How two tragedies shaped top NFL prospect Yetur Gross-Matos

Penn State star Yetur Gross-Matos and the only father he's ever known, Robert Matos, have helped each other through tragedy. Ting Shen for ESPN

Editor's note: This story originally ran in June of 2019.

Yetur Gross-Matos leans back on the couch and kicks his size 17 feet up on an ottoman, resting his heels inches away from a corner of the quilt folded neatly in front of him.

Penn State's star defensive lineman and 2018 sacks leader sinks into a rare moment of stillness during the weeklong leave from campus he is spending with his family at home in northern Virginia. He's wedged a workout, a pickup basketball game and pizza with his little brother and his dad, a track meet with his little sister and a laugh-filled dinner with the rest of the Gross-Matos crew into his hectic day.

The quilt at his feet is 10 years old this June, as are all the memories stitched up in its colorful patchwork of child-sized T-shirts and Little League jerseys. It's in remarkably good shape given the many trips it's made to keep the family warm while sitting on bleachers big and small and its decade in a home filled with four active, athletic kids. Gross-Matos makes sure his heels land safely by its side.

"It's one of those unwritten codes," he says. "When you're by it, be careful. No spilled drinks, no eating on it. It means something to all of us."

If all goes well for the Nittany Lions this fall, this trip might be the last extended time the all-conference junior spends at home before fulfilling a dream at next year's NFL draft, where he's considered a likely first-round pick. His path to this point has been stitched with grief, a thread of tragedy that binds together the larger patches of the people who've made him. One is a man he never got the chance to know, one is a boy who never got the chance to be a man. The last is a father who has reshaped Gross-Matos' definition of the word.

Four years after Rob Matos married his wife, Sakinah, and three years after he signed the final adoption papers to make official what had long felt permanent, he was coaching the Little League baseball team of his two oldest sons. Rob was a second baseman and a shooting guard at the small college he attended in upstate New York. Sports were the most natural way for him to weave himself into the lives of the tightly knit trio of children he now considered his own.

Chelal Gross-Matos was two grades ahead of Yetur. The boys and their older sister, Qeturah, were inseparable as kids. They played kickball in the cul-de-sac near their house and snuck bamboo shoots out of a neighbor's garden to have sword fights back at home. They looked out for each other at school and around other kids. The boys shared a bunk bed. Yetur's was the bottom bunk, which meant that even as he slept, he looked up to his big brother.

"He was way, way better at everything," Yetur says. "He was very charismatic, brave. Being around him all the time was like being around a hero."

The skies above Lee Hill Park's baseball field on June 3, 2009, were dark and cloudy. Rob was certain their game would be cancelled by the approaching storm. The teams managed to play a couple of innings before the thunder rumbled overhead, and both retreated to the parking lot.

Chelal grabbed a ball from the bed of the family's big pickup truck and trotted back toward the field to play catch with a teammate. He told Yetur to wait by the car. Yetur had just reached his parents at the side of the truck when they noticed their oldest son making his way back to the field. They yelled for him to get off the field. He turned to reply as the sky cracked open and a lightning bolt sent all of them stumbling to the ground.

Sakinah felt as if a hammer had smacked the back of her skull. Rob's father, who was also at the game, saw his hat blown from his head. Yetur remembers the smell of burnt cloth and hair and the sound of someone in the distance yelling: "The boys!"

Chelal and his teammate remained flat on the ground. Chelal's cleats, blown from his feet, laid smoldering a few yards away. Rob sprinted toward his son and started to perform CPR. The sound of sirens approached in the distance, and Sakinah paced the edge of the parking lot in a state of panic.

"This isn't happening," she said aloud. "This can't be happening again."

St. Leonard Creek carves a zigzag pattern through the southwest side of Calvert County, Maryland. The skies above that small tributary of the Chesapeake Bay were bright and sunny on May 7, 2000, when a 25-year-old Sakinah boarded her father-in-law's boat along with her three young children and her husband, Michael Gross. Yetur, an Old Testament name meaning "encircled by family," celebrated his second birthday a month earlier.

The children had finished lunch, and Michael was holding Yetur in his lap on the back of the boat, feet dangling in the water. Sakinah, who wasn't a swimmer, stepped below deck to lie down out of the sun. She doesn't recall how much time passed before she heard a commotion and saw her father-in-law, Chester, sprinting toward the back. She hustled after him to find Michael already in the water. Yetur, she realized, was under it. Chester dove in after them.

"Where's my baby?" she yelled. "Where's my baby?"

Michael was 29 years old, in good physical shape and a capable swimmer. He had Yetur in his arms by the time Chester reached them. Chester swam Yetur back the boat and passed him off to Sakinah, who clutched him close to her chest.

Yetur has no memory of that day, and Sakinah has found no good explanation for what happened next. She turned back to the water after making sure Yetur was safe and saw that her husband had drifted farther from the boat. He was waving one arm up and down, attempting to tread water but clearly losing energy. Sakinah watched helplessly as his head slowly disappeared into the dark water.

Chester tried in vain to swim after him. They signaled for help. It felt like hours passed before rescue divers pulled Michael's body back above the surface.

They brought him to the hospital to attempt to resuscitate him. They filled his mouth with tubes and hooked him up to a host of machines. Sakinah remembers the deep, guttural noise his body made in the hospital bed as it decompressed and finally let go. Michael never regained consciousness. The autopsy meant to diagnose whether any other issues led to the healthy 29-year-old's drowning was inconclusive.

In the years that followed, Sakinah -- already an energetic and doting mother -- poured more effort into her children. She was determined to fill them with positivity and provide them the love of two parents. She joined the Washington, D.C., police academy in hopes of finding a good job that offered a shift that would allow her to spend more time around them. On each of their birthdays, she baked three different cakes, not wanting any of her children to ever feel less than special.

She continued to search for an explanation for her husband's inexplicable death, even consulting a psychic on one occasion. She found no answers. Instead, she eventually found Officer Rob Matos.

Rob kneeled over his unconscious adopted son at the edge of the baseball field, desperately searching for a sign of life. The dark blue jersey with the No. 5 on the back was tattered and dusted with ash. Rob had seen death before. He worked three years as a plainclothes narcotics officer in some of the rougher areas of D.C. But he refused to see it in his son.

Chelal had been slow to warm to Rob when they first met, instinctively protective of his mother and siblings at just 6 years old. The first time Rob came to their house, Yetur greeted him at the door. Chelal and Qeturah watched through the spindles of the stairway banister and plotted his assassination via Nerf gun.

Rob wasn't looking for a family when he met Sakinah at the police academy. His parents questioned why he was getting involved with a woman who already had three children. He embraced the kids with patience and passion from the start, though, and through many early mornings at the batting cage and evenings shooting baskets, he built a strong bond with all three.

Paramedics arrived at the baseball field and took Chelal, Rob and Sakinah to the hospital. The rest of the family -- the couple had added two more children of their own by then -- gathered at Rob's parents' house.

Sakinah sat in a hospital waiting room and felt the familiar sensation of doctors talking around her instead of to her. She saw her son with a mouth full of tubes and a host of medical machines by his side and she stared in silent disbelief.

"I just went into shock," Sakinah says. "I couldn't even cry anymore."

She didn't cry when the doctors told her Chelal was gone. She didn't cry when she saw the portrait of her son in his baseball uniform that her brother painted for the funeral, or when she handed a stack of Chelal's old shirts and jersey to a close friend who offered to make them into a quilt. She didn't cry as she watched his 12-year-old teammates walk beside his casket as honorary pallbearers. She was busy consoling her family.

Rob was distraught. The storm that killed Chelal continued for hours that night. The rain was still pouring long after they left the hospital, when Rob burst out of their house to scream into the darkness. He wandered into the street. He stayed there in the middle of a soaking wet road until his father tracked him down and made him get in the car.

"I had just lost a son, and I wanted to go with him," Rob says. "For a long time, I blamed myself."

Both Rob and Yetur sought counseling as they struggled in the years after Chelal's death under the weight of misplaced guilt. Rob held himself responsible for his son's death. Yetur assumed he was the cause of his biological father's death.

Sakinah, in time, helped absolve both of them from any notion that those tragedies were anything other than a cruel twist of fate. Yetur was uncomfortable talking about Michael for much of his childhood because he believed his sister and mother thought he was to blame. He knows very little about the man who saved his life other than what others have told him about the day Michael died.

"I just know if he didn't jump into that water to save me, I wouldn't be here right now," he says. "I'm still breathing because of him. I definitely see it as a sacrifice, and I'm eternally grateful."

It wasn't until his freshman year of high school that Yetur explained why he grew quiet when the subject was raised. Sakinah told her son that he was a baby and not the least bit responsible for what happened that day.

"It broke my heart that he felt that way," she says. "But right away I saw a more energetic, open-minded Yetur. He wanted to join everything, participate in everything."

Shortly thereafter, Yetur gave football a shot. Rob helped him get started, and as Yetur kept growing larger and larger through his early teenage years, they got more serious about training. Rob remained a strict, protective father. He demanded dedication and effort from his children, but in return he gave them every bit of himself that he could.

A month before the 10th anniversary of Chelal's death, Yetur is home in Virginia, with his father's hand hovering a few inches from his face. They're inside a local gym, playing a game of one-on-one basketball after Yetur's morning workout.

"Had to give you the body on that last one, son," says Rob, easily 6 inches shorter and about 100 pounds lighter than his 6-foot-4, 270-pound son, as he checks the ball after backing his way to a layup. Yetur shakes his head and laughs. He tries a pull-up jumper and misses. They both take off for the rebound with smiles on their faces.

Sports remains the bond that brings Rob and his children closest together. He left the police force nearly a decade ago and coached at the schools they attended. He now coaches the competitive AAU team of his youngest son, Robby.

It was easier to talk about drills and stats than the tragedies that bound them together. They pulled each other along.

"I tell my kids all the time," Rob says, "'You guys needed me, and I needed you.'"

Yetur grew into a force on the defensive line and started to attract the attention of college coaches. When the recruiters starter to come, Rob and Yetur followed the confused gaze of the coaches as their eyes drifted from Rob to his much taller son.

"Yeah, you should see his mother," Rob would say, and they would both laugh. Sakinah, trim and short her whole life, found the joke a little less funny. The coaches would laugh along and pretend to see some resemblance between the man and his son. Yetur could think of nothing that would make him more proud.

"He is the most selfless person I know," he says of the only man he has ever known to be his dad. "Being a father is being a backbone. He's someone who is always there supporting me. He was always right there beside me and he's always had my back. When I think of a father, I think of a backbone, always there to support me and at the same time the foundation of who I am."

The reminders of the grief they've shared are never far away. A portrait of 12-year-old Chelal hangs at the top of the staircase of the family's home in Virginia. His name is tattooed on Yetur's arm. On the chilly fall Saturdays in State College, Pennsylvania, this season, the quilt made of Chelal's old shirts will be wrapped around his parents as they wait outside the locker room after Penn State's games.

Questions about his big brother and his biological father still make Yetur quiet and distant. Thunderstorms still make him yearn to be alone. But he is plowing forward into the future with the strength of a man stitched together with two last names and two backbones.