Stanford-bound TaeVeon Le's family, a long way from Vietnam, lives American dream

By On July 30, 2018

Stanford-bound TaeVeon Le's family, a long way from Vietnam, lives American dream

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  • 1 of 6Hung Le and his infant daughter, An, on the Blue Ridge in 1975 after escaping Saigon.
  • 2 of 6Hong Thi Le and infant An Le are helped down a ladder by sailors aboard the Blue Ridge after being flown by helicopter from Saigon in 1975. Hung Le, An’s father and the pilot of the chopper, is at the bottom ... moreHong Thi Le and infant An Le are helped down a ladder by sailors aboard the Blue Ridge after being flown by helicopter from Saigon in 1975. Hung Le, An’s father and the pilot of the chopper, is at the bottom of the ladder, wearing sunglasses. less
  • 3 of 6TaeVeon Le of Corona del Mar makes a game-winning one-hand catch of a touchdown pass against Roosevelt-Eastvale cornerback Chase Williams in a 2017 playoff game.
  • 4 of 6Hung Le, An Le’s father, with his helico pter in South Vietnam
  • 5 of 6An Le’s father, Hung Le, who flew his family out of Saigon on a helicopter as the Vietnam War wound down.
  • 6 of 6Hong Thi Le holds daughter An in 1975.

NEWPORT BEACH, Orange County â€" On April 29, 1975, a South Vietnamese Air Force helicopter pilot named Hung Le landed his chopper in a residential courtyard in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. It was his last flight as part of Operation Frequent Wind, which evacuated thousands of people before the North Vietnamese Army captured the city.

The people were fleeing for their lives. Some desperately hung onto the landing gear as the Huey lifted off. Le had to shake them off, or the already overweight craft would have crashed, killing all the passengers, including his wife and baby daughter.

He flew the helicopter to the Blue Ridge, the command ship of the U.S. Navy task force waiting about 20 miles off the coast in the South China Sea. After the 29 passengers got off, the helicopter â€" built for 10 people â€" was pushed into the water to make room for others to land.

For the Le family, the journey was just beginning.

Forty two years later, on a football field in Southern California, Corona del Mar High School trailed Roosevelt-Eastvale 35-34 in the final minute of a 2017 playoff game. From the Roosevelt 26-yard line, quarterback Nathaniel Espinoza launched a prayer toward a 6-foot-4, 230-pound receiver on the left sideline.

Now Playing: An Le was an infant when she and her family fled Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War. Despite major setbacks, she raised two kids as a single mom and became a successful attorney. Son TaeVeon will play football as a freshman at Stanford, and daughter Tiana, at age 15, is already a veteran actress on TV dramas.

The receiver felt the defender tugging on his right arm, but when the ball arrived, he reached out, grabbed it with his left hand and pulled it to hi s body. Somehow he got a foot inbounds as he dived past the pylon with 14 seconds left for the score. Corona del Mar won 42-35, thanks to what its head coach calls “one of the most phenomenal catches in the history of Orange County football.”

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Stanford training camp

Where: Stanford practice field (behind Maples Pavilion)

When: Thursday to Aug. 25

Open practices: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2:45-4:35 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 19, 3-5:40 p.m.

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That receiver’s name is TaeVeon Le. He will begin his college football career at Stanford when training camp opens Thursday. An Le, the infant on the helicopter in war-torn Vietnam, is his mother.

She is also a whirlwind of energy. She raised Tae, 19, and his sister, Tiana, 15, as a single-mom and was forced to go on welfare in Oakland for a few years. A few years later, in Huntington Beach, she and the kids would sleep on a floor because they had no furniture in their apartment.

While doing work-study at USF, she got an undergraduate degree. She later went to USF law school, working part time as a paralegal. It took her five times to pass the bar exam. While she lived in East Oakland, her car was broken into so many times, she took to leaving it unlocked with the windows down, so that it wouldn’t be damaged.

Many trials and travails later, An Le, 44, is in her 12th year at a firm that specializes in financial litigation, representing banks and other lenders. She estimates she has 25 to 30 cases going at the same time.

In the meantime, she has nurtured two teenagers who sound like a college admissions director’s dr eam come true.

Tae graduated with a 4.2 grade-point average. He decided to learn French after getting interested in Napoleon’s campaigns when he was in fourth grade. At an early age he poured through books on World War II, especially the Eastern Front. He’s also studying Spanish and hopes to expand on his limited Vietnamese and then add Russian to the mix. He’s considering majoring in international relations.

TaeVeon Le of Corona del Mar High School makes a game-winning one-hand catch of a touchdown pass in the closing seconds of a 2017 playoff game against Roosevelt-Eastvale.

Corona del Mar head coach Dan O’Shea says Tae “changed the face of our program. He was one of the most physical athletes that have ever come through here.” As a student, “he’s one of the hardest working kids on our campus. He has an incredible grasp of social issues, economics, politics. He’s as good as it gets.†

Tae had a school-record 234 yards receiving in one game, and his 43 career touchdown catches are second best in Orange County history. The most dramatic of them, the one in the Roosevelt game, didn’t surprise Espinoza, the passer.

“It’s crazy how he got it with one hand and got a foot in,” he said. “I knew Tae could make it. But it was a good four seconds before the refs signaled touchdown.”

Chase Garbers wasn’t surprised either. The former Corona del Mar quarterback, now a redshirt freshman at Cal, was at the game as a fan. “I’ve seen him make a lot of great catches,” he said.

Tae will play tight end at Stanford. He played mainly wide receiver in high school, partly because of a shoulder injury that limited his blocking as a junior. He originally committed to Harvard before St anford latched onto him. With Kaden Smith, Colby Parkinson and others returning at tight end, he is likely to redshirt this year.

Tiana, who will enter her junior year at Corona del Mar in the fall, is an actress. She has a recurring role on ABC’s “General Hospital” and has appeared on HBO’s “Insecure” and Amazon Prime’s “Just Add Magic.”

She hopes to attend USC for film school or Stanford for its creative writing program. She’d love to emulate “Insecure” star Issa Rae, a Stanford alum, and write and produce her own TV series. She takes piano and guitar lessons, auditions for parts a couple of times a week and rows for the Newport Aquatic Center.

Often, Tae helps her rehearse her lines for upcoming auditions, standing in as another actor. Sometimes those living-room rehearsals last into the wee hours.

There was one important house rule. The kids could go to parties, dances and movies with friends, but dating was out. “I didn’t want them to get sidetracked with that,” An said.

The three were sitting in their condo in the East Bluff area of Newport Beach, surrounded by their four rescue Pekingese. (They also have a rabbit named Kiko, who, An says, “thinks she’s a dog.”) Both teenagers insist the no-dating edict was never a problem.

“It’s a business decision,” Tae said. “You’ve got to stay focused. My family is my priority.”

“I’m always busy,” Tiana said. “That’s what it chops up to in my mind. I’m always in L.A. or in the car going to auditions or classes, or writing my scripts.”

Like Tae, Tiana is an A-student. In the Le (pronounced “Leh”) household, Bs are un acceptable. “That’s an F in my book,” said the ebullient but demanding mom.

“Education was the way I was able to get on my feet,” she said. “It gave me something to take care of myself before I even had them, when I was foundering and trying to figure out what to do with myself.”

For that matter, education lifted her whole family. When her parents settled in Wisconsin following their escape from Vietnam â€" after stops at an Air Force base in Guam, an Army base in Arkansas and a sponsor’s home in Florida â€" they and other relatives all got degrees in accounting from Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Her parents then split up, her father moving to Louisiana, where he worked as a helicopter pilot, ferrying crews to rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

An Le's parents, Hung Le, who flew helicopters for the South Vietnamese Air Force, and Hong Thi Le.

An stayed with her mother, who married an American and lived in a Chicago suburb. In sixth grade, An started working part-time after school. She answered the phone in a Chinese restaurant and wrapped gifts at a leather goods store during the Christmas holidays.

Because her stepfather was alcoholic and abusive, she said, she went to live with her aunt in a large Vietnamese community in Fairfax, Va. She excelled in school and then attended Syracuse University for one frostbitten year. She left to live with her father in Westminster (Orange County), another large Vietnamese enclave. She went to local junior colleges and did odd jobs before going to USF on a scholarship.

She graduated and then worked in Thailand as part of a USF master’s in business administration program but decided business wasn’t for her. She went back to USF, for law school. Over the next five years, she had a rocky re lationship with a man who fathered her two children. She was pregnant with Tiana when the relationship ended; he hasn’t been part of their lives since.

They struggled financially in Oakland before, out of desperation, she took the kids back to live with her father. Her father had remarried and had another family, so it was a crowded home. An, Tae and Tiana stayed in a room with a microwave and a mini-refrigerator while she waitressed in Newport Beach. Her car was repossessed.

Then the picture started to brighten considerably. She got a job as a paralegal at a firm in Irvine. The family moved to an apartment in Huntington Beach, although at first they had no furniture. “We slept on the floor, but we were happy as hell,” she said. “It was our own place.”

“My mom worked long nights,” Tae said. “I remember being home alone a lot, kind of taking care of the house till she got back from work. When Tiana came back from day care, it was a lot” for a kid to handle. “It helped me mature as a young child. It made me feel better to help with my sister and make sure the house was clean when my mom came home.”

The memories make him “grateful for everything I have,” he said. He hopes other Vietnamese American kids follow their dream the way he has.

An finally passed the bar and stayed with the firm. She credits a long list of friends and co-workers with helping her and the kids along the way, including her cousin, Victor Vo, who has been a father figure to Tae. “It takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “I could not have done this without them.”

Her boss, Scott Hyman, who has sent two kids to Stanford, pushed hard for Tae to go there as well. And now he’s on his way to the Farm.

“It’s the American dream,” An Le said. “You come here, you work hard, you can do anything. I tell each one of my kids that every day.”

Tom FitzGerald is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: tfitzgerald@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @tomgfitzgerald

Source: Google News Vietnam | Netizen 24 Vietnam

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