442: The AA+PI Players Who Made NFL History

Did you know Asian Americans have been part of professional football since the league’s early days?

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

Although they only make up only about 1.6 percent of the NFL today (two players of Asian descent and 25 Pacific Islander players), AA+PIs have been a part of professional football since almost the beginning of the sport.

The first Asian Americans to play pro ball were Walter “Sneeze” Achiu (Aug. 3, 1902-March 21, 1989) and Arthur Matsu (April 30, 1904-May 1987). They both played for the now defunct Dayton Triangles—one of the original 14 charter teams that started the American Professional Football Association (now NFL) in September 1920.

Achiu (so nicknamed for the pronunciation of his last name), who was Chinese American, joined the Triangles in 1927 and played through 1928. In addition to being the first Asian American to play in the league, he was also one of the first minorities to play a major professional American sport—two whole decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Achiu was mainly used as a running back and defensive back for the Triangles.

According to NBC News, Achiu was “perhaps the first great Asian American multisport star,” as he also played baseball, ran track, and wrestled for the University of Dayton (UD). After football, he went into professional wrestling and competed into the 1950s. Achiu was named to the UD Athletic Hall of Fame in 1974. He died in 1989 at the age of 86.

Walter Achiu (center) and his fellow Flyers on a homecoming event program for University of Dayton.

Courtesy of University of Dayton Libraries, Dayton, Ohio

Matsu joined Achiu and the Triangles in 1928, and was the first Asian American quarterback in the NFL. Born in Glasgow to a Japanese father and Scottish mother, Matsu was also the first known Asian American student at The College of William & Mary in Virginia—the second oldest higher education institution in the country. According to the school, he was a four-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball, and track), their first “true gridiron hero,” and the first Asian American to captain an American college football team. Matsu was also William & Mary’s first alumnus to play in the NFL. In 2021, the school honored Matsu with a historical marker on its campus—naming the arcade at Cary Field the Arthur A. Matsu Arcade. 

Following his one season of professional ball, Matsu went on to coach—initially at the high school level before joining the coaching staff at Rutgers University, where he was an assistant coach from 1931 to the mid 1950s. Matsu moved to Arizona in the late 1950s. He died in 1987 at age 83.

Published on February 11, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.