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Former UK safety Lentz earns another shot at playing career ... with the Reds

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Safety Matt Lentz totaled 46 tackles and two interceptions in two years with the UK football team before a string of concussions cut his football career short. Now, Lentz has earned a short as a baseball player with the Cincinnati Reds. (UK Athletics) Safety Matt Lentz totaled 46 tackles and two interceptions in two years with the UK football team before a string of concussions cut his football career short. Now, Lentz has earned a short as a baseball player with the Cincinnati Reds. (UK Athletics)
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 easily the toughest decision I've had to make in my life just because I love competing, I love playing for UK and I loved all my teammates," Lentz said. "It was tough because I came here to play for five years and experience everything. I felt like I was progressing and getting better and I was hoping to help this university and this team out."

Lentz, 22, has been awarded a second chance at an athletic career, but not in football. Reviving an old love, Lentz will resurrect his athletic career with the Cincinnati Reds organization.

Yes, you read that right. Lentz, almost cold turkey, is moving from a retired football player and current Kentucky video assistant to a member of the Cincinnati Reds.

"I feel like everything happens for a reason," said Lentz, who signed a rookie-league contract with the Reds on Friday in Goodyear, Ariz., home of Cincinnati's spring training facility. "One door closes and another one opens. This might be the next door that's opening up for me."

How that second chance opened was, well, with a little bit of chance, a touch of fate and a whole lot of natural ability.

About a month ago, the former safety decided to play toss and hit some baseballs 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 high school in 2006.

But what started out as an early summer hobby quickly turned into a rejuvenation of passion. After a couple of weeks, Lentz's buddy noticed the Simpsonville, S.C., native still had plenty of talent in him, so he decided to look up some playing possibilities for Lentz and discovered that the Reds were having an open tryout in Cleveland, Ohio.

Carefree, Lentz said what the heck and said he'd attend.

For the next two weeks, Lentz turned a three-days-a-week leisurely pursuit into an everyday crash course. All the while, Lentz didn't think much of his chances. Major-league scouts look at hundreds of players at tryouts and camps like the one Lentz attended last week, but most of the time, as expected, it's a wild-goose chase. Almost never do the teams actually sign a player.

"It's very rare," said Brad Meador, the Reds' scouting supervisor for the Ohio, Michigan and Indiana area. "We have two part-time guys in Cincinnati that have been with the Reds for years, and one of the guys said, 'Brad, I've only called and recommended that somebody come work a guy out a couple of times.' It is extremely rare for a guy to show up and be in Arizona a week later in a Reds uniform."

With about 150 players in attendance, Lentz and the major-league hopefuls ran the 60-yard dash, made throws from the outfield and fielded groundballs in the infield. Having seen all they needed after just three drills, 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.' "

The Reds gave Lentz more than a call. They gave him a private workout.

After making it into that final group of about 50 players, Lentz continued to stand out in batting practice and live pitching. Lentz isn't sure if he was the only one selected that day, but he's fairly certain he's the only one that earned another look.

"As far as I'm concerned, they were really only talking to me afterwards," Lentz said.

To make sure what they saw wasn't a one-day fluke, the Reds arranged a private workout with Lentz and two new scouts at the University of Cincinnati on Monday. Lentz took batting practice again, was timed running to first and then shagged some balls in the outfield.

By the end of the personal workout, the scouts had confirmed what they were told last week: Lentz was special and worthy of a minor-league contract.

"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."

After passing a physical Thursday, Lentz is supposed to immediately begin playing in a rookie league in Goodyear. Meador said it's the best opportunity for Lentz to receive playing time, reps and instruction, which is exactly what Lentz needs. In many ways, he is still clearing out the cobwebs from a five-year absence from the game.

"I was really surprised," Lentz said of making the organization. "I knew that I always had a pretty good arm, so I thought I would do pretty well throwing, but getting my swing back and actually seeing a ball from a hand, that takes time to get your timing down, you eye-hand coordination down and your rhythm."

The odds are no doubt stacked against Lentz. To make it to the big-league level, he'll have to endure a long climb through the minor-league system.

But to sign Lentz as an outfielder out of an open tryout sheds some light on the type of talent the Reds think he can be. For perspective, Lentz will play alongside Cincinnati's 2011 second-round draft pick.

"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 a plus-runner and he has plenty of arm to play the outfield. Everything that you look for from a scout's perspective he has."

And to think Lentz went from playing football a year and a half ago, to breaking down film as a UK football student assistant a month ago, to signing a minor-league deal with an MLB team on Friday after an extended absence from the game is pretty remarkable.

"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."

For now, Lentz is just trying to focus on improving his footwork in the outfield and taking better angles on fly balls, techniques that should come back to him over time and through repetition.

Though his football career didn't pan out the way he imagined it, Lentz said he's used it to his advantage. Lentz has always had speed and a pretty good bat -- he estimates he hit close to .450 his junior year of high school -- but football and UK's strength and conditioning program have helped him pack on 35 pounds of muscle.

"Football made me a better baseball player," said Lentz, who now stands at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds.

Lentz was a two-way star coming of out Greenville High School and contemplated playing baseball at Clemson, but he said his relationship with then-offensive coordinator and current head coach Joker Phillips made football an easy choice.

"It wasn't too bad of a decision just because 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. "I just felt that the University of Kentucky was where I was supposed to be to play football. At the time, I was a football player."

Phillips told Lentz he could play both sports at Kentucky, and Lentz certainly thought about joining Gary Henderson and the UK baseball team, but his priority at the time was football.

Adding to the difficult decision to play one sport was a change in positions. Lentz signed with UK as a quarterback, but he was forced to switch to Kentucky's secondary because of a lingering thumb injury from high school. Changing playbooks twice in one year was more than enough for him.

"I just wanted to give it my best chance on the football field, so I wanted to focus on one sport," Lentz said.

Before the concussions ended his career, Lentz was on his way to a promising collegiate football career. He made 24 tackles and recorded an interception in 13 games and five starts in his redshirt freshman year, prior to a sophomore campaign that featured 22 tackles and one interception in 12 games.

After earning a reputation as one of the team's most reliable and hardest-hitting tacklers, Lentz was receiving a trial at strongside linebacker in the spring of 2010 before suffering what he said was his third or fourth concussion, dating back to high school.

Although the concussions ended his football career, Lentz said he's experienced no long-term side effects and doesn't anticipate the concussions affecting his baseball career. 

"I'm not really concerned about that," said Lentz, who graduated from UK with a degree in business administration. "The concussions I had, it's not like they were freak accidents. 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."

Because of his childhood proximity to Atlanta, Lentz said he grew up a Braves fan. As of late, though, as if it was by a string of fate, Lentz said he's turned into a Reds fan because of his engagement to Cincinnati native Taylor Meinking.

"My fiancée's family has lived in Cincinnati their whole lives, so they're huge Reds fans and I know they're real excited about my chances of getting to play," Lentz said.

In what has surely been the greatest week of his young life, Lentz's engagement began Friday.

"It's been a big week for me," Lentz said.

A life-changing one at that.

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