He would trade his headphones for a helmet in a second. But these days, the headphones represent Matt Grootegoed's connection to the game he has always loved.
"On the field, I get the itch, sometimes, to go play," said Grootegoed, 30, a former USC All-American linebacker who became an Orange County football legend as a tailback and safety at Mater Dei High about a dozen years ago. "The best part about coaching is being around football, being around the guys and just being in the game."
Grootegoed is six games into his first season as linebackers coach at Orange Coast College, which is 3-3 entering its home game against Santa Ana Saturday at 7 p.m. at LeBard Stadium. It's the first time he has immersed himself in football since his professional career ended after three seasons with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League in 2009.
After starring at USC, where the one-time Butkus Award finalist won back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004 and played with Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, Grootegoed signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2005.
After being released from Tampa Bay's practice squad, the 5-foot-10, 215-pounder signed with the Detroit Lions, for whom he played the final three games of the 2005 season.
His first year in Canada was 2007 and he helped the Stampeders win the 2008 Grey Cup, Canada's equivalent to the Super Bowl.
"I wanted to play more but things don't always work out the way you'd like," Grootegoed said. "But I took as much advantage of [the opportunity to play] as I could and I enjoyed every freakin' second of it, that's for sure."
Always an inspirational player, though never a vocal leader, Grootegoed picked firefighting as his post-football career path. He completed a six-month program at a fire academy in Sacramento in 2010 and has been working toward obtaining a job in that field ever since.
But while he awaits that call, he has answered another: the allure of a game for which he was always uniquely suited as an athlete.
"He was one of the most instinctive, competitive, focused kids I've ever been around," Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said of the two-time CIF Southern Section Division I Defensive Player of the Year. "I would think he's doing an outstanding job [coaching], because anyone who knows anything about Matt Grootegoed knows everything he did when he was here, he did 110%. There's no doubt that Matt Grootegoed is considered one of the top five players in the history of Mater Dei football and that's saying a lot. He basically has legendary status around here. There's not a week that goes by that Matt's name is not brought up and not a week that goes by that I don't talk about something that Matt Grootegoed did. You can't put a value on the memories that he created for all of us."
Grootegoed said he remembers the wins and losses more than his personal statistics, with the possible exception of the tackles he missed. And he is happy to pass along the nuances of the game he picked up from coaching influences such as Pete Carroll.
"I'm very raw as a coach," said Grootegoed, who grew up in Huntington Beach. "It's not necessarily something I always wanted to do. But having the background I have, it's something easy to drop into."
Any reluctance he had about coaching, however, has been nudged aside by a passion for working with players.
"I think I've been bitten by the bug," Grootegoed said. "I look forward to getting out there, seeing those kids and teaching them something they didn't know. I am enjoying coaching right now at OCC, but I don't know what's going to happen next year. Being a firefighter is my ultimate goal. But I'm learning about coaching and I think this is a job that could be a career possibly. I want to build my toolbox of coaching."
OCC Coach Mike Taylor said Grootegoed's tools currently include a strong rapport with his players, genuine enthusiasm for the game, and a grasp of the intricacy of the linebacking position forged by having played at an elite level.
"He has an insight into the game that has helped [the linebackers'] maturation," Taylor said of a crew that includes two of the top six tacklers in Southern California in sophomore Nick Cody (60 tackles) and freshman Chris Aguilar (54).
Grootegoed said his understated coaching style is true to his personality. He cringes, he said, when his superiors suggest he emphatically criticize a player over a mistake.
"I feel like every time [the linebackers] do something good, I'm a part of it," Grootegoed said. "And when they do something bad, I feel just as at fault as they do."