Past the End Zone: Matsumoto Making His Mark

By Gehrig Parker | Posted 5/25/2021

As part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, USA Football is proud to highlight and recognize the Asian players, coaches, parents, officials and administrators that have helped and continue to shape the game into the one we all know and love today.

Today, we feature Lincoln High School (Tacoma, Wash.) head coach Masaki Matsumoto.

Masaki Matsumoto was a second grader when he moved from Fujisawa, Japan to Seattle with his mom. A self-proclaimed “momma’s boy,” Matsumoto made the trek of more than 4,500 miles to the U.S. without knowing English or anyone besides his mom for that matter.

Being the new kid with an added-on language barrier, it was tough making friends at first. But that all changed for Matsumoto at recess.

“Recess changed things for me quickly because I was pretty athletic, and at the time soccer was the game of choice, which I was pretty good at,” he said. “That’s how I started making friends after moving because in sports you don’t technically have to speak to connect with others.”

It wasn’t until a couple years later that Matsumoto would discover football. While he has no recollection of it, the story goes that to keep a young Matsumoto occupied, a family babysitting him threw on their son’s high school football game on VHS. When they came back to check on him, they found Matsumoto glued to the TV. Though his English was still a work in progress at the time, “football” became his new favorite word and soon became the game played during recess.

Eventually, those games at recess turned into playing running back on Friday nights at King’s High School and then a scholarship to play football at Trinity International University in Chicago, where Matsumoto was a four-year starter and All-Conference player and team captain his senior year.

Upon graduation, Matsumoto was inspired to coach while working toward his master’s degree from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego as he remembered all the special coaches he had whose influence extended far beyond the football field.

“I always tell people that sports have had a huge impact on my life in two ways,” he said. “The first was helping me meet new people when I moved from Japan. The other was that growing up without my dad, I was blessed with some amazing coaches that fulfilled that father-figure role and taught me so much about life through the game, which is something I strive to emulate and do with my players today, knowing how instrumental and impactful that was for me as both a player and person.”

Having just completed his 14th season coaching and ninth as a head coach, Matsumoto’s mission as a football coach remains the same.

“Just as my coaches did for me, I’m trying to teach these kids about life through the game of football,” he said. “And the messages I get from my former players, usually three to five years after they’ve come through the program, to thank me for the lessons I preached about and passed onto them that they’re using in all different stages of life is what keeps me going.”

WATCH: 2015 E:60 Documentary – Lettermen. The Dragons of Helen Bernstein High School play football in the shadow of the iconic Hollywood sign. But for the team’s players, there is very little glamour. Gangs, drugs and broken families are constants in the lives of these teenagers, and a constant concern for their head coach, Masaki Matsumoto. Watch to see the incredible story of how he helped them.

However, one thing Matsumoto didn’t anticipate being labeled: an inspiration. Look around the game of football and the number of Asian players and coaches is few and far between. For example, an article from December 2020 showed data collected on the racial makeup of Asian players in the NFL to only make up 1.9 percent of all players in comparison with African-Americans who make up 69.7 percent, followed by Whites with 27.4 percent.

“It’s been cool the last couple of years getting to connect with other Asian coaches through clinics or on Twitter because I recognize there’s so few of us,” Matsumoto said. “I make it a point to get back to any coach who reaches out to me because of all of those who’ve helped me, it’s extremely important that I pay it forward.”

While he says he’s never encountered barriers in his coaching career due to his ethnicity, he does credit his Japanese heritage and culture with his approach to coaching and life as a whole, which undoubtedly has served him well as evidenced by multiple league championships and several coach of the year honors, including the 2013 Los Angeles Times Coach of the Year.

“Growing up in Japan and going back to visit, you learn that Japanese people work really hard, so I take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “Looking at Japanese culture, humility and respect come before ego. I’m the first one to admit that I don’t know everything and am always seeking out opportunities to learn. I made a goal when I got my first head coaching job to visit three successful programs each offseason and I’ve delivered on that promise to myself, which is something I believe comes from Japanese culture.”

You can follow Coach Masaki Matsumoto and connect with him on Twitter @coachmatsumoto.


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