It’s 7:30 on a cool, clear Saturday night in October. The lights are shining brightly on the field in Handel Stadium at Western High School.
It’s show time for Kevin Byun.
A referee blows his whistle, Western’s Gilbert Brito steps forward and kicks the ball. Byun, lined up just to Brito’s left, races downfield attempting to make the tackle.
The Brea return man is hit by a number of Western players, including Byun, near the 30-yard line. Another whistle blows, ending the play, and Byun jogs off the field.
He’ll get other chances to play later in the game, but for now he’s headed to the sideline to stand and watch.
When you’re a junior playing primarily on special teams, you spend a lot of time on the sidelines. And when you’re a 5-foot 1-inch, 130-pound junior playing on the special teams, most people would figure you’re lucky to play at all.
Byun, who also is a reserve running back and outside linebacker, has to make the most of his limited playing time on special teams and in the few moments at the end of a game long since won.
Byun understands, but he doesn’t like it.
Even if he only gets in on kickoffs, streaming downfield at breakneck speed, Byun wants to prove that he’s a good football player, not just a good “little” football player.
“Nobody tells me I don’t belong up here (on the varsity) or anything,” Byun said. “Nobody puts me down because I’m small.”
He wants to contribute, to gain 100 yards rushing, to score touchdowns, to make big hits, to sack the quarterback. He wants to impress those who watch Western play football.
But it’s difficult to measure up when you’re the smallest guy on the sideline, to say nothing of the lunch line.
His size, he insists, isn’t a hindrance to his play, only to his playing time. “We’d like to run with him,” Western Coach Jim Howell said. “But in our offense, the running back has to block too. He’s too small to block a big, 200-pound kid.”
Later in the Brea game, Byun would make a solo tackle on a runback, assist on another and, while playing linebacker, body-slam a receiver who caught a pass in front of him.
Not a bad night’s work, all things considered. Plus, Western won, 30-14.
Certainly not as thrilling as the week before when, with Western way out in front of Savanna, Byun scored a touchdown on a 5-yard run. It was his first as a varsity player. He scored 10 touchdowns on the junior varsity last season.
It was as a freshman that Byun, who was a starting running back and about the same size as now, first caught Howell’s eye. It was a game with Brea to determine the Orange League freshman title and the Pioneers needed a touchdown late in the game to pull out the victory.
“We kept giving it to Kevin and he kept going right up the middle again and again,” Howell said. “That was when I first appreciated what he could do with his size.”
After last season, Howell asked Byun to play on the varsity.
“We’ve had some pretty small guys here,” Howell said. “I’ve never told anyone they couldn’t play. I’ve always left it up to them.”
As far as Howell is concerned, Byun is a valuable member of the football program.
But until a few weeks ago, Byun was certain he would quit the team because he wasn’t playing enough.
“It’s hard not playing,” Byun said. “I thought I should get to play. I thought, ‘What’s the use of coming to practice if I don’t get to play?’ ”
Byun went to Howell and talked about quitting, something that impressed Howell more than any run or tackle Byun had made.
Howell told Byun to stick it out, that he would regret it later if he quit.
“I would have hated to lose him,” Howell said. “A lot of individuals get down. At least he came and talked about it.
“If he keeps his head in it, if he wants to play, he could play quite a bit next year.”
Still, Howell marvels at what Byun has accomplished this season. The 4 tackles he had on kickoffs against Savanna still have Howell shaking his head.
“I don’t think they see him,” Howell said.
In nothing else, Byun has always been able to blend in well, despite all obstacles.
Byun moved with his family to Orange County from Seoul, South Korea, when he was 9. He didn’t know a word of English.
“It wasn’t that hard to learn,” Byun said.
Playing football helped to break down the language barrier and also allowed him to make friends. Soon after moving to Orange County, he began playing in a Pop Warner League.
Then, as now, he was shorter and lighter than other kids his age. Then, as now, he was just one of the guys, just another football player. And he has always had the respect of his classmates.
“Nobody picks on me,” Byun said. “Maybe it’s because I have big friends.”
At first, playing with bigger kids didn’t trouble his parents, who knew little of American football. Besides, the other players weren’t that much bigger at that age.
However, Byun’s father said that if Kevin didn’t grow some before this season started he didn’t want him playing football. Kevin managed to calm his father’s fears somewhat, though, and he turned out for the varsity.
“My mom feels better when she’s here watching me play,” Byun said.
So far, he has emerged unscathed, but that’s only a minor victory.
In Byun’s mind, there are bigger and better goals to be attained. There’s more to playing football than just surviving.
“That’s all I ask for--a chance to play,” Byun said. “If the coaches see how I play, maybe they’ll have more confidence and play me in the games.”