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It's a Long Road Trip : Fullerton's Unger Appears to Have Finally Found a Home

September 20, 1986|JIM McCURDIE | Times Staff Writer

Ivana and Oldrich Unger's son, Daniel, will start at defensive tackle for Cal State Fullerton today in Moscow, Ida. For Dan Unger, it's another opportunity to prove himself. To show how far he has come.

It is already light years farther than most. Dan Unger is not your average defensive tackle. Dan Unger has not had your average life.

In his 22 years, he has lived in three countries (four if you count New York City) and has had to learn the language of each. He and his family have had to fill out applications to find a country to call their own. He has spent the last seven years as a citizen of nowhere, although he hopes to become an official, sworn-in American soon.

And he has taken up this game we call football. He knew nothing of blocks and tackles while growing up in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He knew little English and even less football when he first stumbled onto a field some five years ago at Orange High School.

But on Saturday, he'll put on his uniform (and this was once much easier said than done) and line up at tackle for the Titans against the University of Idaho.

Mr. and Mrs. Unger will have to miss Dan's first major college start, though. They're loading up the car and driving to Tempe, Ariz., to catch the Arizona State-Southern Methodist game. Dan's twin brother, Dominik, plays for SMU and this is the only chance they will have to see one of his games.

"We like American football because it's good schooling for life," Oldrich Unger said. "It teaches them to think and to be strong. They have to survive."

The Ungers know all about survival. Seems it's a family trait.

Oldrich Unger worked nearly 25 years as a broadcaster for government-controlled radio in Czechoslovakia. Ivana Unger juggled a career in film editing and raising the couple's three children. All was well with the Ungers until 1968, when the Soviets invaded. The Ungers didn't like what was happening to their homeland, and weren't afraid to say so.

"The Russians called it help," Oldrich said. "We called it an invasion."

"We didn't need any help," Ivana said.

Oldrich got an inkling that his government didn't care much for his opinions when he was dismissed from his job in 1970. He found work doing educational tapes for the Czech school system. In 1977, the Ungers signed Charter 77, a document critical of the state of human rights in Czechoslovakia. Both lost their jobs shortly thereafter.

Dominik and Dan were approaching the secondary phase of their education, but the Ungers were suddenly uncertain of their children's future. "We were told that they would not be able to go on in school because we were political opponents of the system," Ivana said. "That was part of our punishment. We were put in the position of the black sheep."

The Ungers felt they had no choice but to apply for a visa to leave the country legally. This was a trying and time-consuming process. It meant that they would have to forfeit their citizenship. It was not an easy decision.

"If they made it easy," Oldrich said, "the whole population would be gone."

It was 11 months before the Ungers were granted permission to leave. In the meantime, they were unemployed and running out of money. They sold the books that made up Oldrich's home library. They sold the car and the furniture. Finally, the time came to leave.

The Ungers went first to Vienna, where they stayed 10 months. Oldrich said they had intended to stay only long enough to save enough money to leave Europe. They applied for admission to Canada but were refused. They applied to the United States and were accepted. In 1979, they arrived in Queens, New York.

The first block thrown at Dan Unger was one of communication. "When we came to Austria, I had to learn German," he said. "Then we switched places and I had to start all over again. The only phrase I knew was 'I don't know.' I used that quite often.

"I didn't like New York at all. It was just too compact. There were no open spaces."

Mr. and Mrs. Unger didn't like New York because there were no jobs. A film industry acquaintance of Ivana's told her that the opportunities for work were better in California. She came west to visit friends and search for work. She sent word back to Oldrich that the trip was a success. She and her husband would work as a domestic couple for a wealthy family in the hills above Santa Ana. The Ungers relocated again.

With the exception of Dan, the Ungers were sworn in as U.S. citizens in July. Dan has passed his citizenship test but is waiting for some misplaced paper work to be processed. Oldrich Unger said he will always remember becoming an American citizen just a few days after Americans celebrated the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty.

"We went from 1979 to 1986 without any citizenship at all," he said. "We were like newborns after this celebration. We feel America is, believe it or not, our new and beautiful home."

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