Two years before Marshal Yanda started one last dominant season in a career worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Ravens guard said he was “put on notice.” It was the injuries — big and small, treatable and not, all starting to compound.
In 2016, he’d torn a labrum. In 2017, he’d fractured an ankle. He’d made it through 2018 mostly unscathed, but he knew by then that his age, sooner than later, would catch up to him.
“I watched guys, as they got older, lose a little bit more each year,” Yanda said. “By the end, they were almost like a liability. In the back of my mind, I never wanted to be like that."
So on Wednesday, the Ravens’ greatest-ever guard, already down 45 pounds from his end-of-season playing weight, already looking forward to a life back home in Iowa with his wife and three children, announced that he was retiring after 13 NFL seasons in Baltimore. Even at 35, few linemen last season had been more impressive.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, sitting to Yanda’s left at a news conference inside the team’s facility, said the eight-time Pro Bowl selection and seven-time All-Pro honoree was a first-ballot Hall of Fame player. General manager Eric DeCosta, sitting to Yanda’s right, announced that Yanda would be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor. Executive vice president Ozzie Newsome said he’d embodied what it meant to “play like a Raven.”
In an auditorium overflowing with former and current Ravens, coaching staff members and assistants, with story after story, Yanda’s football life came alive.
A draft pick delayed
In 2006, DeCosta, then the Ravens’ director of college scouting, went for a run on Iowa’s campus with Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, whom he’d befriended while Ferentz was on the Ravens’ staff in the late 1990s.
As they jogged, Ferentz asked DeCosta about the hours of tape he’d watched. “Well, what'd you think of him?” DeCosta remembered Ferentz saying. “And I said, 'Who?' Because they had a whole bunch of guys. And he said, 'That right tackle of ours.' And I said, 'He's a hell of a player, Coach. I think he'd be a great guard.' ”
Iowa’s right tackle, of course, was Yanda. The following spring, Ferentz mailed DeCosta a book. DeCosta responded with a thank-you note: “Coach, thanks for the book. I look forward to reading it someday.” He added: “Yanda to the Ravens at 61. Mark it down.”
Yanda turned out to be a great guard for the Ravens, but not as that 2007 second-round pick. Newsome, then the general manager, traded down for a pair of third-round selections, one of which the Ravens used to take Yanda at No. 86 overall.
After the draft, Ferentz mailed back DeCosta’s thank-you note. The second-year general manager said he’s kept it on his bulletin board for the past 13 years. On it, Ferentz had written: “DeCosta, you were pretty close.”
When Jonathan Ogden started training camp in 2007 on the physically-unable-to-perform list because of a toe injury, Yanda, then a rookie, was moved to first-string left tackle.
“I was a right tackle in college, but I finished at left tackle, so of course, the logical thing would be to throw me in there at left tackle with the ones,” he said, half-jokingly. Lining up against Yanda was outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, coming off his second Pro Bowl season in three years.
“I wish I could tell you that I held my own and I had an OK first day,” he said. “Up until that day in my career, I'd never been put on my back playing football. I had watched it happen to a lot of guys, but just thought in the back of my mind, 'That'll never happen to me. That's not happening.' Well, Sizz got me that day.”
The matchup shook Yanda to his core. “I was thinking in my mind at the time, after Day One, I was like, ‘Hey, I started off in [junior college]. I beat the odds. I made it to Iowa. I got to start in Iowa. And, gosh, I was fortunate enough to be drafted. But that might be the end of the run. It might be right here. That might’ve been it.’ ”
Yanda outlasted that prediction by so many years that, over time, it became a cautionary tale for teammates.
“When you're a young player, sometimes you struggle as a young player mightily, and you can have some really long days,” he said. “And I wanted to always let them know that I've had those long days, too.”
Tased and amused
During Yanda’s rookie year, Ravens cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAllister were offering $600 to any teammate who agreed to be tased. One rookie had agreed, “and he’d collapsed on the floor, kicking and screaming,” Yanda recalled, “so blood was in the water.”
Yanda, who grew up on a dairy farm, thought the pain couldn’t be any worse than the shock of an electric fence. The locker room “erupted” when he offered to be next, recalled Yanda, who was soon encircled by teammates.
“Still, to this day, I don’t think the batteries were fully charged, because it was not any worse than an electric fence on the farm,” he said. “I was shocked for a little bit, with no real emotion.”
Worried that Rolle and McAllister wouldn’t pay up, Yanda offered to be tased again. So they did. And then they forked over the cash. “That was the easiest $600 I’ve ever made,” Yanda said.
A life-changing injury
Early in the 2008 season, Yanda tore his right ACL — “three of the four ligaments in my knee,” he recalled. He underwent two operations, rehabilitated “extremely hard” and planned on returning to his post at right guard the next year.
That didn’t happen.
“To quote Mike Tyson, ‘Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth,’” he said. “I lost my starting job and rode the bench for 11 weeks. It was a life-changing experience for me and had me at times questioning if I had indeed lost a step and maybe wasn’t the same guy.”
In 2009, Yanda was reinserted into the starting lineup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He recalled being reminded that if he didn’t play well, the coaching staff wouldn’t hesitate to bench him at halftime. “That was the most nervous I had ever been for a football game,” he said.
He did his job, the Ravens beat the Steelers in overtime, and Yanda never lost his starting job again.
“That changed my life,” he said, “and when I got my job back, I was even more driven to succeed.”
As the Ravens were rampaging through the NFL last year, Yanda didn’t know for certain that it would be his last hurrah in football. But as the team’s playoff opener against the Tennessee Titans approached in January, he prepared his family for that likelihood.
“Anybody can win on Sunday, but I still thought in my mind, 'There's no doubt, even if we play bad for three quarters, we're going to find a way to win that football game,' ” he recalled. “But I still prepared my family that if we do lose … Dad is going to be done playing.”
The Ravens were stunned, 28-12, in the AFC divisional-round matchup. Afterward, in a bewildered locker room, Yanda declined to comment on whether he would return for his final year under contract. Then he headed back outside, where his extended family was waiting on the M&T Bank Stadium field.
Relatives took pictures with Yanda, still wearing his Ravens jersey, an opportunity he’d rarely afforded them. “My mom only has, like, a few of them in my time, just because the time before games is not for pictures,” he joked.
Yanda’s oldest son, Graham, had become a big football fan. “Really lived it and breathed it,” Yanda said. It became an emotional goodbye.
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“The heart-wrenching accumulation of us losing the football game, knowing the Ravens were done and that Dad’s done playing, it was tough,” he said. “It was hard to go through that, but that’s life. And things don’t always stay the same, and there’s always change.”