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Personal tragedies prepared Penn State draft prospect Yetur Gross-Matos for the NFL

Defensive lineman Yetur Gross-Matos of Penn State runs a drill during the NFL combine.
Defensive lineman Yetur Gross-Matos of Penn State runs a drill during the NFL combine.
(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.

Twenty years ago, on a sunny afternoon in early May, Michael Gross dove into a Chesapeake Bay tributary to save his 2-year-old son. The boy, who’d fallen overboard, was saved. The father, 29, tragically drowned.

Nine years later, on a dark and cloudy night in Virginia, the same boy stood with his older brother on a baseball field. Rumbling thunder soon ended their Little League game, but Chelal Gross-Matos chose to continue playing catch. Lightning struck the field, killing Chelal, who was 12 years old.

More than a decade later, the boy who twice experienced unthinkable tragedy is one of the top edge-rushing prospects in the NFL draft, and one team after another asks him to describe the most difficult circumstance he’s endured.

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Truth is Yetur Gross-Matos considers those he has lost every day.

“It’s been my motivation since I was a young kid,” Gross-Matos said. “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.”

They’ve led him this far, to the cusp of the NFL draft, where the Penn State pass rusher appears to be a sure first-round pick. Over his last two seasons in State College, Gross-Matos racked up 17.5 sacks and 35 tackles for lost yardage, proving himself as one of the nation’s most formidable pass rushers.

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Now, the All-Big Ten defensive end is ready to prove he belongs at the NFL level.

“I’ve always been someone who’s been willing to work,” Gross-Matos said at the combine. “You’ve just got to go out there and give all you’ve got. And at the end of the day I’ll be happy with whatever that is.”

Still, he carries tragedy with him. As a boy, he let it drive him, carrying it like a chip on his shoulder.

Now, he feels only gratitude for the path that brought him to the brink of the NFL.

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“I want to do something better for my family and my mother and that’s kind of how I approached it,” Gross-Matos said.

Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah could be one of those rare cornerbacks to be selected at the top of the NFL draft.

A hamstring injury kept Gross-Matos from doing much at the combine in February, and a truncated draft process — thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic — could leave some lingering doubt about Gross-Matos, even after two seasons of consistent production. Some scouts wonder if his lithe frame or arsenal of pass rush moves will translate as well at the pro level.

But there should be no question about how he handles adversity. It shaped him long before football did.

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“Life’s not guaranteed,” Gross-Matos said. “So you’ve got to take the most out of every moment and be positive with everything that comes your way.”


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