CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rob Matos wasn’t surprised this past weekend when his son, Carolina Panthers rookie defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, called to say he won the team’s first official hot dog eating contest.
“He came out [of the womb] a big eater," the elder Matos said with a laugh. “He was the one child I always let him order anything he wanted because I knew he wasn’t going to waste it."
If anything, Matos jokingly declared his son’s victory as vindication for all the pie-eating contests he was “cheated" out of winning in high school and at Penn State, where he was a two-time All-Big Ten selection.
“There were a couple of instances where clearly he won, but they gave it to somebody I guess they were trying to make feel good," Matos said. “He used to get upset and say, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ When he told us he was going to be in a hot dog contest we were waiting to see how that turned out.
“When he told us he won, we said, ‘See, you’ve been preparing for this your whole life.’"
Being the next Joey Chestnut -- aka the "Glizzy Gladiator" -- is not what Gross-Matos has spent his life preparing to do. He took only a few minutes studying YouTube videos of Chestnut prevailing at the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, an event he's won 13 times.
Gross-Matos' goal has been to excel in the NFL.
“He’s only beginning his physical development," first-year Panthers coach Matt Rhule said after the 6-foot-5, 266-pound Gross-Matos was selected in the second round with the 38th pick. “He’s going to continue to get big and provide us that strongside defensive presence to go along with Stephen Weatherly and Efe Obada.
“I’m really ecstatic about him."
Gross-Matos’ path to the NFL has been filled with tragedy. He was 2 when his father, Michael Gross, drowned trying to save Yetur in a lake on the southwest side of Calvert County, Maryland.
He was 11 when his older brother, Chelal, died after being struck by lightning.
Gross-Matos has used those moments as motivation throughout his life.
“The biggest thing is just staying positive throughout all the things that I’ve faced in my life," he said at the NFL combine. “And just keep working. Being sad and moping around is not going to change anything."
His first name comes from the Old Testament and means “encircled by family." It is significant in that family has made Gross-Matos who he is.
He refers to Rob as his father and not his stepfather, in part because Rob is the only father he has known. Rob adopted him and accompanied him to counseling after Chelal’s death. Rob helped get him into football. Rob helped instill in Yetur the competitive nature he has helped instill in all of his children.
It helped that he was around Rob and other family members during this crazy offseason, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He actually took advantage of the time," Matos said. “He loves being with his family, loves being at home, loves spending time with his siblings. So he really got to spend a lot of time with his siblings."
They helped Gross-Matos with conditioning, too.
“His siblings are all into fitness and working out," Matos said. “So everybody was working out with him and taking part in keeping him in shape and helping him get prepared.
“His youngest brother is a high-level athlete as well, and he loves to beat his brother. So he did everything he could to push him, as did his sisters. His mom was out there with him. We were all out there with him."
Gross-Matos is there for them. His drive comes from not wanting to let them or anybody down.
“I feel I always just got something to prove," he said. "I feel like I try to carry myself that way in everything I do."
It’s that temperament, Matos said, that will help his son succeed in the NFL.
“It's so even-keel," Matos said. “He never gets too high or too low or very rarely does, and it's kind of helped him through everything in life, frankly."
The Panthers felt fortunate to get Gross-Matos, who had 17 sacks in his last two seasons at Penn State, in the second round. General manager Marty Hurney spotted him early in evaluations and was certain he would be a first-round pick.
Matos was glad his son fell to Carolina because of all the Penn State connections -- from Rhule to offensive coordinator Joe Brady to strength coach Jeremy Scott -- all who either played for or coached the Nittany Lions.
“So there’s a relationship there," Matos said.
Rhule offered Gross-Matos a scholarship when he was the head coach at Temple. He saw then that Gross-Matos had a chance to grow into a big-time player, and not just because he wore a size 18 shoe.
Or because he has a big appetite, as Gross-Matos reaffirmed in the hot dog contest.
“One of the unique things about him is he’s a guy who can get on the edge, turn the corner," Rhule said. “He also can go inside and played a 3 technique and can rush the quarterback."
Apparently, Gross-Matos can do it all.
Again, his father isn’t surprised.
“But even with his successes, he's the most humble kid," Matos said. “You wouldn't know that he plays for the Carolina Panthers. He’d never tell you, but I’d tell you, because I'm a proud father.
“We just didn't anticipate him being a Glizzy Gladiator champion."