Editor's note: This article was first published on November 20, 2019.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It's one of those stories that changes lives and changes the way we think.
A beautifully raw and revealing story that twists and turns its way through life and finds unimaginable lessons that will take your breath away.
"My dad is everything to me," star Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos says, distilling it all to its essence. "He didn't have to be part of my life, didn't have to adopt me. He chose me.
"That's a powerful thing."
Remember it as a story of love. Remember it today, tomorrow and every day.
And not because it's about one of the most important players in one of the most important games of the year, this weekend's matchup of No. 8 Penn State and No. 2 Ohio State. Or because it's about a player who could soon be a first-rounder you'll see playing in the NFL next season.
They hate the word "stepdad." It's informal and insufficient, and it can't possibly define the enormity of a gift that's long on giving and short on receiving.
"He's my dad. I've never known him as anything else," Yetur says of Robert Matos, the man who married his mother and adopted her three children.
If only life were that simple. If only it were as simple as getting past your man to sack the quarterback.
But life is never simple. Sometimes, it sucks.
Yetur was two years old when his father died in a boating accident—while trying to save him. And he was 11 when his brother died in another freak accident, just steps away from him.
Robert Matos married into the family after the first tragedy, and he suffered with his family through the second.
"With all we had, and all we were going through, what man would've done what he did?" Sakinah Matos says of her husband. "A stepdad? No, not that word. He's their dad."
From the depths of self-blame and childhood tragedy, through the years of sports' healing emotional scars, to this very day when Yetur is at peace talking about a world none of us should be forced to endure.
"Everything we've been through—sometimes I think, Is it even real?" Yetur says.
Sakinah is asked whether—if the situation were reversed—she could be the one who in her 20s, without a care in the world, walked into a family still reeling from the trauma of death and all its emotional fissures and agreed to throw it on her shoulders and carry everyone.
She pauses. She's never heard this question. And then she reveals something she has known deep in her soul all these years.
"I just…well, I don't think I could," she says. "No, no. I don't think so.
"We know that Rob was put in our lives for a reason."
Sakinah was 25 when two-year-old Yetur and her husband Michael went over the side of her father-in-law's boat on St. Leonard Creek in Maryland. Yetur went under, and Michael saved him and passed him to his own father, who had jumped in the water to help. But Michael Gross never made it back to the boat, and he couldn't be resuscitated after being pulled from the water.
Yetur has no memories of Michael—only pictures and grainy videotape and the stories he has been told. His first memory as a child, Yetur will tell you, is the day he met Rob.
And without that day 18 years ago when Rob came into his life, Yetur doesn't know how he could've endured the day, years later, when his older brother, Chelal, left it.
Yetur was 11 and Chelal 12, and they were playing on a Little League baseball team coached by Rob. A storm rolled in as the boys were at the field for practice one afternoon. Thunder clapped, and Yetur turned to see an unthinkable horror.
Chelal, his boyhood idol, was motionless and smoldering, having been struck by lightning. He was rushed to the hospital, and he couldn't be resuscitated.
The crushing grief had circled back on them.
Yetur had always blamed himself for the death of his father. Now Rob blamed himself for the death of his son.
"There's a lot that's still left unsaid," Sakinah says. "Yetur has accepted his father and brother not being there physically. What he hasn't accepted is the why. Why did we have to go through this? Why do these things happen? It's something we still fight through every day as a family. I don't know if we could do it alone. I don't know where we'd be without Rob.
"He's not that word, that word we won't use. Not in our house. He's our superhero."
Rob wants to make something perfectly clear: He needed Sakinah and her children as much as they needed him.
He's no superhero, as far as he's concerned. He's just a man who was raised by a man who taught him right from wrong and the value of family.
"We found each other, sure," Rob says. "But there's no doubt we were put in each other's life."
Rob has thought a lot about the realities that single mothers of color face—how so many have done so much for their families in the face of extreme challenges, but also how families can sometimes be torn apart because they just don't work without a second parent to share the wonderful burden of raising children. And also: How so many of those stories are never told. How many children from those families have never had their dreams realized.
He's also a deep believer in the value of sports.
Rob told all his children—his three adopted children (including his daughter, Qeturah), plus his biological son (Robby) and daughter (Cristina) with Sakinah—that sports are the great healer and teacher of life. Playing on a team builds trust and accountability, a unique blend of camaraderie and responsibility that is weaved into the fabric of games and life around the team.
Sports and life intersect and fuel each other, Rob stressed. If you're going to do it, don't do it halfway and get nothing from it. Because you'll treat life the same way.
"I didn't go into this flippantly," Rob says. "This is love. Strong love. I love Sakinah with everything I am. How could I not be the same way with my children?"
The day Sakinah brought Rob home and told her children their intentions, Chelal and Qeturah sat at the top of the stairs shooting Nerf bullets at Rob. Yetur was right by Rob's side, looking up with a smile that to this day stretches as far and wide as the bucolic, rolling hills of Happy Valley.
"In this world, in society, there are people with ulterior motives or people who want something in return," Yetur says. "But from the day I met him, he 100 percent just wanted to be my dad."
If the humanity of this story isn't grabbing you—if sports stories should, to you, be about sports—think about this: Just five years before he signed with Penn State, when Yetur first began playing football, he was banished to the fifth quarter because, well, he just wasn't good.
The fifth quarter was the time before games when those who wouldn't be playing got on the field and muddled around. This was mere months after he quit playing baseball, the sport he grew up loving.
"I had to quit. I was terrible," Yetur says. "And I kept making the All-Star team because everybody felt sorry for me after my brother died. I wanted to earn what I deserved."
But the boy who had always been lanky and awkward and bigger than everyone his age wasn't giving up on football. When he struggled this time, he looked to Rob for help—and Rob found Sudan Ellington.
A personal trainer who has worked with top high school, college and professional football players, Ellington looked at the 6'3", 15-year-old Yetur, all arms and legs, and saw potential. Then he heard Yetur's story.
Then he watched Rob drive more than an hour from their home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Ellington's site in Chantilly, sit for two hours while Yetur worked and drive more than an hour back home—three times a week. All while traveling throughout the week for his pharmaceutical sales job and somehow making the pieces fit.
Rob paid $35 per session, unless he didn't have it. By that time, it didn't matter. He didn't have to pay; Ellington was hooked.
"Once I met them, it was easy to gravitate toward them," Ellington says. "Rob has the same relationship with all of his children. It's amazing to see. No one has to fight for attention or love."
Yetur began working with Ellington before his sophomore year of high school and finished the season with seven sacks. He had 11.5 as a junior. Then 18.5 as a senior. The boy who was once terrible at all sports was a grown man at 6'5", 240 pounds, and had Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban chasing him to play college football.
Ellington played at Tennessee and James Madison, and his resume includes a who's who of elite athletes: Quinnen Williams, Chase Young, Josh Sweat, Myles Garrett.
"But Yetur, across the board, man, he's different," Ellington says. "The scary part is I don't think Yetur has scratched the surface yet of how good he can be."
Late in the recruiting process, while Clemson and Alabama had swooped in to try to convince Yetur to flip his commitment from Penn State, Rob tweeted that Yetur had just received a scholarship offer from Alabama.
Brent Pry, Penn State's defensive coordinator, was scrolling through Twitter that day and saw the tweet. He and defensive line coach Sean Spencer spent what seemed like three forevers recruiting Yetur and Rob and the family and knew what Penn State meant to them.
"I was panicking because it just didn't seem right," Pry says. "So I text [Yetur] and say, 'Hey man, congrats on your Alabama offer.' I'm thinking, Here it comes. He texts back, 'I was flattered, but I've got my home.'
"That's the kind of individual he is. He's an unreal football player; he's a better young man."
Near the end of Yetur's true freshman season at Penn State, after he had developed into a valuable defensive player who earned freshman All-Big Ten honors, Penn State's bowl trip was announced. The Nittany Lions were headed to the Fiesta Bowl.
This was an issue for Rob, who hadn't missed one of Yetur's home or road games in college (and still hasn't), no matter the travel or extra time he spends at work to make it work. Airfare to Phoenix on such short notice, and during the holiday season, wasn't exactly cheap.
Like most would, Rob and Sakinah dragged out the decision, because at first look tickets were $700 each. Rob later bought them anyway, without telling Sakinah, because there was no chance he would miss his son play. Any game, anywhere.
He has done it for three years now, watching Yetur amass 32.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks—watching him evolve into a player one NFL scout told Bleacher Report is "a lock" top-20 pick in 2020 if he were to leave Penn State early.
"So we're on the way to the airport to go to the Fiesta Bowl, and we get a call from the airline, and for some reason, the transaction didn't go through," Sakinah says. "He was driving, and I was dealing with the airline. Then they told me the price. It was $2,400! It went from $700 to $2,400. Needless to say, I was not happy. It was a quiet drive to the airport."
Then they arrived in Phoenix, headed to the hotel and saw their son. It didn't take long for it to feel right.
The boy who blamed himself for his father's death even though he never knew him, who watched his brother die and never gave in, was overwhelmed to see them. And in turn, he overwhelmed them with his excitement in greeting them.
"I would've paid any amount of money to see his face and reaction," Sakinah says. "He has come so far."
She hesitates, and continues—and this is what's important.
"We have come so far," she says.
Yetur is a biblical name from the Old Testament that means "encircled by family."
Maybe life really is that simple.