From clueless about football to kicking at Notre Dame: a journey from South Korea

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Notre Dame place-kicker Justin Yoon discusses his upbringing in the United States and South Korea.
David Woods, david.woods@indystar.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. –  The soon-to-be top scorer in Notre Dame football history did not know the Gipper from the Heisman. Did not know Rockne from Parseghian.

Did not know a touchdown from a first down, for that matter. Until he was a teenager, Justin Yoon had never seen a football game.

“I didn’t know Tom Brady or anything. Like nothing,” he said. “I was clueless.”

So how does the grandson of a Korean naval officer go from knowing nothing to being all-everything? From Seoul to the soul of the Notre Dame offense? From learning skating from his father (who once helped an Olympic gold medalist) to teaching Korean kickers?

It is as simple as snap, hold, kick. Do that over and over and over.

“I’ve kicked, I don’t know, 10,000 balls,” Yoon said.

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The senior heads into Saturday’s game at Wake Forest with more points, 297, than any other Notre Dame kicker ever. The only Fighting Irish player ahead of him, with 320 points, is running back Allen Pinkett (1982-85).

Yoon has honed his skill under the eight-year direction of Jamie Kohl, a former Iowa State kicker who once signed an NFL contract and coaches kickers from high school to the NFL. Yoon has reached milestones despite two injuries — broken vertebrae in high school and a knee injury in college.

“He’s been silent about it,” Kohl said of the injuries. “He has risen to the bell when he’s been called upon. That’s why I liked him so much coming out of high school. I trusted his dad’s upbringing of him. The discipline and attention to detail and focus that family has is unique.”

That has been manifested in the fact that Yoon’s father, Jiseop, is sharing an apartment with him this semester on Irish Row, across the street from Notre Dame’s practice fields. Yoon’s mother, Mihwa, is a pharmacist who helps run the family business in Seoul.

Yoon greeted fans as the team entered Notre Dame Stadium before a game against the Michigan Wolverines. (Photo: Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

Jiseop, 52, joked he is “like a maid,” cooking and cleaning. He said he wants his son to have constancy during this time in his life. The father did not foresee his son having such a life.

“I never had a dream like, ‘Oh, you’re going to the NFL or whatever,’ “ Jiseop said. “ ‘You’re going to be a student first.’ “

Justin was born in Cincinnati. His family moved to Seoul, where he studied at an international school until he was 10. He claims American and Korean heritages.

He was a “troublemaker” as a child, his father said, breaking anything he touched – including precious porcelain when he rolled a ball down some steps. He was willing to try new things, though, something that changed his life.

Kids are drawn to him at kicking camps, perhaps because he retains child-like characteristics. The kid-at-heart kicker continues to trade Pokemon cards.

In Seoul, father and son spoke English on the subway, and Jiseop sensed other riders resented them for that. He said there was anti-American sentiment then under the South Korean regime. The father said he didn’t want to raise Eric, an older son, and Justin in that environment and relocated the family to Nashville, Tenn. To the Yoons, Nashville is home.

Jiseop was once a figure skater but gave up the sport at 16. He was also a skating judge and influenced Yuna Kim, the 2010 Olympic champion, to include a then-unprecedented triple jump combination to her program.

So the father knows skating. He taught Justin, who became a hockey player. If Justin was going to be admitted to a prep school, they reasoned, that would help.

Justin played soccer, too, and lacrosse. He recalled devotion to sports of all sorts, as many as eight games in a weekend. A coach at Harding Academy in Nashville  saw him kicking a soccer ball and urged him to try football.

Even when he was in middle school, those who saw Yoon kick told him he could so in college football. He was incredulous.

“I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? I just started doing this,’ “ he said.

He caught the attention of the Milton Academy football coach, Kevin MacDonald, in Massachusetts. The coach saw tape of Yoon’s kicking and recruited him. The hockey coach was not that interested. MacDonald was interested, “not knowing quite how good he was,” he said.

Yoon was a good student, too, which he had to be to thrive at one of the nation’s highest-rated prep schools. And he had a relentless work ethic.

Still, he knew so little about this new sport. He could not have been more dumbfounded than if he had been a child in a C.S. Lewis novel walking through the wardrobe into Narnia.

“Like a whole, new big world I’ve never been to,” Yoon said.

In his junior year at Milton, he had one game in which he kicked field goals of 54, 49, 47 and 37 yards, and all his kickoffs were unreturned. He was 38-of-39 on extra points that season.

He had offers from Stanford, Northwestern, Boston College, Texas A&M and all the Ivy League schools. Kohl encouraged Yoon to consider Notre Dame, and that’s where he committed before his senior season.

In the first game of that senior season, he was punting as well as kicking. The snap went over his head, and he dove on the football to secure possession. A defender landed on him, cracking several of Yoon’s vertebrae.

He returned for Milton’s final game and kicked a 49-yard field goal. Then, in the Under Armour All-American Bowl at St. Petersburg, Florida, he set records with three field goals, including a 47-yarder. There was ample evidence for him to be ranked as the nation’s No. 1 kicking prospect.

Yet the best thing about him, MacDonald said, is Yoon coached younger Korean kickers to take his place. One, Min Park, now kicks for Williams College. Another, J.J. Mun, was 9-for-9 on field goals last season and is being recruited by colleges.

“I love coach Mac. He literally was everything for me,” Yoon said. “He supported me in every way.

“It’s all about trusting. It’s so hard for coaches to trust you. You don’t get many coaches like that.”

You don’t get many kickers like Yoon. His father said “he just flows,” adjusting to new situations, cultures or teammates.

What worried Kohl is how Yoon would transition from high school games with 200 spectators – you could hear a mother’s voice — to 80,000 at Notre Dame Stadium. That is an “under-appreciated” component of the kicker’s evolution, Kohl said.

“Kicking at Notre Dame is different than kicking somewhere else,” Kohl said. “You  have to be a more focused player to be a successful player at Notre Dame than you do at another institution.”

In his first college season, Yoon made 15-of-17 field goals and scored 95 points, most ever by a Notre Dame freshman. His 47 field goals rank sixth among active kickers.

A tradition was born in which Yoon, the holder and snapper bow to each other in a post-kick celebration. Yoon said it is something former snapper Scott Daly introduced, and it has continued.

Don’t mess with routine. Nothing is more important to a kicker than routine. Make or miss, Yoon said, and the process should not change. It is one reason he attempts to deflect talk about the impending school record for points.

That goes for talk about the NFL, too. Yoon conceded he has tried to model himself after pros such as Justin Tucker, the Baltimore Ravens kicker whose .903 accuracy on field goals is the best in NFL history. After making 3-of-4 against Vanderbilt last week, Yoon is at .797 in his college career.

“Accuracy is really the thing that’s separated him from other kickers,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “I think we’ve seen that throughout his career.”

Evidence that Yoon has recovered from a 2017 knee injury is that he kicked a 62-yard field goal in practice before this season. Kohl said Yoon has pro potential but that he has encouraged him to enjoy every moment of his last college season.

Pro football was never the plan. The Yoon family was simply trying to get their son a good education. Now, the finance major might someday be counting NFL dollars.

“This is way beyond our scope, to be honest,” Jiseop Yoon said.

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