis and dabbled in basketball but his first exposure to football came when the parents of a classmate encouraged him to try the sport.
“I wanted to try things because I came into a new environment so I was just like, `OK, I’m going to try it. That’s how it started,” He said.
Learning a new sport is tough enough but it’s even more difficult when you don’t speak the language but football brought him a new circle of friends and helped him adapt. He learned English rather quickly by interacting with his teammates and watching American television, his favorite show being the Big Bang Theory.
He didn’t tell his parents about his new adventure in football for several months, fearing their reaction to what they perceived to be a “violent” sport.
He proved to be a quick study and was named the team’s Most Improved Player at year’s end. He came to the school as a senior academically but came up with the idea of reclassifying so he could learn the sport better and continue work on his English. The other thought was that the football experience might help earn him a college scholarship which would ease the financial burden on his parents.
“San Diego is a good place and it was an important role in staying another year but really wanted to get more football experience before I go to the next level,” He said.
From there He went on to University of Jamestown, an NAIA program in North Dakota with the precipitating factor being that his high school coach Ron Allen had played there.
He red-shirted the first year, having to adapt to a new environment once again and dealing with an offensive scheme that was complicated for a relative football newbie.
He was more prepared the next season and rushed for a modest 376 yards on 80 tries.
Then came a coaching change. He didn’t like the cold either so he returned to China to ponder his next move.
There had been a surge in the popularity in the sport in China and He was able to join a club team, quickly becoming one of the team’s better players. He also volunteered with a local youth football group working to grow the sport in the country.
He wanted to return to college in the United States and applied to a handful of schools. It was a club teammate that had attended ASU that suggested he look into the school. He did his homework on the program, then applied and was accepted for the 2019-20 school year,
That led to his three trips to the Student-Athletic Facility where he finally had a face-to-face meeting with Aguano. The rest is history.
He red-shirted last year, working diligently on the scout team.
Now He is embracing his newfound popularity and appreciates the opportunity he has been given, not to mention the position he finds himself in as a role model for other Chinese youngsters who might be interested in the sport.
The team has embraced him too.
He was presented a jersey with his name on the back of it in Chinese, a gesture that brought him to tears.
He is now seen as a valuable contributor in the running back room and has become best friends with junior Rachaad White who has had an interesting path to ASU as well.
“He really is a positive guy and we love having him in there with us,” White said. “He probably helps us more than we help him. He has me listening to Chinese music. I’ve learned a lot from him, on the field and off.”
In Saturday’s game White got the ball and broke toward the Wildcat goal line, only to step out of bounds at the 2. White then took himself out of the game, in hope that He would be sent into the game to score that touchdown.
It was just the third quarter and Edwards wasn’t quite ready to clear the bench yet.
“I told him (White) to get back in there and score,” Aguano said.
White did so.
But He was eventually called upon, getting four carries in the final quarter and scoring from the 1 for the game’s final touchdown.
He got up off the turf, pointed to the name on the back of his jersey as the sideline erupted in celebration.
“It’s family. We’re a big family. We love each other. They were happy to see me succeed,” He said.
Co-defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce showed up to practice on Tuesday wearing a black T-shirt with Chinese writing on the front, the translation . . . “Chinese can ball too,” a nod to the player that has endeared himself to his teammates and coaches as well.
AP reall the GOAT!! https://t.co/3UKiD2LonW
— actionjacksonhe (@actionjacksonhe) December 17, 2020
It was announced Friday that a Chinese video streaming platform Tencent, which has over 900 million monthly users, will live stream ASU’s game at Oregon State on Saturday night because of the fan interest generated by He’s story.
He admits he doesn’t know when his number will be called again, but he’ll go to practice every day and work hard to earn his chance. It’s not any different than what he does in every day life.
“This is what life is you know. There are going to be people that are really good at their job. You just have to be prepared for everything that is coming to you so when your chances come you can take over,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: ASU’s Jackson He embraces opportunity to be role model for other Chinese youngsters