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Shoreline football coach brings emotion, inspiration to inner-city LA kids

Shoreline native Masaki Masamoto (center) is shown with the inner-city Los Angeles football team he now coaches. (Image courtesy Masaki Masamoto)
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Thirty-one year old Masaki Masamoto was raised by a single mother in Shoreline, which is where he played high school football at King's School. Now he's head football coach at Helen Bernstein High, an east Hollywood school where 80% of the kids receive reduced or free lunches.

"I know that most of my kids are coming from single parent homes," Coach Masamoto said. "They work two to three jobs. I knew for a fact that a lot of [the kids] probably didn't hear, or feel, loved. These kids, they have such low expectations for themselves. I know the reason is because they don't feel loved. So they have that attitude of, 'Why am I trying when no one will even care? No one loves me.'"

So he tried out an idea that Bothell High School's coach, Thomas Bainter, gave him. Coach Masamoto sent each player home with an envelope containing a letter and a blank sheet of paper and told them not to open it, to just give it to their parents and bring it back. The letter said:

"It's an honor to coach your boys, I just ask one thing of you. I ask that you write whatever is positive, whatever you feel on your heart, write it down on this paper for your son. I explained to them, I know that often we get so busy in our lives that you don't get to express it or we're just not good at expressing it verbally. So here's a chance for you to express it to them on a piece of paper."

Every single parent sent back a sealed envelope and soon after Coach Masamoto gathered the team in the gym during practice. He handed out the envelopes and told them to find a quiet corner where they could read their letters alone.

"It was crazy," Coach Masamoto recalled. "I would say at least half of the team, they were in tears, they were sobbing. I mean, it was dead silence in the gym. I could tell that it was really hitting the kids hard."

After they read the letters, he gathered them together on the bleachers.

"I just asked them, 'Hey, whatever is on your heart, share it.' I guess I started it first and I just kind of shared with them what these kids meant for me and why I'm here every single day when I get paid barely anything for coaching. So, one by one, kids started coming up talking about, 'My dad's an alcoholic.' Then another kid said, 'I hated my dad until I read this letter.' 'My dad's in prison.' 'My cousin just died a couple months ago and this has helped me.' So you hear all these kids come up and share what's on their heart and these letters allowed them to pour out their feelings."

Not only did the kids feel the love from their parents, they became much closer as a team.

"I always tell the team, 'You can say we care about each other but how can you truly care about each other if you don't know their struggle?' If you want to truly care about someone, you need to know their pain, you need to know what they're going through. That letter and the team bonding afterward, that brought that aspect."

He told the players that the team and the coaches are also their family.

"I know for a fact, if I didn't have football coaches in high school and college telling me what's right and what's wrong, that I matter, not just as a football player but as a person, I don't even know where I'd be right now. I was raised by a single mom and she did a phenomenal job. But there are just certain things that she couldn't teach me and I learned those from my coaches. Thinking back about my upbringing, and then what I see amongst these kids, that's how I knew that this was necessary."

I've pretty much decided that Masaki Masamoto is the sweetest man and best coach ever, but if you still need winning over.

"If your goal is to win you're never going to be successful because you're not going to win every game. But if your first goal is to impact these kids lives and help them become better future husbands and fathers, you will win every time. When you change kids' hearts and you change the heart of a program, the wins will come anyway."

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