Grootegoed Is All Over The Field For USC

Oct. 14, 2002

Outside linebacker Matt Grootegoed has finally arrived.

Oh, he has been around USC for the last two-and-a-half years, but he has spent most of that time either injured or sick.

Now, halfway through his redshirt sophomore season, the highly-touted Grootegoed is not only making his presence known, but he has been all over the field for the Trojans.

'It definitely feels good to be back,' said Grootegoed, who redshirted his first season at USC after suffering from mononucleosis and then missed six games last season due to concussions and a broken leg. 'Things are starting to roll my way, but I try not to think about it. You never know how things will happen.'

Grootegoed is just happy to be back. His first season in 2000 was a rough one. For much of the time, he wasn't even able to practice. Some of his teammates nicknamed him 'The Ghost,' since his presence could barely be felt.

'I had mono and they didn't want me around because it was contagious,' said Grootegoed. 'The only time I really showed up was for games. No one knew where I was the whole week because I'd be in my room sleeping and then going to class. Then, I'd show up for the games and they'd say, 'Where'd he come from?'

'It was a hard time. I didn't even feel like I was part of the team. All of a sudden I was at USC and not playing football, struggling in class because I was so sick. The first month was really bad. I had a cold, strep throat and was constantly fatigued.'

His sickness was quite a setback after Grootegoed had had a promising first training camp for the Trojans. Despite his sickness, he still was able to participate in USC's season opener against Penn State in 2000 back East in the Kickoff Classic.

'Playing Penn State was amazing,' said Grootegoed. ' I was on the first kickoff at the start. I was all amped, but completely nervous. I was already getting sick before that game, so I had a temperature of 104. It was really humid, but I was just really excited. I talked to my brother before the game and he told me not to be nervous. It was a great moment to look up and see all those people in the stands. It was the loudest I had ever heard a stadium. Even though I didn't make a play, just being out there felt like I had made it.'

Grootegoed had to savor that feeling, since he didn't see the field again for a whole year. As one would expect, he was quite rusty as the 2001 season started. What's more, he was moved from his natural strong safety spot to the strongside outside linebacker position. So he not only had to overcome a year of inactivity, but he had to learn a new position as well. He did quite well, too, tallying 32 tackles, including eight for losses, plus a sack before breaking his leg against California. Now, he is once again healthy and making plays.

'It was hard when I got hurt and was inactive and then I got thrown back into it,' said Grootegoed. 'It took awhile to get my instincts back. I still have a ways to go. I'm comfortable enough to make plays, but I'm just a few steps away from a real big play. It's going to take a little while for me to get back the feel of just playing. I'm doing okay.'

He is doing well enough to be leading the Trojans in tackles so far in 2002. He had a career-high 11 tackles against California, including two sacks. On one sack, he forced a fumble and recovered the ball, setting up a Trojan touchdown. He even recovered a fourth quarter onside kick to shut the door on Cal's comeback. It was the second week in a row he led USC in tackles. For the season, he has 40 tackles, seven-and-a-half of them going for losses. To Grootegoed, that kind of play is no big deal.

'I'm not a flashy guy,' said Grootegoed. 'I just do my job. If I do something good, that's what I'm supposed to do. It's no big deal to me.'

As humble as he is, Grootegoed has been a big deal around Southern California for a long time. He was a football prodigy even back in his Pop Warner days, when he was a finalist in the national Punt, Pass and Kick competition as a 10-year-old.

'I figured I'd try it out and I went through each part of it,' said Grootegoed. 'It turned out I had the longest throws and kicks. So I got to go to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii and throw and kick at halftime. It was a great experience. Jim Kelly and Junior Seau were out there. We even went to a luau with Junior where he talked to each one of us.'

Grootegoed went on to an oustanding prep career at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. As a freshman, he was a placekicker for the varsity. By his junior year, he was already one of the best all-around players ever to play at football powerhouse Mater Dei. For Grootegoed, he was just following in the footsteps of his brother, John, who played offensive line at Mater Dei and later at San Jose State in the mid-90s. Grootegoed credits his brother with helping his football development.

'Playing football with my brother when I was younger helped me a lot,' said Grootegoed. 'We'd go in the back yard and play tackle football. He's a lot older than me and, back then, he was a lot bigger than me, too. Just from doing that, that is what got me to love football. My brother taught me a lot about football. I learned a lot from what he weny through and he is helping me a lot with what I am going through.'

For now, Grootegoed is at linebacker, but there is always a chance that he will be heading back to the strong safety spot to be vacated next season after Troy Polamalu leaves.

'As a linebacker, I have my job and I try to do the best I can,' said Grootegoed. 'It's still early to say whether I will switch. Wherever I can play or where they need me, that's fine. I think I can pick it (strong safety) up pretty quick in the offseason if need be.'

In the meantime, Grootegoed will continue in his blue-collar role, making great plays seem like routine ones. And if he ever gets a hold of a ball on his way to the end zone, don't expect to see him get too excited.

'You won't see me doing a little dance or highstepping,' said Grootegoed. 'I would probably fall over.'

by Chris HustonAssistant Sports Information Director

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