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When tragedy struck Yetur Gross-Matos' family twice in nine years, he refused to be beaten by life's cruel blows. Instead, he used the events to play with a purpose.

By Kimberly Jones | Published Feb. 17, 2020

Yetur Gross-Matos makes a small office in the Penn State football building seem smaller. At 6-foot-5, 264 pounds, he fills a chair, stretching out his long legs in front of him. He's wearing Crocs, generally his shoes of choice, and says with a laugh that he hopes his size-17 feet have stopped growing.

Gross-Matos will celebrate his 22nd birthday next week. He is thoughtful and makes direct eye contact. He patiently listens to questions before providing helpful answers.

He is part of a close family: "Team Matos." He craves his mom's lamb chops with mint jelly and consumes them by the rack. His dad is his best friend; when Yetur is home in Spotsylvania, Virginia, they are inseparable. His siblings, an older sister and younger brother and sister, are his biggest fans.

He is a defensive end with a bright future, No. 99 as a Nittany Lion for the past three seasons, first-team All-Big Ten in 2019 before declaring for the 2020 draft. He is a good teammate, a dedicated son and a devoted brother.

If only it were that easy.

Life is complicated, sometimes cruel. Yetur knows this. He has lived it. A pair of tragedies, twists of fate nine years apart that no family should have to bear, changed everything. Or almost everything.

Yetur is a survivor who does not see himself as a victim. Never that. Nor would he want you to view him as such.

Over the years, there has been healing, joy amid tears. His mother's ambitious vow not to give in to misery is one she kept, and her son undoubtedly is better for it.

But his past is his past, and it has helped to define him. Wherever his path, including football, takes him, this truth will endure: Yetur Gross-Matos is guided by the voices of those who love him most.

Including a man he cannot remember and a boy he'll never forget.

Yetur Gross-Matos has no memory of his biological father. On May 6, 2000, a family outing at St. Leonard Creek in Calvert County, Maryland, went horribly wrong: When 2-year-old Yetur fell off a boat and into the water, his father jumped in to save him but died in the process.

How the boy ended up in the water "is a question I've had for a long time," Yetur's mother, Sakinah Matos, said. Minutes earlier, her older children, daughter Qeturah and son Chelal, were playing on the boat, yelling, "Mom, look at us!" As he held Yetur, her husband's feet were dangling in the water.

Soon, panic.

"Where's my baby? Where's my baby?" Sakinah screamed. She saw Michael, struggling in the water, hand off Yetur to her father-in-law.

"My husband was slowly going under the water and never came back up," Sakinah said. Michael Gross lost his life saving their son's. "There's no doubt about that," she said.

A 79-word news item in the Washington Post chronicled the drowning. Divers recovered Gross' body about an hour later. He was 29.

Sakinah, at 25 years old, was suddenly a single mother of three young children. It's no wonder Yetur says he gets his strength from her.

"I try to be as positive as I can be," Sakinah said. "I think the reason I was able to get through was because of my kids. I had to be both parents (at that time). I didn't want them to feel loss, I didn't want them to feel any negativity. I wanted them to still be children. And to be happy children. In my mind, I knew I had to be as positive as I could be."

Nine years later, that resolve would be tested again.

By then, Sakinah had remarried; she and Robert Matos met when both were in the police academy. Rob legally adopted her three older children, and they went on to have two more, Robby and Cristina. Sakinah marveled at how similar her late husband Michael and current spouse Rob were when it came to commitment to family.

Life was good, the kids were thriving. And then, on June 3, 2009, everything they knew changed.

Chelal and Yetur, separated by two grades but so close they shared a bunk bed, played on the Little League team that Rob coached. As a family, they loved those games.

That day, as a storm neared and the skies darkened, parents and children sought shelter in their vehicles. Yetur's older brother and a teammate raced back to the field, two kids getting in a few more throws ahead of the ominous weather. Chelal told Yetur to stay with their parents.

"We were waiting (the storm) out," Rob Matos said. He sighed. "Obviously, in retrospect, I wish I had been as firm with him as we were with everyone else."

As the sky darkened and thunder rolled in, lightning struck the field, instantly killing 12-year-old Chelal. His throwing partner survived.

Yetur thinks of his brother every day. Chelal is memorialized in the family home in artwork painted by an uncle. It took Yetur a long time to come to terms with what happened that day.

"You'll never get an explanation," Yetur said. "There are a bunch of kids, bunch of adults, and two kids playing catch and one ends up getting struck by lightning. And nobody else. One of them survived. One didn't.

"When I was younger, it just made me angry. But the situation is the situation, you try to make the best of it."

He eventually came to believe he could better honor his brother by celebrating him.

"Trying to let go of the confusion, the anger, all that stuff, and really focus on the fact that he was here for 12 years, and he was my big brother for 10 of those years," Yetur said. "Just cherishing the time I did have with him."

Said Rob: "I think Yetur definitely lives with it as much as anyone, if not more, because it was his beloved older brother. And because it was, unfortunately, the second tragedy he's been a part of."

Yetur has his brother's name and uniform number (5) tattooed on his left arm and still hears his voice.

When Penn State played at Michigan State on Nov. 4, 2017, Gross-Matos recorded his first career sack, shared with teammate Tyrell Chavis, in a game suspended by lightning for nearly three-and-a-half hours. During the delay, Yetur became emotional, crying in the locker room, believing Chelal was speaking to him. Yetur said he was determined to play even harder.

During a thunderstorm last August in State College, Yetur texted his position coach, Sean Spencer, to ask if he should wait to go outside and to the cafeteria.

"Absolutely, you should wait, Yetur," was Spencer's response.

"That storm meant more to him than it would to you or me," said Spencer, who recently left Penn State to become an assistant on the New York Giants' coaching staff. "I probably would have run through (the storm), but it was a meaningful moment to him. That gives you a dose of his reality."

Life is funny sometimes. It gives and it takes.

While Yetur doesn't remember his biological father, he says the oldest memory he does have is of Rob, from the day Sakinah wanted her children to meet the man who would become their father. And he knows he now has a second father who would do anything for him.

"I'm extremely grateful to have that memory," Yetur said. "I feel like that sums up our relationship: (Rob has) been there for me since Day 1. And I'm so grateful he's in my life, by choice."

Then, last year, another unexpected turn. Yetur's older sister was going through boxes at their grandmother's house when she found VHS tapes of Michael Gross with his young children. One recording showed Michael cutting Yetur's hair and talking to his son all the while.

"It was a shock to ever think I would hear his voice," Yetur said. "He is the reason I'm here. If he didn't jump off the boat and save me, I wouldn't be here."

When she first learned of the tapes, his mother said she was happy for Yetur.

"He can hear his voice, he can see his face," Sakinah said. "Seeing that will give Yetur a memory."

Yetur knows he has benefited considerably from the unconditional love of two fathers.

"I am incredibly blessed," he said, quietly.

Meanwhile, Yetur's memory of his big brother remains frozen in time. Forever a 12-year-old with great spirit and unlimited potential. Forever Yetur's hero.

"I think he'd be extremely proud of the life I'm living," Yetur said. "I think he would have been a freak athlete, but not at football. He was the best player at every (other) sport -- basketball, soccer, he ran track."

Yetur's voice cracked, just a bit: "I can't remember him ever losing anything."

Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Penn State coach James Franklin showed his football team a video focusing on challenges and adversity and emphasizing how, if handled correctly, those situations represent opportunities for growth.

"I think Yetur and his family (already) understood that," Franklin said.

To those in the football building, Gross-Matos is a lovable teammate, a player who goes full-speed at walkthroughs and someone who is always happy.

"If you're around Yetur, he's got a smile on his face all the time," Franklin said. "Very appreciative. Very respectful."

And the owner of impressive dance moves. So impressive that Spencer, the defensive line coach, banned Gross-Matos from doing some of them, fearing he would tear a hamstring. (He comes by this honestly: While Penn State was recruiting Yetur, Sakinah and Rob won the parents' dance-off at the annual Lasch-Bash picnic on campus. "My wife's a great dancer," Rob said.)

Early on in their college careers, Gross-Matos formed a bond with running back Journey Brown. "A lot of people talk about what he does on the field, but he's an even better person off the field," Brown said. "I'm a people person; I love being around positive people. A reason we connect is because we're always happy. He's always happy."

Fellow defensive end Shaka Toney: "I could have a bad day and I see my guy, Yetur, and he's smiling. That's my guy. He makes my life a whole lot better and easier. I love him."

Toney paused. "What he's gone through, I think would make anyone tougher. A lot of people can go through life and never go through adversity. As a child, he went through adversity. Really, all his life. And he comes at every day smiling, happy."

In three years at Penn State, Gross-Matos made his mark with 111 tackles, 37 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 38 games.

In 2018, he became the 11th Nittany Lion to record 20 tackles for loss in a season. In 2019, he had 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He projects no worse than a second-round pick and is expected to have a strong workout when defensive linemen take the field at the NFL Scouting Combine. Teams in Indianapolis likely will ask him about a civil lawsuit filed by a former player in January that alleges hazing in the Penn State football program.

His coaches believe Gross-Matos is best suited to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme but can line up anywhere on the defensive line, particularly on passing downs. They laud his work ethic -- on the practice field and in games -- and his consistency. They say he is selfless and does not care about individual statistics or honors.

Spencer points to Gross-Matos' short-area quickness as special and said he can quickly decipher a block.

"To all the freshman, I say, 'Watch Yetur,' " Spencer said. "You tell him once, he does it, and he does it going 100 miles per hour."

Asked to describe Gross-Matos, Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said: "A pleasure to coach. All he wants to do is do everything you ask as hard as hell. We wish everybody was like that. His coachability is off the charts."

Gross-Matos always has wanted to earn his way, and he has.

In the aftermath of his brother's death, he was named to two Little League all-star teams. While Yetur said he was a more-than-capable left fielder, he struggled to hit the ball. He was not the baseball player his brother was.

Believing the all-star nods were bestowed out of pity, he quit baseball. (Rob Matos suspects that the adults involved had good intentions in selecting Yetur but agreed with his son's assessment.)

That opened the door for Yetur to fall in love with football.

"(His brother's passing) definitely has impacted everything he does," Rob said. "That's why he works so hard for his goals. He wants to work hard and make his family proud, make mom and dad proud. But he feels like he has a responsibility because his older brother's not going to have an opportunity to ever fulfill (his dreams). So Yetur has to do that for him."

For Yetur, that represents responsibility, not a burden.

"You've got to learn how to live with certain things," he said. "You got to learn how to push through certain things. And when you have the attitude, you're not going to let things defeat you and you're not going to divert the blame to someone else and you have an attack mindset, everything is so much easier."

Gross-Matos broke his left index finger in November against Ohio State. He stayed in the game, contributing two sacks. As if a finger injury was going to derail him.

When Penn State played in the Cotton Bowl, against Memphis, Spencer offered to "manage his snaps," knowing Gross-Matos was NFL-bound. Gross-Matos wouldn't hear of it. He wore a wrap on his left hand and contributed one of six Nittany Lions sacks that day.

As he begins a new challenge, a new life, he likely will fulfill his long-held goal to take care of his family. There will be adversity in the NFL; few players may be more prepared to handle it.

With everything he has been through, "I know what's important to me," he said.

As Yetur Gross-Matos and his family know all too well, tomorrow is not promised.

His past has helped to form his future. The voices of those who love, and loved, him most still echo. Today and for all the days to come.


Editors: Andy Fenelon, Tom Blair | Illustration: Albert Lee
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