TACOMA — Masaki Matsumoto has done all of this before.
Resting in his black chair in the little office located at the back of Lincoln High School’s weight room, Matsumoto speaks clearly and concisely. In 2013, Matsumoto, then the head football coach at Helen Bernstein High School in Los Angeles, and his team were the focus of a Los Angeles Times feature by Eric Sondheim titled “Bernstein players earn letters — of parent’s love.”
The next season, an ESPN documentary crew followed Matsumoto and his team, creating the E:60 documentary “Lettermen,” released in 2015. Since then, Matsumoto has been the coach at Lincoln High in Tacoma, where he’s in his seventh year. His teams have made the Class 3A state playoffs in each season since his arrival, including a run to the semifinals in 2019. Matsumoto’s program has produced prospects for Division I schools such as USC, Colorado, Boise State and Washington.
But Matsumoto’s program is about more than touchdowns, wins and contending for championships. The evidence lies all around his office. Photos of past students — players, managers and track and field athletes among others — plaster the walls, whiteboards and the small grated window which overlooks the weight room. Matsumoto’s phone vibrates occasionally as current or former players message him.
“It’s not something where you can just clock out and be like, ‘Oh, back on Monday,’” Matsumoto said. “It’s a 24/7 job, especially when kids know you care, so they feel like they can reach out to me whenever.”
In the past, he would have jumped to respond no matter the situation, but he’s trying to teach himself to leave the less urgent texts until later to set boundaries for himself, so he can recharge. The people who know him best say Matsumoto is having mixed results.
“This is a fight we’ve had with him ever since the second or third year we were coaching with him,” Lincoln offensive coordinator Shalls Jacome said. “Every year we tell him, ‘Hey, you have to do this, or give a little away, or give us more to do so you can have some free time.’
“During football season, he’s almost at Lincoln every day. I tell him, ‘Hey, there’s no reason to come in on Sundays.’”
Pictures aren’t the only things that adorn the walls of Matsumoto’s dim office. Behind him, leaning against the grated window, wood blocks spell out one of the core principles Matsumoto and his staff try to teach.
The formula is called the R-Factor: event plus response equals outcome. Matsumoto picked it up from a podcast by Brian Kight during the several hours he spends finding new tools to give his students.
“In life, 10% is what happens, 90% is how you respond,” he said. “So it’s the same philosophy basically. Based on your response, you’ll earn a good outcome, or you’ll earn a bad outcome.”
Part of the reason the R-Factor is important to Matsumoto is because he wishes he had this way of dealing with the world when he was growing up.
“I discovered this about five years ago,” he said. “I probably would have made a lot better decisions if I knew about this.”
Matsumoto was born in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour away from Tokyo. When he was in second grade, his parents went through a difficult divorce. After a few months of co-parenting, his mother, Keiko, decided to move to America in search of a fresh start.
“My mom came into the living room one day as my brother and I were watching TV, and she said, ‘I’m moving to America. You can either go with me or stay,’” he said.
Only 7 years old at the time, Matsumoto decided to leave. His older brother, Shinichiro, who was almost a teenager, stayed.
Matsumoto and his mother arrived in the United States in 1990, staying with a family friend in Shoreline until they were able to establish themselves. Unable to speak English and with a newly discovered affinity for McDonald’s, Matsumoto put on lots of weight during his first year in America, something he believes was a coping mechanism.
Event (Moving) + Reaction (McDonald’s) = Outcome (Putting on weight)
“The first couple years were tough,” he said. “Of course, I was in ESL (English as a second language), but one thing that really connected me with other kids and the way I was able to make friends was through sports.”
He was exposed to football by a neighbor whose son had played high-school football. Though Matsumoto had never seen a game he was hooked, watching hours of high-school games on VHS.
After more than a year of pleading, his mother relented and signed him up for Pop Warner football.
Matsumoto started as a lineman, but as he began to slim down and the other kids got taller, he shifted away from the trenches. He played linebacker and fullback in middle school before settling at running back at King’s High School.
“I got smaller and smaller as I got older,” he said.
Matsumoto knew he didn’t have the physical tools to earn a Division I scholarship and wasn’t sure life as a walk-on was one he wanted. He looked at smaller schools where he had a chance to make an impact, settling on Trinity International University in Chicago, an NAIA Christian university.
Andy Lambert, now the coach at Concordia University of Chicago, recruited Matsumoto to TIU. He remembers him as an intelligent kid with a passion for football and collecting Jordans, but more important, a great teammate.
“He was able to be a huge fan of everyone else and not just himself,” Lambert said. “You can take care of yourself and be concerned about your success and achieving at a high level. But then there are special people who not only have that concern and excitement about their success, but they also have it about other people’s success, and he was that.”
Despite support from Lambert and the football program, Matsumoto struggled. During the first semester of his freshman year, he barely qualified academically to play. He was homesick, more than 2,000 miles from anything he knew.
“No one’s gonna baby you in college,” he said. “Teachers aren’t gonna call you and say, ‘Hey, where are you at?’”
Event (Homesickness) + Reaction (Skipping class) = Outcome (Bad grades)
“It was a hard transition,” Lambert said. “And really not running away from that, and embracing the harshness of the homesickness and not playing, I think he was able to embrace that and was able then to accomplish a lot more than maybe he would have thought at the time.”
Matsumoto considered transferring but returned to Trinity for his sophomore season and still considers his time in Chicago one of the most formative of his life.
Event (Homesickness) + Response (Patience) = Outcome (Good experience)
“It was probably the best decision I ever made,” he said.
Matsumoto didn’t always know he wanted to be a coach. He always knew he was going to be a teacher.
“Growing up without a father, it was the male teachers, the male coaches who really impacted me in a big way,” he said.
He graduated from TIU in 2005 and attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego to earn his master’s degree and teaching credential.
In 2006, a friend approached Matsumoto about coaching the junior-varsity football team at Cathedral High School, a Southern California powerhouse, and he accepted simply to have something to do. He was promoted to the varsity team and was on the sideline when Cathedral won the Division II state championship in 2008.
Matsumoto finished his graduate school program that year and accepted a job with the special-education program at the newly created Helen Bernstein High School in East Hollywood, California. He was also head track and field coach and assistant football coach.
Bernstein High was a culture shock, and Matsumoto soon found himself dealing with students who had vastly different issues and expectations than what he grew up with in Shoreline. He was shocked to hear students tell him they failed classes or didn’t do their homework, and the idea that some of them might not graduate bewildered him.
Event (Students don’t believe) + Response (Believe in them) = Outcome (Success)
Matsumoto encouraged kids to believe in themselves, challenged them to raise their standards and relentlessly nagged students who regressed.
“Kids wanted that expectation and that pressure that someone was going to give to them,” he said. “I think they were drawn to that, and that’s why I believe we were able to have success there as well.”
Matsumoto took over as head coach of the football team before the 2012 season. During his four seasons as an assistant, Bernstein High went 4-36. In his first season, it went 8-3.
Jacome, who joined Matsumoto’s staff at Bernstein, says it’s because the kids can tell how much Matsumoto cares. After four of the team’s best players got in trouble heading into playoffs, Matsumoto benched them, making it clear to everyone what the consequences were for irresponsibility.
“He’s practicing what he preaches, and he’s willing to sacrifice football for the sake of a life lesson for a student,” Jacome said.
At the conclusion of the E:60 documentary, Matsumoto tells his Bernstein players he’s moving back to the Pacific Northwest to take the job at Lincoln High, citing a desire to be closer to his family. It’s a day he regards as one of the toughest of his life.
“Coaching at a school like this is not a hobby, it’s a responsibility,” he said.
While building a program at Bernstein was hard, Matsumoto’s transition in Tacoma wasn’t easy either. He arrived to replace former Seattle Seahawks quarterback and Lincoln alum Jon Kitna, and the players he inherited had a way of doing things that was working.
At Lincoln, the team has a vision statement, encouraging growth on and off the field to build better men and football players. Players also must memorize the four core covenants — love, ownership, accountability and discipline — and live by the five core values, which cover teamwork, honesty, punctuality, respect for all, especially women, and no drugs or alcohol.
Matsumoto has become more aware of his standing as a Japanese football coach. He said other Asian American coaches have reached out to him, and he tries to give any advice he can since he knows there aren’t many other coaches who look like him out there.
Matsumoto isn’t sure how long he can keep doing this job. Coaching is something he only wants to do if he is at full capacity. It’s also the reason he’s turned down some opportunities to make the jump to college football.
“As long as I’m healthy — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — I feel like it’s almost like I should be here,” he said. “I’m called, compelled to be here and doing what we’re doing through the game of football.”