Matt Gras of Siena, yet another former college star whose coronavirus passing is mourned by many

Photo: The Daily Gazette

By: Joel Alderman

The word “star” is often used in sports reporting rather generously, but in the case of the late Matt Gras, of Oxford CT by way of Seymour, he was justifiably a real star during his basketball playing days at Siena from 1991-1995. In fact, the college sports website describes him as a “great.”

Matthew F. Gras died on April 15, 2020, from complications related to COVID-19 at the age of 46. His passing is the sixth we know of to befall a former college basketball player and second such fatality of a Connecticut native. (See the story on the death of Ted Vartelas). He was born on June 14, 1973, in Derby. His family home at the time was in Seymour, then it was in Trumbull.

It was not only the coronavirus that caused the end of his life. For the past several years he battled a brain disease, not well known by the general public, cerebellar ataxia, which among other things, affects coordination and speech. His condition deteriorated and he had suffered greatly by the time he was diagnosed with covid-19.

Gras ultimately worked as a stockbroker and was a Vice President for Wells Fargo in the New York area.
In a way, contracting the virus and dying was a blessing after all his suffering.

An imposing person

Gras was an imposing person. standing 6-feet, 10-inches. He appeared in 114 games with the Saints from 1991-1995, during which he scored 933 points with a 50% shooting average. He also is credited with 502 rebounds in his career.

A teammate, Geoff Walker, is the co-founder of a sports and entertainment management group in Los Angeles. He is quoted on the Siena athletic department website that Gras’ “on-court competitiveness helped us advance in a magical NIT run. His footwork and soft touch made him an extremely tough matchup,” he recalled.

“Matt looked out for me like a big brother,” Walker said. He added “the big fella was a big teddy bear. I thank him for taking me under his wing for the two years that we played together. He will certainly be missed, and his legacy will live on through his daughter.”

Another fellow player and his college roommate, Brian Bidlingmyer, said from Ohio “Matt was talented and extremely gifted. He had great hands and feet and helped us win a lot of games. Unfortunately, he is the second member of our 1994 NIT team that we have lost (Jeff Muszynski was the other several years ago), so this really puts into perspective how lucky and blessed you are.”

High school “Player of the Year”

Gras attended St. Joseph High School in Trumbull CT. He was a 1,000-point scorer for the Cadets, coached by Vito Montelli, and averaged 22.4 points and 12.5 rebounds during his senior season when he was named the POY by the Bridgeport Post.

Then it was off to Siena, a small Franciscan college in Loudonville, N.Y. With an average enrollment of a little over 3,000, it has an impressive basketball tradition. Another member of his St. Joseph High School team, Doremus Bennerman, also played for Siena and was the MVP in the 1994 NIT.

Success in the NIT

It was in the NIT that Gras and Bennerman pushed the Saints to a third-place finish by defeating Kansas State 92-79 in the consolation game. In that era, the NIT was regarded almost on a par with the NCAA March Madness, and teams could enter both events. The entire slate of games took place at Madison Square Garden.

In that consolation game, he scored 16 points with 10 boards, for what is now known as a double-double.

The Saints won four games in the tournament and counting the win in the third place, or consolation game, he averaged 15.4 points and 7.2 rebounds over five NIT contests. In the consolation game, Bennerman scored a whopping 51 points. Gras was the only other Siena player in double figures with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

A classroom achiever

It was not only on the court where Matt excelled. He was very good in the classroom, being named to the MAAC All-Academic teams in 1994 and 1995.

College coach remembers

His coach for his last three years at Siena was Mike Deane, who now lives in South Carolina in the village of Murrels Inlet.

“It was a pleasure to interact with him during our three years together and afterward, as he was also my financial broker later in life. Matt was a delight to be around, and nobody ever had a bad word to say about him. I hope he can rest in peace now, because I know that he was struggling of late because of his disease, and I know that he will be sorely missed by all.”

He led the team in scoring his senior year with a per-game average of 13.8 points and 5.9 rebounds. “His hands and feet were so good and he helped us win a lot of games,” recalled Brian Bidlingmyer, who is a chief development officer for the Akron, Ohio, area YMCA. “The way he could shoot and pass … he might be a high major player today.”

End of the story

“You just don’t expect the story to end the way it ended,” Stuart Downing, now a lawyer in Manhattan said. “We had a lot of fun in our four years together.”

Gras is survived by his mother, Carolyn, stepfather Spike Jones, 13-year old daughter, Chloe, brother, Bryan, sister Nicole, and former wife, Jennifer. A scholarship fund has been established in the name of Chloe Gras and donations in his memory may be made to The Chloe Gras Scholarship Fund.

Services celebrating the life of Matthew F. Gras will be held and will be announced by the Jenkins King & Malerba Funeral Home in Ansonia.

Former college basketball players to die of the coronavirus (Covid-19)

Lee Green, 49, St. John’s, March 23, 2020
David Edwards, 48, Georgetown and Texas A&M, March 23, 2020
Jonathan Duck, 50, Iona, March 24, 2020
Arnold Obey, 73, Wagner, March 29, 2020
Ted Vartelas, 89, Connecticut, April 1, 2020
Matt Gras,46, Siena, April 15, 2020


Also see:

Ted Vartelas, native of Connecticut who played basketball for UConn, has succumbed to coronavirus

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