FROM REFUGEE TO NFL: TASO MEMBER MAKES HISTORY AS LEAGUE’S FIRST ASIAN-AMERICAN OFFICIAL
The story of Lo van Pham begins three or four years before he is born.
It begins in Vietnam, when the Viet Cong are seeping in from the north, when Pham’s parents flee, abandoning the mechanic shop they owned.
It begins when Pham is the middle son of three boys. When his parents pay guides to help them hack through the jungle — Pham’s youngest brother on his father’s back, his older brother almost dying from malaria. It begins when they bounce around refugee camps in Laos, Thailand and the Philippines.
And it begins in 1979, when Pham is 7 years old. His family wins a lottery run by Catholic missionaries that ushers them to a new life in Amarillo, Texas. Pham sees his parents build their home on wages from Levi Strauss and a meat packing plant.
Pham’s story includes all of these beginnings because what are the stories of immigrants and refugees but a series of them: new displacements, new languages, new cultures and foods, new ways to improvise, to survive.
His latest beginning came Tuesday, when the NFL announced it had hired 10 new on‑field officials for the 2022 season, and Pham became the first Asian‑American in league history to hold the position. He will work as a side judge. Pham knows why he’s here — because of everything that came before.
“I’m just amazed we even survived that journey,” Pham told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “We were always on the move. We didn’t know where we were. We just kind of went where they told us to go. And then when we came to America, the one thing my parents always stressed was education, that education would lead us to a better opportunity.
“Did it put pressure on us? Absolutely, because I knew what they had gone through. I saw it. But my brothers and I never were deprived of anything. Everything that I needed was there. This opportunity is a blessing. It’s an honor. It’s a privilege. This is what America is all about.”
Pham was born in 1973 in southwestern Laos, where the Mekong and Xe Don rivers meet, in a town called Pakse. His memories of tent camps in cavernous warehouses are hazy, most pieced together from stories his parents passed down.
Amarillo is where Pham’s memories sharpen.