When reading about Jeremy Lin, I often get the impression that sportswriters' memories of history look like this: "Uh, cavemen, pyramids, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali," and then a game-by-game recollection of everything from the 2001-2002 season onwards.
The reality is that a lot has been forgotten because it didn't particularly lead anywhere the way Jackie Robinson did.
Here is a picture of a player who won the Most Valuable Player award of a major American professional sports league during the 1960s. His father was Asian. And he had a Spanish surname.
He even had a minor league movie and TV career for a few years. He made his TV debut on Gilligan's Island as "a native." This movie still is from the 1969 John Wayne Western The Undefeated, in which he was fourth-billed as Wayne's American Indian right hand man.
His father was Filipino, his mother Irish. He seemed to get his size genes from his mom's side of the family, because he was famous for being perhaps the first huge quarterback, listed at 6'5" and 220 pounds, which was enormous for a quarterback at the time. (His archrival Fran Tarkenton, for instance, was 6-0 and 200.) He threw very hard, with a tight burning spiral. By the standards of his day, he was seldom intercepted, but his receivers had difficulty hanging onto his passes as well.
After starring at North Carolina St., he was the #2 overall draft choice in the 1962 NFL draft. He went on to be the NFL's 1969 MVP as quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams. He was a Pro Bowler coach George Allen's Rams in 1967, 1968, 1969, and for Philadelphia in 1973. In other words, he was real good — not a Hall of Famer, but a big time NFL quarterback in his day.
His name is Roman Gabriel.
As far as I can tell, however, Gabriel's career did not lead to a major breakthrough of part-Southeast Asians into the NFL.
By the way, I think the stereotype of Asian-Americans as violin-playing non-athletes has gotten stronger, not weaker over my lifetime, due to academic-selected immigration and increased Tiger Mothering. When I was a kid, Orientals were seen as short, but, after the Recent Unpleasantness at places like Iwo Jima, not necessarily delicate.
For example, the New York Knicks drafted a Japanese-American basketball player out of Utah in 1947 (and then cut him after three games).
Or, the Japanese-American family who moved in across the street from me in 1969 were tough athletes. The dad was a high school wrestling coach and assistant football coach and both sons became all-league high school football players. (The father, an extremely friendly fellow with a frightening tough guy face and martial arts skills, enjoyed a profitable sideline playing ninjas, Yakuza henchmen, and Shaolin assassins in movies and TV shows like "Kung-Fu.") This was seen as a little unusual at the time, but not really extraordinary.