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."

Laos and Thailand are far away. "I don't remember much about back then," Satsay says, "just what I hear about it. All I know is that coming here was the biggest thing that ever happened to us."

IN THE COZY living room of his home near 35th Avenue and Thunderbird, Chan Singpradith tells his family's story. A slight, bright-eyed man of 51 with a droll sense of humor, Chan gestures around the room to the small American flag in a cup atop a color television, to the many framed photos of his children in graduation garb and sports uniforms.

"See all this stuff?" he begins softly. "When we came here, we had nothing but each other. We have had much luck as a family."

The Singpradiths are middle-class Buddhists who are devoted to family and to their network of friends--some Laotian, some not. Chan works these days on an assembly line at a Tempe computer-parts plant, while his wife is a housekeeper at the Pointe at Tapatio Cliffs.

Chan grew up dirt poor in a village in southern Laos and moved as a young man to the capital city of Vientiane. He became a cop, and by the early 1970s, he had risen to lieutenant. He and Phet didn't have much money as they raised their large family, but he says they were better off than most of Laos' three million other inhabitants.

War was raging at that time in Southeast Asia, a war that had nearly as devastating an effect on Laos as it did on neighboring Vietnam. By the time the insurgent Communists and the Laotian government inked a political settlement in February 1973, more than two million tons of bombs had been dropped on Laos by American planes--more than the total tonnage dropped by the United States during World War II.

The nation's bloody civil war continued despite the settlement. In April 1975, as political events in Cambodia and South Vietnam also were reaching a climax, the Pathet Lao--the Laotian Communists--took over.

Within a few months, they sent thousands of upper-echelon civil servants and military officers to rural labor camps for "re-education"--often-violent brainwashing. That left mid-level cops like Chan Singpradith in charge for a time.

"We knew they were going to take us away, too," he says, "and we didn't see anyone coming back home like they had promised. I wasn't any big deal, but they were going to `re-educate' the whole department."

By the end of 1975, Chan Singpradith's time for re-education had come, and he was ordered to report for a bus ride to oblivion.

Chan rushed home and told his wife that he was going to flee to Thailand: "I told them to meet me there in one week."

With the clothes on his back and the equivalent of ten dollars in his pocket, he and a friend crossed the Mekong River into Thailand. "I waited until night, and this guy took me and a friend over in a canoe," Chan recalls. "I had no papers, no nothing. I didn't know what was going to happen."

Chan found his way to Nong Khai, a camp crowded with 46,000 refugees, where he waited apprehensively until his family showed up.

(Chan's account of the family's escape is corroborated by his children. However, Barry Horst, the Singpradiths' Phoenix sponsor, tells a different story: "Mr. Singpradith put them on a log or a piece of lumber, and he floated the thing across the Mekong himself. I heard that for sure. He won't admit that he did that. He's very humble. If it wasn't for his heroism, they wouldn't have made it intact, or at all." Told twice of Horst's version, Chan Singpradith stares straight ahead, then repeats a condensed version of his original story.)

The Singpradiths soon moved from Nong Khai to a camp at Ubon, across the border from Chan's home village in Laos. They stayed in jam-packed Ubon for about three-and-a-half years.

"We didn't have much to do there except to think about what to do next," Chan says. "Very boring. I would work outside the camp now and then for a little money--real hard work, construction, whatever they wanted me to do. It wasn't easy, but you could live if you didn't get sick and die. My kids weren't getting education, but we would try to learn any English that we could. I knew a little bit about the U.S., and I knew it was the place to go."

In July 1979, Chan finally got the good word.
"This person from the Catholic church told us that we had a sponsor in Phoenix, Arizona," he says. "I did not know what Phoenix, Arizona, was. They told me it was hot there. I was glad, because I do not like cold weather. But we would have gone anywhere."

BARRY HORST and his wife Cathy were watching 60 Minutes one Sunday night in 1979 in their Phoenix home when they saw a segment on boat people.

"They gave a number you could call if you were interested in sponsoring someone," recalls Horst, the administrator of a westside medical clinic. "My wife and I felt we should call, though we'd never done anything like it before. We called New York, and they gave us the number of the local Catholic Family Social Services.

"A lady came over and interviewed us, and we said we wanted either a child or a young couple. She told us it was relatively easy to place children, but that large families were hard to place. Plus, the Singpradiths were low priority because they were Laotian, not Vietnamese. We had four kids of our own at the time, and I didn't know what to say. Then she pulled a photo out of the family, and it was difficult to say no after that."

As soon as Horst gave his okay, the social worker dropped a bombshell: The Singpradiths were at that moment on their way to the States.

With help from a neighbor, Horst hurriedly converted his garage into a makeshift two-bedroom apartment. Then he drove to Sky Harbor Airport to greet his new family.

"You cannot imagine what they were going through," Horst says. "They didn't know what a flush toilet was--so many things. We were passing a motor home on the way back from the airport and they couldn't believe it--a huge house on wheels! We were worried that the garage apartment was far too small for seven people, but they couldn't believe how big it was.

"They were bowing, scraping, being thankful. It was very sad in one respect: You don't think about the plight of the world until it hits home. We learned that when you help someone, you're the one who gets the real help. These people really have benefited our society."

Chan Singpradith pushed his children from the start, but he didn't have to push too hard.

"He made us watch a lot of TV, made us read, and it was scary, but fun," Satsay says. "When you come here as a young 'un, you have it a lot easier. At first, I was very quiet--I kept everything to myself, even though I was learning a lot. Then I started to expand."

Chan worked as a janitor for about six months, and the three oldest children--Penny, Ott, and Pasa--also found jobs.

"These people were amazing," says Barry Horst. "My sister teaches English as a second language, and they'd do their homework by translating things from English to French to Laotian and back again. They never, ever went on the welfare rolls, though they easily could have. They got work, and worked and worked and worked."

After the Singpradiths stayed with the Horsts for about a year, they rented their own place. Chan found a new job as an interpreter at Catholic Family Social Services. Then he was hired by the Tempe computer plant.

In October 1985, the Singpradiths bought their first home, at 35th Avenue and Thunderbird. The family--five children and two parents--all still live together. (The oldest son married and stayed in Thailand.)

The Singpradith clan's own re-education plan is on course.
"We still speak Laotian in the house, as well as English," Chan says, "and we still eat our food--Laotian and American foods. I don't want them to forget our culture, our heritage. We have family meetings every few months, the entire family. It's like a small community, and I'm the president of that community. We talk about why we are here, and about how we can support each other. I tell them we are in this country to try to be good people."

A religious man, Chan hasn't insisted his children practice Buddhism.
"Every religion teaches people to try to be good people," he says. "God means the same thing in every religion. Whatever my kids want to be, they can be, as long as they're good people."

SATSAY DOESN'T RECALL the first time he picked up a football.
"We used to play in the playground, and I was the smallest, but I didn't quit, even when it got rough," he says. Satsay is surprised by questions about racial prejudice against him. He claims the only prejudice he has suffered is from those who used to say he was too small to play football.

Undaunted by that, he tried out as a sophomore for Greenway's junior varsity quarterback slot. But his coaches moved him to defensive back. "I was too nervous," he says.

Last year, however, Satsay made the varsity as second-string quarterback. Early in the season, the coach sent him into a game after the outcome already had been decided.

"I was so nervous, I fumbled about five straight snaps," Satsay says. "I kept looking at the coach, expecting to get pulled out, but he didn't do it."

During the next game, Greenway's starting quarterback was injured, and the job was Satsay's by default.

"I had butterflies big-time," he says. "My heart was pumping, and I called my plays superfast--I can't believe the guys understood me. My hands were shaking. Mike Salmon, our best player--now he's at USC--he comes over to me and said, `Sat-Man, you got to do it. Have fun.' That was very cool. I started to get into the flow of the game, and it got simple."

Satsay did well enough to keep the job after Greenway's other quarterback healed. The team made the state play-offs and finished with an 8-3 record. This year, the school won six of its first eight games and is ranked in the Top Ten of Class 4-A.

"I'm not going to say we'll win the state title this year," says Greenway's Gregg Parrish, "but with Satsay in there doing his thing, we have the potential to go a long, long way."

THE SINGPRADITH HOUSEHOLD is always on the move. Just about the only time they're all together is for family meetings. The rest of the time, the kids zip in and out of the house, and mom and pop work long hours.

On one rare occasion, Satsay and brothers Prasong and Ott are sitting at home, watching Oprah Winfrey talk turkey with confessed rapists. Prasong turns down the volume so younger brother Satsay can speak about the future.

"I like history, things about people, religions, and other stuff," Satsay says. "I know I should like math because I'm Oriental, but I don't. I also like sports medicine a lot."

Satsay, a solid B student, doesn't know what next year will bring. His brothers want him to attend Northern Arizona University and try out for the football team as a kicker.

The only thing Satsay is sure about is that he doesn't want to stand for something--you know, the "first" Laotian field goal kicker and all that. He just wants to be something.

"I'm not this kid from a foreign country anymore," he says. "I'm just this kid trying to figure out what to do. It'll be weird if I don't play ball. It's all I've been doing for a long time. Then there's my dad. He doesn't like me to go too far away. He doesn't want me to go to another state. He's pretty easygoing, but he's very conservative, and he gets worried about us."

This summer, Satsay made four dollars an hour packing candles at a westside factory. He spent most of his earnings on clothes, but he also gave his mom $100 for her two-month trip back to Thailand--her first visit since the Singpradiths emigrated.

"My family is like a football team," Satsay Singpradith says. "You work together, you get somewhere in life.

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