With blistering speed and impeccable field vision, Dhiraj Gurung looks like he’s been playing football his whole life.
He’s living the dream of millions of Americans, leading his high school football team to successes the program hasn’t seen in a decade—and he’s only been playing the sport for four years.
“He runs like there’s a jetpack behind him,” Lowell head coach Danny Chan said after Gurung grilled his team for three touchdowns.
Now starring at running back and safety for the Washington Eagles, who are experiencing their best season since 2011, Gurung was born in Nepal, where he lived until he was 12, and never played football until high school.
“It doesn’t come naturally. You’ve just got to develop your technique,” he said. “I mostly learned by watching film on YouTube. I watch a lot of NFL games, and I watch running back and safety drills.”
Growing up in Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city, football was a completely foreign concept to Gurung. In fact, he didn’t play any organized sports in Nepal.
The transition to life in America for Gurung and his siblings, who joined their parents in San Francisco six years ago, came without a language barrier. Schools in Nepal primarily teach in English, so most of the adjustments Dhiraj had to make were cultural.
“The weather there was like San Francisco,” he added. “Perfect.”
A United Nations Roster
The first-generation immigrant fits right in on a Washington roster that resembles a United Nations summit. He’s not the only South Asian player; wide receiver Ayan Razzak’s father, who played football at Galileo, was born in Pakistan. And backup running back Kismot Rakkat’s family is from Bangladesh. Receiver Felix Mamrikov’s mother is from Ukraine, defensive end Elyjah Qasevakatini is Fijian, Benjamin and Brandon Nguyen are Vietnamese and lineman Jonathan Ganbataar’s family is Mongolian.
Gurung started at running back on the Eagles’ JV unit during his freshman year, and he likely would have played varsity football as a sophomore if the San Francisco Unified School District joined the rest of the state in playing an abbreviated season in the spring of 2021.
His first taste of varsity football came last fall on a team that, like most San Francisco public schools, struggled to get up to speed with opponents who were able to play in the shortened Covid season. The Eagles went 2-7, with their two wins marking their first on-field victories in four years.
This year has marked a renaissance for a Washington program that hasn’t seen playoff football since 2017, and Gurung’s been at the center of it.
After missing the first two games with a leg injury, he eased in with a rushing touchdown during a 41-0 win over Denair, then ran for two scores in a win over Oakland when quarterback James Mertz injured his knee. With Mertz sidelined, the Eagles hardly missed a beat, with Gurung running for five first-half touchdowns in a win over Galileo and another four before halftime in a 64-0 thrashing of Burton.
“We’ve got a lot of good guys on this team, but he clearly stands above,” head coach Mike Ramos said. “I don’t know how to verbalize it any other way.”
Mertz returned for Friday’s rivalry win over Lowell and found Gurung for a pair of touchdowns, including a short pass that Gurung took for an 84-yard score moments after Lowell had come back from a 14-point deficit. Gurung also ran seven times for 93 yards, scored a third touchdown on the ground and intercepted three passes.
“Everything’s paying off,” he explained. “When I get up in the morning, I go to the field and do workouts that safeties do.”
The Eagles are currently 6-1, including 3-0 in Academic Athletic Association (AAA) play, but their two biggest challenges await. They host defending city champion Balboa (3-4, 2-1 AAA) this Friday, then welcome in Lincoln (4-3, 3-0) the following week.
“We feel like we’re better than everybody right now,” Gurung said confidently.
Having already won three league games, Washington is a virtual lock for the postseason, barring a cataclysmic sequence of events. The Eagles last played in the Turkey Day Game, the annual AAA championship, in 2011, and they last won it in 2010.
Gurung expressed his interest in a career in the medical field, but also noted that he’s willing to attend school wherever football can take him.
“If I can play, it doesn’t really matter where,” he reflected.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]