High School Sports

ESPN features Lincoln High football coach Masaki Matsumoto’s transformation of inner-city Hollywood Bernstein

First-year Lincoln High football coach Masaki Matsumoto gets his message through to his players with the use of emotional letters of love written by the players’ parents.
First-year Lincoln High football coach Masaki Matsumoto gets his message through to his players with the use of emotional letters of love written by the players’ parents. Staff photographer

Masaki Matsumoto sees the similarities between Lincoln High School and Hollywood Bernstein.

The first-year Lincoln coach said the inner-city schools – one in Tacoma, the other Los Angeles – share similar issues with drug abuse, poor grades, low incomes and single-family homes. Only Lincoln has a support system that didn’t exit at Bernstein.

But his endeavor to change Bernstein’s culture – symbolized though emotional letters of love he asked parents to write to his team’s players that they were surprised with and read on their own before the team’s practice – will be featured at 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday on ESPN’s “E:60.”

“No idea. I had no idea,” Matsumoto said of the exposure he’s received not just from ESPN, but also a 2013 feature in the Los Angeles Times – from the first year he started the letters. “A lot of teams do it. I just think it blew up because maybe a lot of schools in the inner city don’t do it.”

Matsumoto, a King’s graduate, left Bernstein following the 2014 season to move closer to his mother, who lives in Shoreline, and took the job at Lincoln vacated by former NFL quarterback and Lincoln alum Jon Kitna.

The Abes (6-0) are the third-ranked team in the 3A classification and have scored the third most points of any 11-man team in the state behind Prosser and Eastside Catholic through six weeks

Matsumoto said he was contacted by “E:60” following the 2013 season and cameras followed his team from the season-opener through Bernstein’s loss in the CIF Division III semifinals and even his February meeting to tell the team he was leaving for Lincoln.

“To be honest, at times it was kind of annoying,” Matsumoto said of the cameras. “But at the end of the day I knew it was good for the kids and the school and for the world to see why you should coach football and you should coach in the inner city. So I kind of kept that in my mind – this is a good thing.”

He got the idea for the letters from Bothell coach Tom Bainter. Matsumoto said he traveled back to Washington during his 2012 Christmas break and asked Bainter, whom he had never before met, if they could meet and discuss football.

“We literally ended up talking for about three or four hours,” Matsumoto said.

Lincoln had 79 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price meals during the 2013-14 school year, according to a school performance report, compared to the state average that year of 46 percent. Bernstein was at 81 percent.

But Matsumoto said his program didn’t have the family support, parent involvement or even a booster club like there is at Lincoln.

“Lincoln is pretty ahead of where Bernstein is,” Matsumoto said. “When I say there was no parent involvement, I mean there was zero parent involvement.

“Trust me, though, there’s still a lot of the same things. Not the same football kids in general but there are still problems with drugs and kids not getting the grades and issues I dealt with at Bernstein, for sure. There are just some better things here that weren’t at Bernstein.”

He said he spoke to Bernstein’s principal Monday night about the upcoming “E:60” feature and has received messages and texts from many of his former co-workers and players there. Matsumoto said he won’t be able to watch the feature Wednesday because his team’s practice won’t finish in time.

But it was messages (a new-age form of “letters,” if you will) from some of his former players the past three months have helped him persevere at Lincoln.

“I have gotten a lot of messages recently like, ‘Now that I’m a little older, I realize how much you helped me. Thank you for being so hard and tough on me,’ ” Matsumoto said. “That was really encouraging because I was really struggling here, like, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Am I being too tough on them?’ But once I started getting those messages, I was like, ‘You know what, I was doing the right thing and I need to continue to do the right thing.’

Not many coaches go from one inner-city school to another. And though Matsumoto said he’s not sure how long he wants to continue to do this, he said he believes he’s called to coach in inner-city schools through his faith.

“At least for now while I don’t have kids of my own,” he said.

“I always tell my friends that I was fortunate enough to win two state rings in California when I first started coaching as an assistant. So it’s like, ‘Lord, you gave me championships in the very beginning, so now that I got that out of the way I can focus on other things.’ That’s the joke within my friends, but regardless I think I would still be doing this.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677