By Herb Borkland
Washington insider and Texan 7th-dan Merrill “Bobby” Matthews, Ph.D., is an internationally respected public policy analyst specializing in health care, entitlements and energy issues. His pioneering martial arts roots go back to the “Blood-and-Guts” era of Grandmaster Alan Steen, the first taekwondo instructor in the Lone Star State. Matthews joined the Southwest Tae Kwon Do Association, founded in 1976 by Keith D. Yates, one of Steen’s original black belts. In 1996, it became the more inclusive American Karate and Tae Kwon Do Organization (AKATO).
Herb Borkland: Where did you grow up, and what did your dad do?
Merrill Matthews: I was born in Longview, Texas and moved to Dallas in 1963. My father was a banker.
HB: How did you discover martial arts?
MM: In 1967, I was a high school sophomore. One day, Bob Beasley came in wearing a windbreaker with the Southwest Karate Black Belt Association logo. That was Allen Steen’s outfit. Bob sat behind me in geometry and trig class, and I asked him about the logo. After football season, as a 15-year-old, I signed up with Steen. Bob went on to buy the U.S. Open tournament still held in Dallas every February.
There were super-warriors back then — the bloodiest of the gutsy. No protective gear, sweeps were legal, everything was legal, and no mats! I liked contact. I was a first-string footballer, but not college material because I wasn’t physically big enough.
Classes were two hours. First: kicks, punches, stretching and so many pushups. One night, I lost count at 200 knuckle pushups! Next: 20 minutes on kata, then 20 minutes for techniques, and, finally, 20 minutes fighting.
Next, I went to the University of Texas Arlington. One day I drove by the Texas Karate Institute. Roy Kurban was teaching, and he greeted me like an old friend: “I sit behind you in accounting class.” A year later, he started his own school, and I followed him.
We warmed up in a sauna, before class at night, then ran three miles. In class, we fought multiple black belts — black belts you were not going to beat! They hit me in the stomach to keep me from falling over! (laughs) Fighting in tournaments was mandatory for a brown belt to be tested for black belt, so I won a tournament. In January of 1976, I made black belt.
HB: Turning point?
MM: In ’75, I had converted to Christianity and went to South Western Baptist University. I received a Master of Divinity degree and briefly taught philosophy. But, after graduating from the seminary, Roy was mocking me a little, so I moved to Dallas and joined the Southwest Tae Kwon Do Association. In the late ‘80s, I thought about two things: Christianity and taekwondo. I thought, this is who I am, and I need to stay with it.
MM: At 67 years old and after having both hips replaced, head-high kicks are hard. One of my knees is getting bad. I can teach, but am less able to interact as a fighter. How am I going to demo flying sidekicks these days? Maybe I could five or 10 years ago, but the recognition you are no longer able to demo is… a disappointment.
Happily, however, classes are more diverse these days. Race? It’s the color of the belt that matters, not the color of skin. And, if they stick, the new students are typically very good people. I don’t know if it is natural in them, or if we helped develop that decency, but they are just good citizens. Cocky doesn’t last in our school.
Herb Borkland is a veteran black belt who can be reached at [email protected].
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