‘Sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - By Jonas Shaf­fer

As the day Mar­shal Yanda was drafted turned into the night Mar­shal Yanda was drafted, the watch party in Iowa City con­tin­ued. Over two dozen friends and fam­ily mem­bers had come to Ruth Yanda’s house to toast her son’s new begin­nings. There were games of corn­hole and plates of food. Mem­o­ries filled the air and passed the time as the NFL draft’s open­ing three rounds un­folded, slowly, from a TV.

“It was a fun day,” Yanda re­called Fri­day. He paused, as if ac­cess­ing a mem­ory from April 2007. “It was a long day.”

When the Ravens took the Iowa of­fen­sive line­man in the third round with the No. 86 over­all pick, it was get­ting late, around 9:30 p.m., Yanda said. A part of him now, all th­ese years later, feels bad that it took so long for the party to have some­thing to cel­e­brate. The first round alone had taken over six hours.

But in the mo­ment he heard his name called and his life changed for­ever, there was joy, grat­i­fi­ca­tion, pride, a cock­tail of emo­tions so strong it made a farm boy from Anamosa cry over all he had ac­com­plished and all that lay ahead.

“You see the phone call and the tears of joy and the tears of just, like, ‘I did it,’ ” said Ryan Miller, a former team­mate. “Ev­ery­thing

he worked at for that phone call was ex­pressed in his face at that mo­ment of time.”

That mo­ment is seared into Miller’s mem­ory. He calls it “prob­a­bly one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of.” He still talks about it with his two young sons. They know Yanda as the right guard who’s played in Bal­ti­more as long as they’ve been alive, just as de­fenses know him as the hum­ble heartbeat of the Ravens’ nearun­stop­pable smash­mouth at­tack, just as team­mates and coaches know him as the fran­chise’s next Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame in­ductee.

Now a ca­reer of grind­ing and re­fin­ing is set for a mo­men­tous night un­der the bright lights of prime time. With Mon­day’s game against the Los An­ge­les Rams, his 186th in Ravens col­ors, Yanda will pass leg­endary former team­mate Jonathan Og­den for the most ap­pear­ances (post­sea­son in­cluded) by an of­fen­sive line­man in fran­chise history.

How’d he get here? Miller knows. The early-col­lege friends who re­united at that draft party, the old team­mates and coaches who could only watch from afar, they know, too.

It started where it ends for most play­ers.

‘Who is this guy?’

Yanda grew up in Anamosa, a town with a pop­u­la­tion one-thir­teenth the ca­pac­ity of M&T Bank Sta­dium, want­ing to play for the Hawkeyes, for the state school a 45-minute drive down Iowa High­way 1. He ended up at a community col­lege nearly 150 miles away be­cause, in 2003, he wasn’t ready. He was more mauler than stu­dent, and that had to change.

Foot­ball was his ticket, though. At North Iowa Area Community Col­lege, Yanda started from Day 1. For a baby-faced fresh­man, he was a good player. “He was just a big old farm kid,” re­called of­fen­sive line coach Mark Tigges, a former NIACC of­fen­sive line­man him­self who briefly played in the NFL. “Big, strong kid, you could tell. Great feat, ath­letic. But he was raw, you know? He didn’t have a lot of tech­nique.”

Or a lot of help. The Tro­jans went 2-8 in their first and only year un­der coach Tyler Sisco, who stepped down af­ter the sea­son for health rea­sons. His re­place­ment was Dave Gille­spie, a former Ne­braska run­ning back who’d coached on Frank Solich’s Huskers staff from 1998 to 2002 be­fore mov­ing into an ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tion. Af­ter Ne­braska fired Solich in De­cem­ber 2003, Gille­spie was dis­missed, too.

Five months later, he was in charge of a ju­nior-col­lege pro­gram. “They had strug­gled prob­a­bly the last four or five years in terms of win­ning record and that kind of a thing, but they cer­tainly had a com­mit­ment to want­ing to im­prove,” he said. “So for me, it was a good sit­u­a­tion.”

When Gille­spie fi­nally ar­rived in Ma­son City, the Tro­jans were a week or so into their sum­mer con­di­tion­ing pro­gram. He hadn’t watched so much as a sec­ond of film, but one player drew his at­ten­tion. Here was this line­man who looked about 6 feet 5, 290 pounds, some­one you could feel com­fort­able run­ning be­hind when a chill set­tled over Northern Iowa.

“I see this big ol’ guy with great feet and bal­ance and re­ally great hips, flex­i­ble,” Gille­spie re­called. “So I pull the coach [aside]. I say, ‘Well, who is this guy?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, Mar­shal Yanda.’ And I say: ‘Wow. He sure looks the part and moves the part. I don’t know what kind of player he is, but, man, looks like he has all the tools.’ ”

Sum­mer school

Bad choices had led Yanda to NIACC. At Anamosa High, he’d skipped class, blown off as­sign­ments, let bad habits push him away from Iowa’s Kin­nick Sta­dium, the place where he’d al­ways seen him­self play­ing. He knew most Iowa ju­nior-col­lege play­ers never even sniffed Big Ten foot­ball. (Few stuck around long enough to find out; one sopho­more-year team­mate, quar­ter­back Brady Foster, es­ti­mated that the Tro­jans’ ros­ter turnover rate was close to 50%.)

Yanda also knew foot­ball could one day pay for his ed­u­ca­tion be­yond NIACC, and that was all he re­ally wanted. So as the spring se­mes­ter ended and the siren song of his first col­le­giate sum­mer beck­oned, Yanda stayed put in Ma­son City. He could not, would not stray again. “At that point in my ca­reer, my life,” he said, “I was ready to sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing for foot­ball.”

Thus be­gan what was maybe the most im­por­tant sum­mer of Yanda’s life: He would work hard enough to de­velop into a Divi­sion I re­cruit. He would work hard enough to grad­u­ate a se­mes­ter early. And he would work hard enough so that he could do both, day af­ter day, his mis­sions over­lap­ping but not in­ter­fer­ing.

Th­ese were the right choices, but that did not min­i­mize their dif­fi­culty. On a ros­ter with 100-plus play­ers, Yanda re­called, only a half-dozen or so other Tro­jans play­ers com­mit­ted to on-cam­pus off­sea­son work­outs.

“You’re re­ally kind of on an is­land,” NIACC head ath­letic trainer Mark Vrba said. “It’s al­most a do-it-your­self [sit­u­a­tion]. You don’t have the staff. You don’t have a le­git strength coach that’s with you all day. Our staff was pretty thin at that time.”

Yanda lived a spar­tan ex­is­tence. He slept in a dor­mi­tory with no air con­di­tion­ing, mak­ing sure to be on time for ear­ly­morn­ing con­di­tion­ing ses­sions. He cooked on an elec­tric skil­let perched on his desk; the team meals, Foster said, were “one step above ele­men­tary-school cafe­te­ria food.” He sat through four-hour classes be­cause that’s what a full credit load re­quired of him.

Then, when Yanda’s school­work was done and heavy weights were lifted, he pre­pared to do it all again. “He busted his ass, for lack of a bet­ter term,” Vrba said.

As new and re­turn­ing play­ers trick­led in ahead of NIACC’s manda­tory pre­sea­son work­outs, they would see Yanda and marvel. Foster, who trans­ferred to the school in 2004, ini­tially knew noth­ing about him other than his home­town. And what lit­tle Foster knew about Anamosa — that it’s home to a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison — in­formed his im­pres­sion of the hum­ble sopho­more who would come to pro­tect him.

“If he wouldn’t have made it in foot­ball,” Foster said, “he would’ve been a great prison guard.”

Changed man

Yanda was a late bloomer. He called his phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion through high school “kind of a process.” Some other play­ers he knew had peaked phys­i­cally as early as eighth grade; Yanda felt him­self grow­ing into his body through col­lege.

De­fend­ers who prac­ticed against him no­ticed, too. Linebacker Brad Bohl had ar­rived at NIACC with Yanda, and when they squared off in prac­tice their first year to­gether, Bohl felt he could he could maybe hold his own. Then the sum­mer came, and

Bohl re­turned to find Yanda look­ing like “a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son.”

“I felt like a rag doll when­ever I got locked up against Mar­shal,” he re­called. “He went from a re­ally good player to just an ab­so­lutely dom­i­nant player from fresh­man to sopho­more year.”

With that came a new swag­ger. “Men­tally, he just seemed more con­fi­dent,” said Miller, an­other class­mate. Team­mates grav­i­tated to Yanda, who spoke up when he had to and who treated the job of ju­nior-col­lege foot­ball, Foster said, as if he were seek­ing out a pro­mo­tion. “His com­mit­ment and the will and want to do it was con­ta­gious,” Gille­spie sad.

NIACC started to win again. Af­ter a sea­son-open­ing loss, the Tro­jans rat­tled off six straight vic­to­ries. They were not an es­pe­cially glam­orous team, but then, that was ju­nior-col­lege foot­ball.

Wher­ever the team needed to go, it took a bus, play­ers crammed to­gether as if they were headed out on a school field trip. “There’s some­body right next to you for 10 hours,” Yanda said. When the Tro­jans stopped for lunch, it was for McDon­ald’s. Their per diem was $5; Yanda fig­ured out the best value on the Dol­lar Menu pretty quickly.

Team­mates re­mem­ber Yanda chewed up op­pos­ing line­men just as quickly. In the third game of the sea­son, NIACC trav­eled to Iowa Cen­tral, whose de­fen­sive line, coaches told Miller, was an­chored by a nose tackle get­ting South­east­ern Con­fer­ence in­ter­est — “just a big old boy.”

Miller, an in­te­rior line­man, was not look­ing for­ward to the as­sign­ment. Then the game started. “I just re­mem­ber a cou­ple plays with Mar­shal when we’d have a dou­ble team,” he said. They re­lo­cated the big old boy with ease. “It was like, ‘Wow. I’m not do­ing much, so you’re mak­ing me look good.’ … For Mar­shal to maul him, it was like, ‘Holy [ex­ple­tive]. This is awe­some. This is fun.’ ”

Yanda played right guard as a fresh­man and right tackle as a sopho­more. Tigges, his of­fen­sive line coach, trusted him to do “ev­ery­thing right,” even when he moved Yanda around as if he were a shut­down cor­ner­back. In one game, NIACC faced a de­fense with a “stud” line­man whom Tigges knew would set up against the left side of the Tro­jans’ line. So Tigges po­si­tioned Yanda over there, a chal­lenge that right-handed line­men have likened to hav­ing to shoot left-handed.

“I mean, I’ve never done that be­fore. I’ve moved guys around to go against other guys — that would kind of cause a lot of chaos, I thought,” Tigges said. “But this guy on the other foot­ball team was such a player that I wanted to move him to that side and neu­tral­ize him, and he did. He dom­i­nated him.”

Dream come true

As the Tro­jans headed for a 6-3 sea­son, Yanda spent his fall Satur­days play­ing like a ju­nior-col­lege All-Amer­i­can and his Sun­days driv­ing up to Iowa City, where he’d watch the Hawkeyes prac­tice and hope they’d no­tice him.

Iowa wanted him to walk on, but Iowa State had of­fered a schol­ar­ship. As sign­ing day ap­proached, Gille­spie re­called, Yanda told him he was ready to com­mit to the Cy­clones. “Hey, I’ll take the Divi­sion I schol­ar­ship,” Yanda re­mem­bered think­ing. “It’s a big ac­com­plish­ment for a JuCo kid to go Divi­sion I.”

Gille­spie kept in touch with Iowa’s staff. He told them that Yanda wanted to play for the Hawkeyes, that he was tal­ented enough to play for them. Yanda’s tran­script was in good shape, and he would grad­u­ate in Jan­uary, mean­ing he could en­roll in time for spring prac­tice. “If I was still coach­ing at Ne­braska, he would’ve been a No. 1 re­cruit for us,” Gille­spie said. “There’s no ques­tion about that.”

The morning Yanda was set to drive to Ames to sign a let­ter of in­tent, he woke up to a voice­mail from Iowa of­fen­sive line coach Reese Mor­gan. He told Yanda not to com­mit to Iowa State; an of­fer was com­ing.

Yanda would “give you the shirt off his back in the mid­dle of a bl­iz­zard,” Miller said, but he kept his re­cruit­ment mostly to him­self, even as he opened up to team­mates that year. There was no need to self­pro­mote. That was the “small-town Iowa guy” in him, Bohl said. (At least a few times, Bohl re­mem­bered, Yanda would show up at team meet­ings af­ter trips to the marsh for a duck hunt.)

When the Hawkeyes’ of­fer fi­nally ar­rived in Novem­ber, Miller said, “it was like a weight lifted off his shoul­ders.” Yanda com­mit­ted shortly there­after. He has fond mem­o­ries of the Tro­jans he won and lost with, his NIACC “band of brothers” who pushed him down the wind­ing road from Ma­son City to Iowa City.

But they all knew then what is ob­vi­ous now: It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore Yanda ar­rived.

Said Miller: “The one thing about Mar­shal is that the day that he set foot on cam­pus at NIACC, he had in his mind that he was go­ing on to the next level.”

And Tigges: “From Day One, you could tell he was just a level above every­body else. I coached there for 20 years, and he was def­i­nitely the most out­stand­ing player I’ve ever had. I told a guy I’d pre­vi­ously coached with, ‘This guy’s an NFL player. I can see it.’ ”

And Foster: “He knew what he wanted and he went out and got it. He knew he had what it took. He just had to do it, you know?”

RON SCH­WANE/AP

Ravens guard Mar­shal Yanda will pass former team­mate Jonathan Og­den on Mon­day with 186 ap­pear­ances (post­sea­son in­cluded), the most in fran­chise history by an of­fen­sive line­man.

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