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Favorite Uncle

Michael Chang is a lightning rod for nephew Emmanuel Moody, USC's freshman running back

October 04, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

COPPELL, Texas — Here comes the uncle again. What's the problem this time?

My nephew's playing the wrong position. He's not playing enough. He's playing too much.

In the rambling suburbs north of Dallas, football coaches from pee-wee league through high school welcomed Emmanuel Moody onto their teams. Those nimble feet, that twitchy acceleration. Then they discovered his physical gifts came with a familial attachment.

His young uncle showed up at practice or asked for meetings that stretched an hour. A self-described "tall, skinny, Korean guy," he had never played football yet freely offered his opinions.

"Every coach Emmanuel had, I got in some altercation with," he said.

Michael Chang -- the uncle, not the former tennis player -- could be just as rough on his nephew, meticulous about diet and training, making him run sprints in the Texas summer heat until he vomited. And that was when the boy was in fifth grade.

"My mom had to tell him not to push me so hard," Moody said.

Not much has changed now that Moody is a freshman at USC and the Trojans' top rusher heading into Saturday's game against Washington at the Coliseum. Chang still calls each day, sometimes twice, and checks regularly with the coaching staff.

"Michael is protective of Emmanuel," said linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., who recruited the tailback. "Extremely protective."

Their relationship suggests trouble -- an overbearing authority figure, a beleaguered prodigy. For USC fans, it might even stir memories of troubled quarterback Todd Marinovich and his father, Marv.

But the truth is something very different.

*

The tale begins in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Chang grew up as the only Asian kid in a tough neighborhood. His father died of a stroke when he was young.

"It's funny because I never had anyone to look up to," he said in words tinged with a Korean accent. "I had a lot of rough things as a kid."

He ended up living with his sister, Young Sun, in Dallas. Her ex-husband, Eugene Moody, who was African American, had left her raising three children.

The oldest son and daughter were close to Chang's age, 14, but Emmanuel was only six. Chang, for all the predictable reasons, took it upon himself to serve as the boy's father figure.

There were equal measures of empathy and firmness, an emphasis on Christianity. Also, Chang sought to instill toughness. This objective found a new avenue when Moody reached third grade and played pee-wee football.

"The first game I went to, he scored four touchdowns in the first half," Chang said. "I was like, 'Wow, this guy is going to be good.' "

Thus began the grueling sessions at a high school near their home, across the freeway from Texas Stadium in Irving.

"He had never played football," Moody said. "But somehow he knew his stuff."

Said Chang: "Honestly, I didn't know what I was doing."

He read books and scoured the Internet. He saw Emmitt Smith working out on television and took note of how the former Cowboys star set plastic cones on the ground, darting around them.

Cone drills became a fixture of their training, as did the sprints that one day left Moody dehydrated and vomiting, needing to be carried off the track.

"I felt bad because I worked him so hard," Chang said.

But here is a key to their relationship -- Moody liked it, craved it.

Whether it was football or video games or ping-pong, the kid had always been hyper-competitive, hungry to improve. He wanted to be pushed.

"If I didn't want it," he said, "I probably would have quit."

Sure, there were times he complained, even cursed his uncle. Especially when Chang put him on a special diet, eating certain foods five times a day to gain weight.

"He trained me till I was crying," Moody said. "Made me eat until I was crying."

Yet, they realized they were headed toward the same point -- together -- after Moody got sick at the track. They knew because the next day ... he wanted to go back.

*

His skin is dark like the father, but his face whispers of the mother's heritage. Sparse eyebrows and faintly almond-shaped eyes. A squarish face leading into a prominent jaw.

In the realm of football, these Asian features worked against Moody, said Chang, who is more classically Korean in appearance, a light complexion against jet-black hair.

"Everyone has the running back position set in their minds," he said. "It has to be an African American."

More to the point, Moody was a late-bloomer, considered too small to carry the load. He was also quiet, not the type to confront.

Chang did it for him.

When coaches pegged him as a cornerback, the uncle argued. Not enough carries? The uncle complained.

"I'm straight with coaches," he said. "If I don't think it's fair, I'll speak up."

Which explains another aspect of their bond. Said Moody: "Every kid has to have someone watching out for him. Since my dad wasn't there, he was the guy."

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