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Remembering Bob Mattos: More than just a coach

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Posted: Tuesday, March 16, 2010 12:00 am

My former football teammate, George Visger, sent me the e-mail this weekend that I had been dreading for months. Bob Mattos was dead.

The tears started flowing down my face almost instantly.

The former Stagg High and Sacramento State head football coach succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 68 at his home in Rancho Murieta on Sunday morning.

Mattos was a well-known figure in local prep football circles and his Delta Kings football teams of the late 70s were generally regarded as some of the best in the state, a fact that Lodi and Tokay high schools knew only too well.

I first became aware of Mattos in July, 1976 at the Lions Club High School All-Star football game where a trio of Stagg players — Visger, Jack Cosgrove and Fred Douglas — were my teammates on the North squad.

All three of them spoke glowingly of Mattos, about his sense of family, his devout dedication to his players and his seemingly endless work ethic. That struck a chord with me and I found myself wishing I had played for him.

In 1977, after starting on the defensive line at Fresno City College for two years, I was offered a football scholarship to the University of the Pacific by Chester Caddas. But Caddas was later fired and my scholarship offer rescinded by the Tigers new head coach, Bob Toledo.

Unsure of what my next move was, I was sitting at home in Morada trying to decide what I wanted to do when the doorbell rang.

It was Mattos.

He had just been named the Sacramento State head football coach and was taking over a program that had been 0-10 the season before. After spending just a few hours talking with Mattos, I knew I was headed up the freeway to Hornet Stadium.

His enthusiasm was contagious, his intensity and his belief in his program unbridled. Visger, Cosgrove and Douglas were right. Mattos was a player's coach, the kind I would do anything for just to get an approving smile, a pat on the butt and a "good job" out of him.

I called Mattos the "Little General." He was maybe 5-8 on a good day with that jet-black hair and piercing stare, always carrying that clipboard and whistle around his neck. He revived the Sacramento State program from scratch.

And I was with him from the beginning, starting on the Hornets defensive line for him his first two seasons through those lean, early rebuilding years. He began with virtually nothing. Just an old brown desk, a couple of plastic chairs, a file cabinet and a lumpy, ancient brown sofa in a small office not much bigger than a walk-in closet.

By the time he had finished in 1992, he left Sacramento State as its all-time winningest coach and had raised hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for the football and other athletic programs. Hornet Stadium became the crown jewel of the campus.

But Mattos' impact on me went beyond football. The day he convinced me to strap it on for him at Sacramento State, I was almost convinced that as a totally deaf student I would not get a fair shake either on the football field or in the classroom.

Mattos told me that my deafness would not be an issue and that he was willing to work with me. He kept his word, and in doing so, he validated me as being a person with something valuable to contribute to society. That education was priceless. And Mattos made it happen.

One day in the offseason, Mattos found me alone on my 20th birthday. I had been given a birthday cake by some friends, but I had nobody to celebrate it with. Mattos insisted that I come to his house in Stockton and have a party with him, his wife Maureen and young son, Doug. When I left that night, Mattos had tears in his eyes. So did I.

I saw Mattos two years ago, when he was inducted, along with Visger, into the Stagg Athletic Hall of Fame. He looked great and was happy to see me. I was thrilled to see my old coach who had meant so much to me.

Mattos told me he was proud of me and what I had done with my life. We left each other with tears in our eyes, just as we had done 30 years before.

Tonight, when I get on my football-scarred knees to pray for Mattos, the tears will start flowing again. But that is OK. I know the Little General would have understood. Rest in peace, Coach.