Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
ORLANDO — It’s heartbreaking to hear of the tragedy Yetur Gross-Matos has endured in his young life, which makes it heartwarming to know the Penn State player has overcome such devastating adversity to put himself in position to triumph on the football field.
During a family outing when he was 2 years old, Yetur was on a boat and fell into the water. His father, Michael Gross, dove in to save his son, but Michael drowned. He was 29 years old.
Yetur’s mother, Sakinah, married Robert Matos in 2005, when Yetur was 7 years old. Matos adopted Sakinah’s three children, and he is the only father Yetur has ever known.
Nine years ago, Yetur was 11 and playing a Little League game in Virginia with his older brother, Chelal. The weather turned bad, and the game was halted, but Chelal decided to stay out on the field to play catch with a friend.
Lightning struck, shaking the ground and knocking everyone down. When Yetur’s parents stood up, they saw Chelal and another boy still lying on the ground.
Chelal had been struck by lightning and died. He was just 12 years old.
The other child playing catch also was struck, but survived.
Yetur has not spoken about these tragedies since arriving at Penn State as a freshman last year. The soft-spoken young man did share his feelings about losing his brother during the recruiting process when he was in high school.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to say to anybody,” he told the Centre Daily Times last year. “From there, I went to the same school and lived in the same house. People kept showing pity and feeling bad for me. I didn’t like it. It just made me angry.”
“It takes a lot to get Yetur to open up,” Robert Matos told the family’s hometown newspaper in Fredericksburg, Va., while Yetur was still in high school. “He dealt with it in his own way. It impacted his attitude and behavior. He wasn’t the same kid.”
One thing that eventually did help Yetur find his way was becoming a successful athlete, and he has his father, Robert, to thank for it.
As a kid, Yetur says he was “terrible” at sports. He could run, but he was uncoordinated, out of shape and not a natural at any sport.
Then things changed when he got to eighth grade. And boy, did they change.
“I just started working out because I was really chubby,” Yetur said. “And I didn’t want to be chubby anymore. Then I started playing football, ended up playing varsity that year — ninth grade — and then I fell in love with the sport and started training.”
All of that training has paid off in a big way for Yetur Gross-Matos. The lightning-quick and chiseled 6-foot-5, 259-pound sophomore defensive end now has as much potential as any member of the Penn State football team, which plays Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl on Tuesday in Orlando.
There’s already talk of Yetur becoming a potential first-round NFL draft pick someday, which could earn him upward of $15 million or more.
He has two years of college eligibility remaining and cannot turn pro for another year, but if everything goes well, there are good odds that he will give up his final season at Penn State and declare for the 2020 NFL draft.
The young man’s talent and potential are off the charts.
“I think he could be one of the best that I’ve been around at that position,” Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said.
As dominant as he can be on the field, Yetur is a very quiet, humble young man off the field, which could be expected after the terrible tragedies he’s endured. He was very close with his brother, and losing Chelal was devastating to the young child.
Yetur’s path to athletic success began in large part because of motivation from his father, Robert.
“He’s a real competitive guy and has always been into sports,” Yetur said. “For most of my life, he was always my coach, and I was terrible. And I really wanted to impress my dad.”
Doing so wasn’t easy. And there was a lot of tough love, as Robert was hard on his son.
“Very hard,” Yetur said.
Robert didn’t shy away from singling out Yetur and pushing him to be the best.
“I think that’s really what made me better,” Yetur said, “because he always made me come in first. … There were some quiet dinners. But I love my father, and we have a great relationship.”
Yetur kept working hard, dropped the baby fat and blossomed into a superb football player at Chancellor High School in Spotsylvania, Va.. He impressed scouts, received more and more attention, was one of the top 200 high school recruits in the country and earned numerous big-time scholarship offers.
Penn State landed him, and it’s been a perfect marriage so far.
The PSU coaches raved about Yetur prior to his freshman season in 2017, and he showed a lot of good signs playing in all 13 games and earning honorable mention honors on the all-Big Ten freshman team.
But while it was easy to see his potential, hardly anyone could have expected the breakout season Yetur has enjoyed this year for the Nittany Lions. He emerged as one of the top defensive ends in the country and earned first-team all-Big Ten honors from the league’s media.
Yetur can be an absolute force rushing the quarterback or chasing down running backs, and everyone who’s around him knows he’s really only just touching the surface of his vast potential.
Pry said the young man was “pretty raw” when he got to Penn State, but added he has a great work ethic.
“He’s still young as far as student of the game, just understanding scheme, fits,” Pry said. “He’s a little bit right now still ‘do what we ask him to do.’ And he’s going to give it everything to do that.
“He doesn’t ask questions. He’s a very, very high-motor guy. In practice, every single snap, he practices the same way. He’s a great example for the rest of the guys because I truly believe his hard work and the way his practice habits grew contributed directly to the success he had on Saturdays.”
He’s playing on Saturdays now in college, but there’s little doubt, as long as he keeps progressing and stays healthy, that Yetur someday can become a force to be reckoned with on Sundays in the NFL.
“I don’t think there’s a limit to how much better I can get,” Yetur said.