Thursday, November 15, 2018

Ravens Guard Marshal Yanda's Unlikely Path To Stardom

By David Ginsburg
November 15, 2018

The journey to NFL greatness rarely starts on a farm. It doesn't often include a stint in junior college, the relentless pursuit of a division I scholarship or spending the first four years in the pros bouncing around from one position to another.

And with the exception of Baltimore Ravens guard Marshal Yanda, no one has ever traveled that road in a battered truck called Old Blue.

Yanda is a six-time Pro Bowl guard with a bank account containing millions of dollars, yet he spends his offseason fishing and tooling around town in a vehicle that belies his stature and net worth.

"It's a 2007 Chevy Silverado, it's a diesel, it's got around 150,000 miles on it and I love that truck," Yanda said. "It's a consistent-running truck, and I'm a little frugal in the buying cars area. I grew up on a farm with my mom and dad, and that teaches you to save money and be responsible.

"I don't mind driving an old vehicle. Doesn't bother me at all. I have a dealership car I drive here in Baltimore, but during the offseason I drive down to Iowa City in Old Blue and work out down there."

You can take Marshal Yanda off the farm, but you can't take the country out of Marshal Yanda.

"He's not really flashy, not into fancy cars," Ravens teammate Matt Skura said. "He kind of has his set ways. He has a schedule, he likes to eat the same thing every day, prepares for practice the same way, prepares for games the same way."


This unusual success story begins on a fifth-generation dairy farm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Yanda was responsible for completing a long list of chores.

"We didn't go a lot of places, but we worked hard and were happy," Yanda said. "My parents milked the cows twice a day. Before and after going to school, my sister and I bottle-fed the calves, and once they got off the bottle we fed them with milk and grain."

Back then, Yanda was part of a family working together to achieve a common goal. Now he's part of a football team striving to win the Super Bowl.

"I always tell people, growing up on a farm showed me the value of a good work ethic and most definitely shaped my life to this day," Yanda said. "You're always working hard toward things you want to accomplish, and there's always a job to do every single day."

Kirk Ferentz knows this all too well. The longtime Iowa head football coach wasn't initially convinced Yanda had what it takes to play in the Big Ten -- until he learned a little bit about the kid's background.

"Guys that are wrestlers and guys that grow up on the farm, it doesn't mean they're going to be great football players but they're never bad," Ferentz said. "They know what it is to work; they know what it is to be responsible. We've had good luck with those guys. Unfortunately, there aren't as many family farms as there were 30 years ago, but in Marshal's case, there's something to that."

It wasn't all school and chores for Yanda growing up. He loved playing football, mostly on defense where he could use his bulky frame to jolt the man with the ball.

"I was always a rough, physical kid. When we played sports, I loved tackling guys and just being rowdy," Yanda said. "Instead of getting in trouble in class for horsing around with your buddies, you could cut it loose on the field. It was encouraged."

Yanda played on both sides of the ball for Anamosa High in Iowa and earned first-team All-Conference honors during each of his final two years. His grades weren't nearly as spectacular, so his next stop was North Iowa Area Community College.

At that point, another reality set in: His days of shedding blocks and leveling the man with the ball were over.

"They didn't play me on defense at all just because I'm not fast enough or quick enough to play defensive line with those guys," Yanda said. "Even though I loved tackling, I was a better offensive lineman, even in high school. I knew that was going to be my route."


Despite doing well in the classroom and excelling on the field at NIA Community College, Yanda only received one scholarship offer, from Iowa State.

Problem is, he had his heart set on playing for Iowa.

"We grew up 45 minutes from Iowa City. We grew up Hawkeye fans," Yanda said. "Obviously at that time, I didn't know I was going to play football in the NFL. I didn't know that any of that was ahead of me. I was just focused on getting a Division I scholarship. But Iowa wanted me to walk on."

Yanda had no intention of going to college without a scholarship, and he wanted it from Iowa. In an effort to make it happen, Yanda drove to the campus every Sunday and watched practice, hoping to catch the eye of the Hawkeyes' coaching staff.

"It was kind of like a dog sitting on your porch," Ferentz recalled. "Reese Morgan was our line coach at the time and recruited at Iowa. I just asked Reese, 'Who is this guy?' He told me, 'It's Marshal Yanda.' And I said, 'That's nice. Who's Marshal Yanda?'"

After getting the lowdown on the big, red-haired kid in the stands, Ferentz told Reese, "Tell him if he's going to come down here, at least bring some film so we can look at him."

Yanda complied ... and heard nothing. So he prepared to make the trip to Ames, Iowa, to sign a letter of intent with Iowa State.

"My sister and my mom came up to the junior college and they were going to drive with me. I told Iowa State we're coming. My mom said, 'Hey, get excited. You're getting a Division I scholarship.'

"So yeah, the gears in my head were kind of shifting. Then, I woke up that morning to go to Ames, and turns out Reese Morgan left me a voicemail like three in the morning. He said, 'Listen Marshal, this isn't an official offer and don't tell anybody, but we are going to offer you a scholarship. Don't go to Iowa State. Whatever you do, do not go.' We got super excited because I knew good things were going to happen with Iowa."

In the end, Ferentz decided that having Yanda for two years was better than having a lesser player for four.

"We don't recruit a lot of junior college players, intentionally, because we would rather get high school players and have them the entire time," Ferentz said. "But when I saw Marshal's film, I really liked his toughness and competitiveness."


Yanda earned the credits he needed in junior college ahead of schedule so he could come to Iowa in January 2005.

"He lived in an apartment where he ate Hamburger Helper. Didn't have much money but made a sacrifice," Ferentz said.

At first glance, Ferentz wasn't so sure he made the right call in giving Yanda a scholarship.

"He was kind of less than impressive, quite frankly. Didn't look like the most athletic guy doing any of the agility things and even some of the lifts in the weight room," the coach said. "It just didn't look like this guy was going to be a great player for us. I was thinking to myself, 'If nothing else we can redshirt him and go from there.'"

His perception changed when the players gathered for spring practice.

"After spending the first two days in shorts, when it came down to actually blocking people it became apparent we weren't going to be redshirting him at all," Ferentz said. "He was one of our top guys, and by the end of spring he was our top lineman."

Yanda started 25 games at Iowa -- 16 at right tackle, five at left tackle and four at left guard -- from 2005-2006. When it came time for Yanda to enter the draft, Ferentz had a story to tell to Eric DeCosta, then a scout with the Ravens (and currently the team's assistant general manager).

"You're going to kill him at the combine. He's going to look like hell," Ferentz told DeCosta. "He's not pretty in his stance when he's got shorts on. Your line coach, he's going to be mad when you draft him and going to hate him when he's out there in shorts. But when you start practicing, that coach is going to wander down the hall and tell you, 'This Yanda guy is pretty good. Thanks for drafting him.'"


After being drafted by Baltimore in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Yanda struggled to find a position to call his own.

Yanda played right tackle as a rookie, then started five games at right guard in 2008 before a knee injury ended his season and stalled the start of his third year in the pros.

Yanda got nine starts in 2009 at right guard and played there in the postseason. It seemed he had finally settled in at guard, but the following year tackle Jared Gaither sustained a season-ending injury during training camp, so Yanda started all 16 games at right tackle in 2010.

"It was a roller coaster, those first four years," Yanda said. "I can get it done at tackle, but really, I need to be two inches taller and have arms two inches longer. Against the elite pass rushers, I kind of struggled. Guard is definitely more suited for my framework -- shorter and more powerful, stuff like that."

Yanda finally found a home at right guard in 2011, playing all 16 games there and earning the first of his six consecutive Pro Bowl berths.

But his jockeying on the line wasn't done. In 2014, he played two games at right tackle when starter Rick Wagner was injured. In 2015, Yanda played left guard because of a shoulder injury.

"I couldn't play on the right side because it was my inside shoulder and it was torn," Yanda said. "I knew I was going to be completely awkward as heck playing left, but we gave it a chance in practice. I had to, or I was going on injured reserve. We tried two games at right guard with that shoulder, but any type of inside pressure I wasn't going to be strong enough to stop it."

He's back at right guard now but understands that it may not be a permanent thing.

"I've been the Swiss Army knife," Yanda said. "For the most part my position is right guard, but I've always been a team guy and when you're a young player, as long as you're on the field it doesn't matter. That's always been the thinking. But circumstances arise, and if I know I can play right tackle better than anyone we have left, then I will."

What makes Yanda a notch above everyone else at guard? His work ethic, for sure, but mostly his technique, which is somewhat unorthodox for the position. During his time at tackle, he realized that taking a step back before confronting a pass rusher was better than hitting him head-on.

"The junction point of a tackle is like 3.5 yards back. At guard, they're right on you. I still liked working with that space, so I continued to carry that at guard," Yanda said. "A lot of defensive tackles make their moves right away, and they were beating me on the line of scrimmage. So, through trial and error at practice, I figured it out. That just seemed to work for me. You might not even notice it; it's just like six to eight inches farther back than a typical guard."

Said Ravens guard Alex Lewis: "He's very intelligent when it comes to the game of football. His technique is great; he's always playing at a low pad level, and when he gets his hands on someone, he doesn't let go."


Yanda's value to the Ravens extends beyond his play on the field. He's a mentor in the locker room, constantly talking up his teammates in addition to leading by example.

"We're all in this together and we need all the guys," Yanda said. "I figure I might as well help them all I can just because that's what older guys did for me, too. When [former Ravens center] Matt Birk was here, he helped me along."

His guidance is accepted and appreciated.

"He's been at the top of his position for a very long time, and to have someone like that help you work on your technique, and to ask questions of, has been super helpful for me," Ravens tackle James Hurst said. "It's exciting on Sundays, knowing I'm working next to a future Hall of Famer. It's a huge honor. But even off the field, he's a hard worker. He does everything right. He's a pro as far as watching film, working in the weight room, doing everything he needs to do to set the tone for myself and all the young guys coming in every year."

After missing most of last season with a leg injury, Yanda is sharp as ever this season at age 34.

"Marshal has been great. He had the injuries the last couple years and did nothing but give 100 percent to his rehab and building himself back up, just like he does everything and always has," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "He hasn't lost a step. He's one of the best in football -- if not the best in football. It's just a pleasure to be around him; it's an honor to coach him. Great in the locker room, a great leader, very smart player, just plusses across the board."

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin agreed.

"I just have a lot of respect for him and his body of work and how he plays. I always have," Tomlin said. "It's obvious that he's the heartbeat of that unit and has been for a long time."

There will come a time when Yanda calls it a career, hops into Old Blue and heads for a lake to do some fishing. When? Well, that's anyone's guess.

"It's one year at a time right now," Yanda said. "That desire to play is never going to leave, but I have to be aware of my body, too. Because sooner or later, the injuries do add up. You get to the offseason, spend time with your family and then you make the decision that's in your heart and you roll with it."

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