UK Football

Ex-UK safety Matt Lentz signs rookie-league contract with Reds

Matt Lentz (10) came to the Cats as a quarterback in 2007 but was moved to safety after his redshirt freshman year. He was an All-State baseball player as a junior in high school in South Carolina.
Matt Lentz (10) came to the Cats as a quarterback in 2007 but was moved to safety after his redshirt freshman year. He was an All-State baseball player as a junior in high school in South Carolina. Lexington Herald-Leader

Matt Lentz thought his athletic career was over a little more than a year ago when he made the heart-wrenching decision to give up his football career at Kentucky because of a string of concussions.

"It was tough because I came here to play for five years and experience everything," Lentz said. "I felt like I was progressing and getting better, and I was hoping to help this university and this team out."

But Lentz, 22, has been given a second chance to play sports — just not football.

On Friday, after a summer distraction turned into a professional aspiration in the space of about a month, the Cincinnati Reds signed Lentz to a rookie-league contract at their spring training facility in Goodyear, Ariz.

"I feel like everything happens for a reason," said the former safety and current video assistant for the UK football team. "One door closes, and another one opens. This might be the next door that's opening up for me."

About a month ago, Lentz decided to hit some baseballs and play toss with one of his friends. A former All-State center fielder in high school, Lentz was picking up his glove and bat for the first time since he was a junior in 2006.

But after a couple of weeks, Lentz's buddy noticed that the Simpsonville, S.C., native still had plenty of talent, and he told Lentz the Reds were having an open tryout in Cleveland.

For the next two weeks, Lentz played every day. All the while, he didn't think much of his chances. Major-league scouts look at hundreds of players at tryouts and camps, but very few get signed.

"It is extremely rare for a guy to show up and be in Arizona a week later in a Reds uniform," said Brad Meador, the Reds' scouting supervisor for the Ohio, Michigan and Indiana area.

With about 150 players in Cleveland, Lentz and the major-league hopefuls ran the 60-yard dash, made throws from the outfield and fielded groundballs in the infield. The Reds sent 100 players packing, but Lentz wasn't one of them.

"In the beginning, I thought I was going to do it more for fun and just to say I tried," Lentz said. "The more drills they put me through and the more I saw I was doing pretty well at it, I started thinking, 'Hey, they might give me a call.' "

He worked out again with about 50 players. He said he isn't sure whether he was the only one selected that day but, "as far as I'm concerned, they were really only talking to me afterwards."

The Reds then arranged a private workout with Lentz and two new scouts at the University of Cincinnati on Monday. He took batting practice again, got timed running to first and then shagged some balls in the outfield.

"He has baseball tools that you're looking for — a lot of athleticism, a big strong body, and he's physical," said Meador, who was at the private workout in Cincinnati. "With him not playing the last four years while playing football, his baseball skills are what he needs to work on. He needs to get a lot of at-bats in a short period of time, but just being the athlete that he is, he's intriguing. He's got a pure stroke. Just the way he handled a wood bat was impressive."

As a junior at UK, Lentz was listed at 6-foot-3, 224 pounds. He came to the Cats as a quarterback in 2007 and spent his redshirt freshman year on the scout team behind Andre Woodson and Mike Hartline. The following year, he moved to safety and had 46 tackles and two interceptions as a part-time starter and top backup over two seasons.

Coach Joker Phillips was planning to move him again for the 2010 season, to strongside linebacker. But after talking with his parents and doctors in the off-season, Lentz chose to give up football.

"The doctors said they couldn't guarantee what would happen with that next concussion," he said afterward. "If I had one more, I would have had to give up football anyway. I just decided I didn't want to take that risk."

But more than a year later, after passing a physical Thursday, Lentz is set to immediately begin playing for the Arizona League Reds in Goodyear. Meador said it's the best opportunity for him to receive playing time, reps and instruction.

The odds are stacked against him. To make it to the majors, he'll have to endure a long climb through the minor-league system. He'll be playing alongside many players with more hype and experience on the same ladder, including the Reds' 2011 second-round draft pick, Gabriel Rosa.

"Obviously, there is a risk in signing a guy who hasn't played in a few years, but the reward is that he has the physical tools that you can't teach with that God-given talent and body that he has," Meador said. "He can hit the ball a long ways, he's (fast), and he has plenty of arm to play the outfield. Everything that you look for from a scout's perspective he has."

Lentz said he hit close to .450 his junior year of high school and had contemplated playing baseball at Clemson. But "I had developed such a good relationship with Coach Phillips, who was recruiting me at the time," said Lentz, who missed his senior year of baseball with a hand injury.

He said he's experienced no long-term side effects from the concussions and doesn't anticipate them affecting his baseball career.

"The concussions I had, it's not like they were freak accidents," said Lentz, who graduated from UK with a degree in business administration. "A couple of them were on the kickoff or punt team, where I'm sprinting down the field 70 yards and then have to make a tackle full speed. Baseball, there can still be collisions, but it's not going to be in the back of my mind like it would have been in football."

A lifelong Braves fan, Lentz said he's come around to the Reds after his engagement to Cincinnati native Taylor Meinking.

But he never expected to be playing for them.

"Honestly, it hasn't really hit me yet," Lentz said. "One day, I'm calling my dad saying, 'Hey, I'm going to go to this tryout,' and the next day, I'm calling him, saying, 'Hey, they want to sign me.' It happened in less than a week. It happened really fast."