The Legend of Art Matsu

Magic Box

There exists a treasure trove of W&M gridiron stories we couldn’t possibly cover in their entirety, even if we published nothing but W&M Football stories every day for the next year.

Despite that, we can make a small dent — bringing back to life select segments of W&M alum Wilford Kale‘s book, Goal to Goal: 100 Seasons of Football at William & Mary.

This next story outlines W&M’s first true gridiron legend, Art Matsu.

The Art Matsu Story by Wilford Kale

If nothing else, this “little field general” born in Scotland was blessed with a flair to be noticed. It was that way before he wowed ’em at Cary Field and for long, colorful, productive years after that.

Art Matsu developed into a great athlete and coach, not simply because of the records he set, but because of his depth and understanding of football.

He perceived elements of the game and preached them, confident that even his most controversial ideas would prove out.

As an infant, he immigrated with his Japanese-born father and his Scottish mother, first to Canada and then to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became a national high school diving champion.

Matsu credited his football skills, at least indirectly, to World War I.

He once wrote that to support the war effort, the nation indulged in “autoless weekends” to conserve gasoline.

The result was that “all up and down Carnegie Street” in Cleveland, youngsters busied themselves in all kinds of sports, including “football played on the host of vacant lots that stretch, with whatever would pass as a ball, no matter what its shape or size.”

At William and Mary, he jumped into football fame, excelling as a scrambling, adventurous quarterback at only 5’7″ tall and weighing 150 pounds.

He and Lee Todd were the only freshmen to make the varsity squad in 1923, and Matsu began to demonstrate his punting and kicking skills.

His 38-yard drop-kicked field goal against Syracuse kept the Indians from being shutout by the Eastern powerhouse.

In 1924, Meb Davis, a freshman end [a modern day receiver/tight end], joined the team and the Matsu-to-Davis “passing combination” was created.

The combination “completely dazzled the Navy eleven with nine of 13 passes completed,” the yearbook said.

In W&M’s 21-3 victory over Duke, Matsu to Davis passes accounted for two of the three touchdowns.

Meb Davis, pictured left, combined with Matsu to create a lethal offensive attack.

The 1925-1926 W&M seasons brought the Matsu legend into focus. Along with his passing expertise, he also displayed brilliant punting and drop kicked extra points and field goals.

In fact, his 47-yard field goal against Chattanooga at the end of the 1926 season provided the margin in the Indians 9-6 first postseason game win.

His 75-yard punt is still one of W&M’s longest.

Matsu became W&M’s first alumnus to play in the National Football League as a 1928 halfback with the [now defunct] Dayton Triangles.

Moving to Rutgers University in 1930, he became an associate professor of physical education, while simultaneously carving out a reputation as a football coach — first with the freshman team and later in various capacities as assistant coach with the varsity Scarlet Knights.

Alumni began to follow the Indians avidly as the teams compiled six straight winning seasons from 1921-1926. The photo above includes W&M cheerleaders at a 1925 contest.

He enjoyed a quarter-century of success there, partly because he studied his subject and reflected on it.

During his Rutgers tenure, which ended in 1955, Matsu penned the following thoughts on football offense:

“A metronome set at 120 beats per minute is the standard meter, regulating all plays, running or passing. This tempo is the regular marching cadence every male knows from the time of watching his first parade.

So it is very simple to install and make into a disciplined teamwork mechanism, from ‘down set’ to whistle.

With that precise operation preceding the snap, likened to the rifle drill team which, on just one starting command goes through a series of maneuvers in total silence but with varying moves, it adds quandaries facing defenses.

But the warehouse of likewise covert plays it can develop, all tried and proved, resulting from scouting or game developments, add dilemmas for oppositions.”

It is no wonder that coaches like Rutgers gridiron boss Frank Burns called the little man “one of the best football minds I’ve ever met, an excellent teacher.”

In Matsu’s era, W&M often played in Richmond on the Mayo Island Field along the James River. This photo was taken on Thanksgiving in 1924, as the Tribe defeated Richmond 20-6.

The happy irony is that Matsu nearly went to Princeton, not W&M.

Promises that he could play immediately lured him to W&M, where he helped write football history.

Later, he was selected into the National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame.

Following his era at Rutgers, he helped Frank Kush coach at Arizona State in Tempe.

Matsu lived there until his death in 1987 at age 83.

-Wilford Kale, Goal to Goal: 100 Seasons of Football at William & Mary (full book on Amazon)

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