The Americanization of Satsay

From refugee camp to gridiron in one hectic decade

Eight-year-old Satsay Singpradith and his brothers and sisters huddled around their mom and dad shortly before going to sleep. But this was not just another bedtime story. The family had fled Laos and was living in a miserable refugee camp in eastern Thailand.

Chan Singpradith, the family's patriarch, kept promising better days ahead. Listen, he told them in his soothing but persistent way, we're going to make it out of here. We're going to the States someday, I swear it.

The family had sneaked across the Mekong River to Thailand in late 1975, soon after the Communists took over their country. For Chan, it was either run or be sent to a remote "re-education" camp, with a good chance of dying there.

On July 18, 1979, three-and-a-half years after the family fled Laos, Chan Singpradith's vow came to pass. And so did Satsay.

SEPTEMBER 1989: Things are falling apart for favored Greenway High School in its football game against Washington.

Satsay Singpradith drops back to pass. Three of Washington's linemen are on top of him in no time. Somehow, Greenway's senior quarterback--all five-foot-six and 150 pounds of him--ducks under the trio and sprints for the sideline.

A defensive back rushes up to Satsay and levels him with a shoulder. Chan and Phet Singpradith's second-youngest child goes flying end-over-end like a tumbleweed.

Satsay ends up in a heap in front of his coach, Gregg Parrish. Parrish bends over to give his star a hand, but Satsay hops up by himself and trots back onto the field.

Quarterback, punter, field goal kicker and part-time defensive back, Satsay usually is as elusive as a Sonoran lizard. On this balmy, early-autumn evening in Phoenix, however, he's getting creamed again and again.

Up in the bleachers, older brother Ott Singpradith shouts encouragement as the score against Greenway mounts. "C'mon, Sat, you can do it! C'mon, make it work!"

The P.A. announcer tries to say "Singpradith" after Satsay does something, but gives up after two or three times. For the rest of the game, he sticks with "Satsay, the ball carrier," or "Satsay, back to punt."

Phet Singpradith sits next to Ott, silently watching her son the quarterback getting his lunch handed to him. She giggles when asked if she understands football. "Know enough," she answers. "Watch my son."

On this night, her son is intercepted four times in a 27-9 defeat.
"This is his worst game by far," Ott says as the clock runs out. "Thing about Sat is, he won't let it get him down for long."

It wasn't a total washout. Satsay scored all nine of his team's points--on a touchdown run and a field goal. He also unleashed a monster 65-yard punt.

Physically spent after the game, a disappointed Satsay promises to carry on.

"I'm going to keep fighting and fighting and fighting out there," he says. "That's the way my brothers taught me. We've always played sports, and they were always bigger than me, so I had to learn how to play bigger. In football, I don't crack out there. People are screaming and I've got the ball. It's great. You lose once in a while, but it's a lot more fun to win. My family loves to win."

"YOU WANT ME to describe Satsay?" says his 27-year-old sister, Chanpen (everyone calls her Penny). "Besides being a pain? He's super-American."

Though the little man is a big man on his suburban high school campus, he doesn't appear stuck on himself. A prankster known to his buddies as "Sat-Man," Satsay says he's determined to have fun--except, of course, on the football field.

"Life is too serious," he says. "Me and my family, we have a lot of fun joking around. Me and my girlfriend Jennifer have fun. School is fun--sometimes. There's plenty of time to be serious. I don't take many things seriously except for football. That's where the joking stops."

Who's more "American" than a high school quarterback? Yet, Satsay, unlike Penny, his dad and two brothers, isn't yet an American citizen.

"It will be an honor to be an American," he says, with barely a touch of a Laotian accent. "Right now, I'm worried about getting my life straightened out and seeing about college and getting a scholarship. My dad is worried about the drugs and the alcohol at colleges. In Laos and Thailand, all they had was maybe a little rice wine or something to worry about. Anyway, I'm American, even though I'm not American, know what I mean?"

A decade ago, Satsay didn't even know what America was, much less a pigskin. Now, he's a little chunk of granite who has become one of the Valley's most exciting high school athletes.

"Our team just isn't nearly as good without him--that's the best way to say it," says Greenway coach Parrish. "His stats last year--14 touchdowns, 1,200-something yards--only tell part of it. He's a leader of the first rank. I don't know much about his background, but he sure must have an excellent family."

Satsay loves to talk about that family, especially about his father. "It's amazing what my dad did," Satsay says. "If he hadn't done what he did, I wouldn't be here now. No one here would know me. Good Lord, I wouldn't even know what the USA was."

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