Kenny-Khai Vo sat on the stage in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, facing his parents and brothers and waiting in nervous suspense. His older brother Khang had sat in that same seat just a few years ago at the awards luncheon for the Allstate Sugar Bowl and National Football Foundation Honor Scholar-Athletes, hoping for a massive scholarship that would change not only his life, but the lives of his parents.
When they were in their late 20’s or early 30’s, Hang Tran and Ngoc Vo emigrated from Vietnam to the United States, their early lives shrouded in the horrors of the on-going Vietnam War. They landed a sponsorship from a family from New York and eventually ended up in the New Orleans area, where they hoped to build a life for their four sons filled with opportunities they never had.
And though the longtime shipyard worker and the factory seamstress managed to raise boys who would go on to enroll in college and land jobs afterwards, money has always been tight. Until now, college has been paid by loans the young men are still paying off while they try to funnel money to their parents.
“He’s at retirement age, and he’s still not able to,” said Kiet, one of Kenny-Khai’s older brothers. “That’s all four of our goals, to get them to retire as soon as possible.
“They worked their butts off ever since they got here. Not a single dime saved. It all went to us.”
That’s why Tuesday’s opportunity for a $20,000 scholarship from the Allstate Sugar Bowl had Kenny-Khai on pins and needles. He sat surrounded by 28 other senior high school football players from the New Orleans area – many of whom were team captains, just like him, all of whom boast GPAs of 4.0 or higher, just like him, with resumes of volunteer experience that read like the closing credits of a blockbuster movie, just like him.
The undersized Higgins middle linebacker had never been the most athletic player on his team during his four years, and he said it took some time for his teammates and future friends to fully welcome the team’s only player of Asian descent.
But it was his risk-taking, challenging the team’s star running back as a freshman, and his ability to communicate and relate with others that helped him earn the respect and be named a three-year team captain.
“Even if I’m getting beaten up during drills in practice, I felt like it showed my character was strong,” he said. “I was willing to put myself out there.”
And so when Monique Morial, the Allstate Sugar Bowl committee president, began describing the theme of Vo’s emotional essay about the work ethic his parents instilled in him through their own sacrifices, he, his parents and two brothers knew right away the one-and-only scholar it could be.
He pumped his fists several times on stage as he sat while Morial finished introducing him. His family beamed and traded fist bumps and high-fives. When Morial finally said his name, you would have thought Vo was back in football practice with how fast he reached the podium to accept his giant $20,000 presentation check, along with West Jefferson’s Tyruss Gayden, Thomas Jefferson’s William Harper and Holy Cross’ Jalen Womble.
“One of my other brothers (Khang) was a nominee when he was in high school, too, but he didn’t win, and my parents were kinda hurt because the way they were describing one of the winners, they thought it sounded like him,” he said. “But I realized it was me immediately. That was really unexpected.”
“We’re so glad he took our advice of what we went through,” Kiet said. “Each one of us progressed, and he took our words and ran with them and learned to get to where he is.”
Vo will be the first of his brothers to attend college outside New Orleans at LSU, where he plans to study to become a doctor. The Higgins valedictorian had yet to receive a single dime of scholarship money and couldn’t stress enough how much Tuesday’s luncheon had changed his family’s lives and helped his hopes of being able to give back, just like his parents have always done.
“If you like what you do, I know I’ll never work a day in my life,” he said. “I just thought helping people and giving them a better life would be a great way to spend it.”