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Where did Marshal Yanda’s path to Ravens history start? With a junior-college pledge to ‘sacrifice everything.'

As the day Marshal Yanda was drafted turned into night, 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. He paused, as if accessing a memory from April 2007. “It was a long day.”

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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’ near-unstoppable smashmouth attack, just as teammates and coaches know him as the franchise’s next Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.

Baltimore Ravens offensive guard Marshal Yanda (73) spikes the football as he celebrates with teammates after running back Mark Ingram (21) scored against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ]first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Baltimore Ravens offensive guard Marshal Yanda (73) spikes the football as he celebrates with teammates after running back Mark Ingram (21) scored against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ]first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)(Don Wright/AP)

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.

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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 feet, 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%.)

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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 early-morning 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.

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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.”

Former North Iowa Area Community College and current Ravens lineman Marshal Yanda (No. 77) talks with teammates and a coach during a junior-college game.
Former North Iowa Area Community College and current Ravens lineman Marshal Yanda (No. 77) talks with teammates and a coach during a junior-college game.(Ryan Miller photo)

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.”

A snapshot of Ravens guard Marshal Yanda's Rivals.com recruiting profile from his junior-college days. Yanda later signed with Iowa.
A snapshot of Ravens guard Marshal Yanda's Rivals.com recruiting profile from his junior-college days. Yanda later signed with Iowa.(Rivals.com)

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 self-promote. 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?”

RAVENS@RAMS

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