He is 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, and still growing.
Oregon State coach Mike Riley said he brings back memories of Ted Hendricks, the ‘Mad Stork’ of NFL fame.
Dig into his resume, and it becomes obvious that Beavers’ junior defensive end Matt LaGrone is not your typical college football player, given that he’s been an ordained minister since he was 13, and is currently the youth pastor at Garden of Gethsemane Church in downtown Reno, Nev.
How many athletes give up a full-ride basketball scholarship to their hometown school to walk on at a different school and try to play Division I football?
LaGrone was a reserve power-forward on a nationally-ranked Nevada team in 2006-07, and played on Nevada’s NCAA tournament team in 2007-08.
And then he left, after Riley offered him a chance to walk-on at OSU, where younger brother Josh LaGrone is a redshirt freshman safety.
“I wanted to play both sports at Nevada,” explained LaGrone, a football-basketball star at McQueen High School in Reno, “but when they told me I couldn’t, I had to leave. … I’m more of a football guy at heart.”
Riley got a call last year from Carl LaGrone, the pastor at Garden of Gethsemane Church and Matt’s father.
“He asked me, would we let him play football here?” said Riley, “and I told him, let’s get some high school film and took a look. I told (the dad) we would love to have him, but we didn’t have a scholarship to give. He would have to walk on for a term, with no guarantees about the future.
“I thought that might be the last I heard from them,” said Riley.
Riley said he watched some footage of LaGrone playing football at McQueen, “and nothing told you, ‘let’s give this guy a scholarship.’ He was a stand-up outside linebacker. He looked intriguing, but …”
Carl LaGrone said Matt – as he always does – prayed on it.
“He had a dream, and a vision, that he wanted to play college football, and he went for it,” said Carl LaGrone.
“I supported him 100 percent.”
LaGrone redshirted in 2008 and spent months recovering from a torn tendon in his wrist – an injury that occurred during the Beavers’ practices for their Sun Bowl game against Pittsburgh.
The ‘Mad Stork’ of OSU football didn’t play in the spring – he said it was agonizing to stand and watch – but he’s been just short of a dynamo in camp and seems a cinch to at least be in the Beavers’ defensive rotation even if he isn’t threatening to take a starting spot away from either Kevin Frahm or Ben Terry.
LaGrone and Riley both remember their first on-field encounter with some amusement.
“The first day he’s out there, I told him, ‘what you need to do is put your hand on the ground and come off as low and hard as you can, Then I’ll tell you more later,’ ” said Riley.
Said LaGrone, “I couldn’t even get into a two-point stance with my left hand. But I kept working at it.”
Once LaGrone got the basics down of playing defensive end, it became apparent that he had some ability to go along with his size.
“He’s a hard-working, conscientious guy and it wasn’t long before our guys – Tavita Thompson, Andy Levitre, Mike Remmers – they were all having trouble blocking him,” said Riley.
The physical part of football was easy for LaGrone, who was a banger in basketball and has always loved contact. “In basketball, I just tried to muscle guys,” said LaGrone.
The muscle part is easy for LaGrone, who strikes an imposing figure on the field.
“He sure looks good in that uniform,” said Riley.
“He’s got a low center of gravity, and not many guys can come off and run like he can. I think he ran a 4.6 40 in the spring. He’s really quick for his size.”
LaGrone penetrates so quickly, he occasionally over-runs plays.
Early in camp he found himself on the losing end of a one-on-one encounter with shifty tailback Jacquizz Rodgers, a piece of practice film that was immortalized on YouTube courtesy of Beavers’ tight end John Reese.
“(Quizz) can change directions in a hurry,” said LaGrone.
“I’ll get him next time.”
Off the field, LaGrone seems to fit into the OSU program seamlessly.
“Oh man, he loves it there!” said his dad.
Matt LaGrone said he, “likes the fact you can just be yourself. You don’t have to ‘fake it’ in front of anybody. I am who I am, and everybody accepts that.”
LaGrone has a wife and a kid and another one due around Sept. 26, when OSU is scheduled to play Arizona. “I missed the birth (of the first one) and I don’t want to miss this one,” said LaGrone.
On a maturity level, he’s perhaps a few steps beyond some his younger teammates, but Riley said, “he’s always just sitting at the table as one of the guys, which I think is really neat.”
Indeed, it seems teammates are drawn to Matt LaGrone’s outgoing personality, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they are drawn to his spirituality.
“He’s fun to talk to. It’s been fun getting to know him,” said Jacquizz Rodgers.
James Rodgers said he has learned LaGrone’s table is not the place to bring Lil Wayne or Dr. Dre.
“He tells us to turn it down so we can listen to his gospel music,” said Rodgers.
Asked if some of the players treat him a little differently, given the fact he’s a grown man with a family and he’s clearly a man of deep religious beliefs, LaGrone broke into a grin.
“Sometimes,” he said. “A little bit. … they know when they come around me, and they’re singing to rap music, I’ll tell them to turn it off. We joke and laugh about it, but maybe that’s something they need to see in their lives. Maybe God has put me here, put me around them, for a reason.”
Carl LaGrone has five sons, three of them ordained ministers and the other two ordained deacons of his church.
He said Matt is the biggest of the lot, “and he’ll get bigger” which seems to bode well for LaGrone’s chance to play in the pros.
“I definitely want to play in the NFL, that’s my dream,” said Matt LaGrone.
“I’ll never put what God has for me on hold, and if it’s football at the next level, then I’ll do that.
“But I’ll always be a minister. Whatever I do, it’s for Him.”
Carl LaGrone said Matt “got the calling” to become a preacher at the age of 7 and he has become a very powerful public speaker.
“He moves people,” said Carl LaGrone. “And not just young people.”
LaGrone is miles away from the congregation at Garden of Gethsemane Church but he wonders if just maybe, his ministry is now those Oregon State football players who gather around this giant of a man just to listen to him talk.
All LaGrone asks is that they turn the rap music down.
Paul Buker is a sports writer for The Oregonian and is passionate about the Oregon State Beavers. Follow Paul’s at www.twitter.com/PnBuker. This article originally printed in The Oregonian and was used by permission.