The uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic has tested Yetur Gross-Matos’ capability to adapt and improvise, two functions vital to the opportunity to become a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for Gross-Matos, a 6-foot-5, 266-pound defensive end who played for three seasons at Penn State, where he made first-team All-Big Ten in 2018 and 2019, before giving up his final season to enter the draft. Many mock drafts have him going late in the first round, but this is a year unlike any other for everyone involved.
Facing challenges: First, there is the matter of finding a place to train, where Gross-Matos’ only option apparently being on the field at his alma mater, Chancellor High School in Fredericksburg, Va. Some Facetime meetings with NFL teams and others have been a challenge because of bad cell phone service. Penn State’s Pro Day scheduled for last week was canceled.
It’s not what he anticipated since going through the NFL Combine less than a month ago, but Gross-Matos said he isn’t frustrated and that he’s adjusting the best he can.
“There was disappointment at first but I’m still getting a chance to talk to teams and meet people and trying to put my best foot forward to the people who are potentially going to draft me,” he said Saturday in a telephone interview. “The only frustrating thing is the workouts. I want to be able to work out, be on a regimen every day, in the same place, and that’s the frustrating part for me.”
The combine: Gross-Matos felt he did well at the combine although he was unable to run a 40-yard dash or perform agility drills because of a hamstring injury. Maybe the most stressful part of the experience was meeting with representatives of 23 NFL teams over a four-day period.
“It was kind of the part that got me anxious because everyone has a different vibe and a different method as to going about the meetings,” he said. “I’m thinking ‘I hope I don’t get one that’s going to grill me,’ and a couple of them were like that. Some of them just wanted to get to know who you are. Some of them just wanted to talk straight football, so everyone had their own method.”
Special inspiration: As Gross-Matos seeks to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in the NFL, he has some special inspiration to help. His older brother, Chelai, was struck by lightning and killed in June 2009 on a baseball field as he and Yetur were waiting out a storm. At the age of 2, he lost his father, Michael Gross, who drowned trying to save him when he fell off a boat.
“I think about the people that I lost in my life every day,” Gross-Matos said. “It’s been my motivation since I was a young kid. So that’s kind of pushing me to get to the point where I’m at, and I know it’s only going to continue to motivate me further. But I never let those things go. Those memories are going to last me a lifetime.”
He called his older brother “my hero, everything I wanted to be in life.
“We were always around each other,” he said. “I didn’t know who else to model myself after. He was somebody that everybody loved and he had that fire in him that everybody was attracted to. Any time he stepped on any court or field, he was the best player out there.
“When he passed, I kind of had that chip on my shoulder of, that’s what I wanted to be. So I feel like that’s really changed me as a person, making me into something like he was.”
Gross-Matos had a productive career at Penn State. He had 20 tackles for loss as a sophomore, and posted 37 tackles for loss and 19 sacks over his three seasons. He was a finalist last year for the Ted Hendricks Award given to the nation’s outstanding defensive end.
Hazing allegation: Shortly after the 2019 season, Gross-Matos and two of his teammates were named in a civil suit by former teammate Isaiah Humphries, who accused them of taking an active role in hazing and harassment of underclassmen with some of the actions being sexually suggestive. Gross-Matos is not a defendant in the suit.
Asked about the allegations, Gross-Matos said, “Actually, I can’t comment on that situation.”
Spencer's influence: Gross-Matos credited head coach James Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry for helping him develop at Penn State, but he called defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who recently left the program to join the New York Giants coaching staff, “the most influential person in terms of my football career.
“I think the best thing he ever did for me,” he said, “was instill a level of confidence in myself, that I was the best player on the field every time I went out there, and really holding me to the same standard every time. He was never easy on me. Everything had to be great. I loved him for the way he coached like that.”
NFL dream awaits: With the draft a month away, Gross-Matos said he is going to keep working despite the obstacles presented by the pandemic. The NFL dream is right there for him.
“When you grow up as a kid, it’s always like, ‘Man, I want to play in the NFL,’” he said. “To get to that final destination, it was hard and rigorous. I’m just so glad to finally get there but I know that’s not when the work stops. I’ve got to keep pushing.”