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Highland Park assistant coach Elliott Vang shouts out instructions to his players during practice at Highland Park High School in St. Paul on Tuesday August 20, 2013. Vang is the only Hmong high school football coach in the St. Paul City Conference. (Pioneer Press: John Doman) (Pioneer Press: John Doman)

Highland Park assistant coach Elliott Vang gives some instruction to defensive back Jer Ger Xiong during practice at Highland Park HS in St. Paul Tuesday morning August 20, 2013.

Prep football: Highland assistant coach Elliott Vang helps introduce Hmong to America's game

By Tim Leighton
[email protected]
POSTED:   08/26/2013 12:01:00 AM CDT | UPDATED:   ABOUT 20 HOURS AGO

As an 8-year-old, Elliott Vang scurried around his St. Paul home looking for loose change. And not just any coins. His search was very specific.

Vang used quarters to represent linemen, nickels to be his running backs and linebackers, and dimes to be quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs. A penny served as the football. Once he had his "players" assembled, he arranged them in various football formations and moved them around to mimic plays.

"We had very little money, so I couldn't go around the house and gather figurines for my players," said Vang, 34. "This was my play time. I would watch the NFL on TV and mimic what was going on."

He never dreamed then that he would someday coach American football. The game wasn't a part of his Hmong culture, and he never believed he would even play the game that always fascinated him with its terminologies and complexities. He was OK with that, reasoning that his body was better suited for soccer anyway.

Soccer has since taken a backseat to football, and Vang loves every minute of it.

He is in his fifth season on the Highland Park High School football team's coaching staff, third as the Scots' defensive coordinator.

"This is my calling," said Vang, who played just one year of football. "I am meant to be here, sharing what I know and helping these kids learn the game."

Vang is the only Hmong football coach in the St. Paul City Conference. With an increasing Hmong population in St. Paul, that link has proved crucial in attracting athletes from other cultures to the game. Vang said he is one of two Hmong football coaches in the Twin Cities; the other is Dennis Lee, an assistant at Park Center.

"At the time I hired (Vang) as a volunteer assistant, I didn't think about the significance of him being Hmong," Highland Park head coach Dave Zeitchick said. "I kind of have an eclectic staff from all over the place anyway. Immediately, I knew he was going to be a good one. At this level, you're looking for commitment, passion and learning the football piece as you go on. It was a no-brainer for us to sign him on."

Zeitchick said about 20 percent of Highland Park's 1,009 students are Hmong.

"I think I was hired as a coach, first and foremost," said Vang, one of nine children in his family. "I was just someone to come in and help out. I don't think the fact that I was Hmong had anything to do with it. Now that I'm here, I do want to pave the way and show the Hmong population that there are ways to get into athletics and achieve success."

Vang, who is married with two young children, works as an interpreter in various St. Paul hospitals and clinics for Hmong patients. He also speaks to the Southeast Asian Club at Highland Park High School to let them know he is a resource if needed.

"The Hmong culture still doesn't know much about American football," he said. "Many in the Hmong culture still think it's a recreational game. We want to teach these kids that once they've committed, they will learn all sorts of life lessons. I'm a big believer in team sports. I share that message with the elders. It's like a second family. It's nice to know the players can come to me if there is a cultural gap. It's nice for the players to know that there is that comfort level you can have with a coach."

Vang said Highland Park has four Hmong players on the football team.

"It feels good to have someone of my own race to be here he we need him," junior defensive back Michael Hang said.

"Race doesn't matter to me, but it's nice to know that there's another of my kind on the coaching staff," said Jer Ger Xiong, a sophomore defensive back and wide receiver.

"It makes things more comfortable. Having him here has made this a better experience."

Vang recently changed his first name to Elliott. His previous first name was Sue, which he has now chosen as his middle name. In the Hmong community, he is known as "Ele," pronounced el-lee). It means elephant.

Vang was a four-year varsity letter winner in soccer at Highland Park and was supposed to graduate in 1997, but he dropped out in his senior year. Instead, he graduated in 2000 from the St. Paul Area Learning Center. He attended Concordia University in St. Paul, and instead of playing soccer, he went out for the football team.

He was redshirted and didn't see any playing time. He then became the team's manager, where he began to learn the intricacies of the game.

"It was a difficult transition from soccer to football," he said. "I know it can be a difficult transition for kids, too. That's one way I can relate to them."

Zeitchick says Vang has a bright coaching future.

"I think he eventually is going to be a head football coach someday," he said. "That might sound crazy to say about someone who didn't play the game growing up, but that's just how good he is. Guys have a lot of faith in him and play hard. He does a great job of building relationships. He knows this game."

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