Phan was born in Vietnam and three years later, his family immigrated to the United States. He turned 21.
Around Elon’s team and campus, he’s known to offer Vietnamese during funny situations, injecting quick words that enhance the laughs.
Two years ago, he became an American citizen, finishing what he described as a lengthy naturalization process by driving to Charlotte for a completion ceremony. Swepson delayed the start of Elon’s practice that day as a nod to Phan while he traveled back.
Phan said that was an important step in his young life, one bursting with pride and validation.
“It was a special day, a great thing,” he said. “Throughout my family, it was a big deal. Becoming naturalized in America is kind of like putting your footprint down. It’s given us more patriotism.”
ELON — Two-plus years, 27 games and 64 rushing attempts in mostly mop-up duty after joining the Elon football team as a walk-on, the vision that had played out so often in Thuc Phan’s mind became reality.
He scored his first touchdown, scampering into the end zone last week from 6 yards out.
Sure, that run came with just three minutes remaining in a game long decided, only slightly lessening the degree of a blowout loss to New Hampshire and registering as a footnote to Elon’s disappointing debut in the Colonial Athletic Association.
But it was nothing short — pardon the expression — of a monumental achievement for the 5-foot-6, 166-pound Phan, a junior whose size helps paint the portrait of the determined underdog role he has handled with patience and understanding for the Phoenix.
Finally, a touchdown in college.
Just like he had pictured.
“Personally, that was a blessing,” he said. “I worked so hard for that moment and after all this time, it happened for me. Really happy, really thrilled. An amazing feeling. That was big-time for me.
“It was kind of crazy because after the game one of my friends asked me how I felt and I told him, ‘I’m not kidding, I kind of imagined that. And all of a sudden, there I was.’ I guess when you think about something so much it can just kind of happen.”
Phan, in fact, has made it happen with resolve and diligence and an upbeat spirit despite predominantly toiling on the scout team and serving as practice fodder for Elon’s first- and second-string defense.
He had yet to appear in a game this season — the preceding week he didn’t make the travel squad for Elon’s game at Coastal Carolina — but there he was last week, carrying in the first quarter while filling in as a backup running back for a position group depleted by injuries.
“He’s persevered,” Elon quarterback Mike Quinn said. “He’s a hard-working dude who wants to prove himself. He’s a great guy. He’s got a good attitude, a big heart. I was super happy for him.”
If not for a monster fourth quarter two seasons ago during Elon’s rout of West Virginia State, it would have registered as a career day, though the touchdown against New Hampshire, a power ranked No. 4 in the Football Championship Subdivision, carried substantially more meaning than running wild on a Division II opponent in garbage time.
“It’s a great lesson for all our kids,” Elon coach Rich Skrosky said. “When your opportunity comes, will you be ready to answer the call? And he was. He was mentally prepared, physically prepared.
“He’s a good kid. He’s competitive. He wants to do it right. And he works hard. He comes to work every day.”
Last week, as he prepared for his long-sought chance to play in an expanded capacity, Phan stopped by Elon’s football facility after practices and had video clips downloaded onto his iPad, so that he could study during his downtime before bed.
“Not everyone’s going to get the chance. I totally understand that,” he said. “When you do, you’ve got to put your heart into it and you’ve got to do it not just for you, but for your friends and your family and the people around you. Because you never know, that might be your last chance.”
Skrosky, the first-year coach who was an Elon assistant from 2006-10, can recall Phan as a speedy standout for Greensboro Page, which participated in 7-on-7 camps that were held at Elon.
Plus, Skrosky was recruiting — and ultimately signing — one of Phan’s high school teammates and close friends, linebacker Jonathan Spain.
“I can remember saying, ‘Man, look at that kid,’ ” Skrosky said of Phan. “ ‘He’s got some quickness. He’s got some toughness.’ ”
After spending a postgraduate year at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, Phan was considering going to Furman, then a Southern Conference rival of Elon. But a call from Spain opened Phan’s mind to Elon as a possibility and ultimately he joined former coach Jason Swepson’s second recruiting class.
Now, even as the smallest and one of the lightest players on Elon’s roster, Phan has evolved into something of a weight-room warrior.
“He’s a block of muscle,” Quinn said. “He’s so compact, he could squat a house. For his weight he’s probably the strongest pound for pound on the team, and he puts in the work to be that strong.”
Phan’s best lift is the squat. He has pressed 485 pounds, nearly 3½ times his body weight.
“Not bad, except I don’t have far to go,” Phan said, laughing.