Note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 15, 2018, issue of Gameday Magazine, the official football program for the Notre Dame-Vanderbilt game. Statistics have been updated to reflect their current standings.
Do a little internet digging on Notre Dame kicker Justin Yoon and you’ll discover that his mother is a famous silent film actress in Korea. It’s even noted that she won an award in 2004 for best new actress in a foreign silent film.
However, nowadays most people know you can’t believe everything you read, and this is one of those things. Just ask Yoon.
“I have never heard of that in my life!” laughed Yoon whose mom is actually the head pharmacist at the family business in Korea. “But if it’s true, I’m impressed.”
If, on the other hand, you have read about how Yoon is adaptable, even-keeled and on pace to become one of the most prolific kickers in Notre Dame history … well, those things you should believe.
“Over time I just figured out that (in each challenge I faced) I did what I needed to do to be successful,” Yoon said. “At the same time I also learned to enjoy the process.”
The senior has had plenty of experience adjusting to situations and surroundings. Born in Ohio, Yoon immediately moved to Korea where most of his family still lives today. It was there that his love of hockey began, encouraged by his grandfather who also passed along another trait to his grandson.
“It started with my grandfather, who played hockey when he was a kid and eventually ended up creating sort of a hockey town back in Korea,” Yoon explained. “My father grew up doing figure skating, and I don’t know if he liked it or not but he became pretty good at it. But he decided maybe I should play hockey instead, and I grew to love it. And it’s funny because my father always says (my easy-going personality) comes from my grandfather.”
While in Korea Yoon attended an international school where he “basically learned the American system” which helped when he moved to Nashville at the tender age of 10. Although one might think it would be tough for a young boy to move from Korea to the heart of country music and BBQ, Yoon transitioned easily while rising up to meet his father’s expectations.
“It wasn’t necessarily hard in terms of adaptability,” Yoon said. “The cultural aspect, being of Asian heritage was more difficult, but probably the biggest thing was that my father challenged me. He was a big disciplinarian, which was good, and I lived up to that challenge and (developed) into who I am now. So I would say I thank him for everything he’s done for me. And I loved every part of living in Nashville.”
While in The Music City, Yoon’s collegiate future started to take shape. In addition to hockey, Yoon also played soccer and he would spend time every day with his father kicking “about 100 balls or so”. Then one day, while he was out practicing by himself, a football coach approached the eighth grader and asked if Yoon would like to try kicking for the football team.
“I said, ‘I don’t even know what football is. I’ll have to ask my dad about that first,'” Yoon recalled. “I was already playing hockey, soccer and lacrosse, but my dad said, ‘Sure, why not?’ It started out just being fun … I never realized it would get to this point.”
Not long thereafter, Yoon was on the move again. This time, he headed a little more than 1,000 miles northeast to Milton Academy in Massachusetts, a prestigious boarding school. Instead of feeling homesick, Yoon used the experience to learn time management skills while experiencing some freedom for the first time.
“I didn’t think it was tough for me, and I just did what I had to do,” Yoon said matter-of-factly. “I was busy all the time so I just had to make sure that I made time for my academics and athletics. I loved every aspect of it, and it was like college in that I had a sense of freedom. I think a big part of me wanting to go to boarding school was wanting to get away from my parents and see what I could do with myself.
“So I learned a lot of skills really fast that are key components to everyday life, like making sure I was up at a certain time and doing certain things at certain times of the day. Plus, everyone was so supportive of me, and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Milton is also well-known for its hockey program, and it was here that Yoon hoped to hone his ice skills. But he had also shopped some of his football highlights to the coaching staff there and, as luck would have it, they were interested. Eventually, dreams collided with reality and Yoon started focusing on something other than his first passion.
“I definitely wanted to pursue hockey (at the collegiate level),” Yoon said. “But I finally realized that I just didn’t have the talent I necessarily thought I could have, and that maybe hockey wasn’t the route for me. That’s when football started to stick. Hockey is still my No. 1 love. It’s the sport I’ve spent the most time on, maybe 13 or 14 years. To this point, football has only been for eight years. It’s flown by, but it’s the least amount of time I’ve put into any of the sports I’ve played.”
By the time his four years at Milton were finished, Yoon was rated the No. 1 kicker in the nation by 247Sports and he once again found himself packing his bags for the start of another journey. This time the destination was the Notre Dame campus and, by now, Yoon had become an old pro at adjusting.
“It wasn’t difficult at all because I had grown accustomed to it with boarding school,” Yoon noted. “College was literally everything I expected. It was like, ‘Oh, same thing, same deal. I just have to do what I have to do.’ “
Ironically, though, it was here that the normally easy-going Yoon had to deal with some rattled nerves in his first few games in a Notre Dame uniform.
“I came from 150 fans — not even fans but parents — being in the stands (in high school) to 80,000 … it was a drastic difference!” said Yoon who earned a starting role as a freshman in 2015. “Actually it was even more than 80,000 because people watch on TV, so I had no idea what I was getting into.
“I thought it would just be another game and I was caught off guard. People were calling out my name and it was just crazy. But eventually I was able to understand that (the craziness) shouldn’t change anything, and I was able to adapt and enjoy it.”
After three seasons as the starter, Yoon entered 2018 with his name firmly etched in the Irish record books. Exactly where he finishes is yet to be determined, but after the Vanderbilt game Yoon was already the most accurate kicker in program history (connecting at an 79.6 percent clip), was second in career extra-point attempts made (156 made in 158 attempts) and moved into the all-time lead in career scoring by a placekicker (297 points).
Yoon also has an opportunity to surpass Irish great Allen Pinkett on the all-time scoring list. After the first three games of ’18, Yoon was just 23 points shy of Pinkett’s 320 points from 1982-85. But, as usual, Yoon takes it all in stride.
“I definitely think my accomplishments have been awesome and that’s all great,” said Yoon who nailed a 62-yard field goal with room to spare in practice little more than a week before the home opener. “But I don’t think about it too much because at the end of the day it’s all about the next kick and the next game and winning a national championship. So I would say I’m pretty satisfied, but there’s still more to work on and that’s why I have this season.”
A season — and career — which Yoon is keenly aware is quickly coming to a close. He hopes the NFL will be his next stop but if not, he’ll have his finance degree to fall back on, preferably somewhere in the United States. Regardless, it’s easy to assume that whatever and wherever it is, Yoon will have no problem settling in quickly.
“Every day,” stated Yoon when asked if he thought much about his dwindling time at Notre Dame. “I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, time flies by so fast.’ So I appreciate everything that’s happened here, and wish I had more time. But eventually you have to move on.”