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Fullerton man who loved Godzilla gets monster tribute

Are you Team Godzilla or Team Kong?

In either case, you’d be on team Matthew Muñoz. Especially if you are choosing sides as part of an autism fundraiser being held in the memory of Muñoz, a young adult with autism who died a little over a year ago.

The fundraiser will benefit longtime Orange County advocacy group, The Autism Community in Action, better known by the acronym TACA, and is taking place in conjunction with the release of the film “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

Muñoz had been looking forward to seeing his two favorite movie monsters in action. His untimely death on Feb. 4, 2020, came a month after he turned 23. His doctor had diagnosed him with the flu, his parents said, but they now suspect he actually might have been suffering from COVID-19. He’d been unable to shake a severe cough and prescribed medication didn’t help.

Because there was no autopsy, the true cause of Muñoz’s death is something that will never be known.

But the focal point of his life was never in doubt: Godzilla.



Special hero

Diagnosed with autism as a toddler, Muñoz early on became an obsessed fan of the fictional prehistoric creature from the sea who debuted in a 1954 Japanese film and launched a still thriving international franchise. Today, the Godzilla world includes cartoons, comics and TV shows.

From his nuclear radiation origins, Godzilla has evolved from destroyer of cities into an anti-hero of sorts. He wreaks havoc with his size — ranging in different films from an original 164 feet  to  nearly 400 feet tall — and his special power, a blue atomic heat beam. Godzilla’s burning breath has hit temperatures listed as high as 1.2 million degrees Celsius, roughly 200 times hotter than the surface of the sun.

Matthew Muñoz loved everything about Godzilla. His father, George Muñoz, thinks that affinity for the king of what the Japanese call kaiju, or giant monsters, stemmed from the power Godzilla could radiate (literally) as a heroic character facing misguided humans or rivals.

“The character doesn’t speak but was somehow able to communicate. Matthew related to that whole world.”

Matthew Muñoz, the youngest of three sons, was a big guy, too. He stood about 5’8″ but weighed close to 300 pounds. In addition to his autism, he suffered from a genetic disorder known as Prader-Willi syndrome that made him a compulsive over-eater. He could be moody, cursing a Godzilla-like blue streak when angered, something that got him into trouble at school. As an outlet, he was allowed to curse as much as he wanted at the USC football games he attended with his father: “He got joy out of that because he felt he was getting away with it.”

Behavioral issues got him kicked out of his school district, his parents said. But Matthew Muñoz did well over the six years spent at Speech and Language Development Center in Buena Park, a nonprofit school and therapy center he graduated from in June 2019. While there, he even had small jobs — sweeping up at a store, dusting library shelves — that gave him pocket change to spend on his Godzilla passion.

Over the years, Matthew Muñoz watched all the Godzilla movies multiple times, including the Japanese-language films, sans subtitles. He collected hundreds of toys, books, T-shirts, blankets and other memorabilia now mostly packed away in boxes.

Friends called him Godzilla Man or Godzilla Matthew. The usual greeting with him wasn’t “How are you?” but “How the Godzilla are you?” And the reply, of course, was in kind: “I’m Godzilla good.”

He was buried with his favorite Godzilla action figure. And his parents have ordered a headstone that includes a city skyline and figures evocative of Godzilla and frenemies King Kong and Mothra, a female kaiju who resembles a giant moth, but isn’t.

Long marked on his mental calendar, Muñoz couldn’t wait to see the “Godzilla vs. Kong” movie now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. He also loved King Kong, Godzilla’s rival for top box-office monster. He set his mother’s phone so King Kong’s rumbling was her ringtone while keeping Godzilla’s roar for himself.

“He lived for Godzilla,” Lisa Muñoz said of her youngest child. “He really did.”

Matthew Muñoz’s parents divorced in 2013. He stayed with his mom in a Harbor Boulevard apartment overlooking the 14th hole of Fullerton Golf Course, but saw his father often and spent weekends with him in Diamond Bar. His last night alive, Matthew Muñoz fell asleep in the same Godzilla shirt he always wore to bed. The next morning, his mother found him not breathing and unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at St. Jude Medical Center, a few blocks from his Fullerton home.

Matthew started feeling sick around the time basketball star Kobe Bryant died in late January 2020. To comfort his mom, a grieving Lakers fan, he wrapped Lisa Muñoz up in one of his signature bear hugs.

“He was the best hugger,” she said. “I just remember that was the last big hug he gave me.”

Someone to think about

George Muñoz, the original Godzilla fan in the family, came up with the idea for a fundraiser that could incorporate the arrival of “Godzilla vs. Kong” and benefit an organization that works with families and the autism community. He contacted TACA .

“We wanted to do something to remember (Matthew) but also something impactful,” George Muñoz said.

The fundraiser, hosted on the TACA website, runs through April 14. It happens that April is Autism Awareness Month, or what TACA prefers to call Autism Action Month to underscore its work in educating people about autism, providing resources to families and schools, and creating positive change.

There are dozens of family fundraising pages and stories shared on TACA’s site — each available for donors to support. But the effort in Matthew Muñoz’s name stands out.

“It’s the saddest circumstance but the sweetest way to honor him,” said Lisa Ackerman, executive director of TACA and mother to a 23-year-old son with autism who attends Concordia University in Irvine.

Ackerman said she watched “Godzilla vs. Kong” with her son and her husband at home on HBO Max. “They enjoyed it,” she said. “I smiled a lot.”

The family stories and pages typically raise about $215,000 annually for TACA.

“I love reading them all,” Ackerman said. But, she added about bringing extra attention to the life of Matthew Muñoz, “we wanted to share his story in his honor.”

The first 60 individuals to contribute $50 or more at are promised their choice of either a Team Godzilla or Team Kong T-shirt. As of April 8, the fundraiser was at about half its goal of $5,000.

As a tie-in to the fundraiser, George Muñoz also arranged a private screening of the new movie for 20 family members and close friends of Matthew at the AMC DINE-IN theater in Fullerton on Saturday, April 3. It was a Team Kong and Team Godzilla affair, with most of the moviegoers wearing T-shirts and face masks denoting their allegiance. They also brought along some of Matthew’s old Godzilla souvenirs.

George Munoz carried the “Godzilla vs. Kong” blanket his son got the Christmas before his death; Lisa Muñoz plunked 2-foot-tall replicas of Godzilla and King Kong in the seat beside her.

“We enjoyed the movie,” George Muñoz said. “It’s entertaining. It delivers.”

It also reminded him of his son.

“We’re hoping a lot of people enjoy it and maybe think of Matthew at the same time.”

Source: Orange County Register

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