Marshal Yanda, ever the pragmatist, thought that would be a pretty fair NFL run for a guy from Anamosa, Iowa, with “marginal foot quickness” and a “lack of power” in the words of pro scouts.
“You don’t really know how fast that goes,” he said, thinking back to those days.
After 13 NFL seasons for the Ravens, during which he watched many a prospect come and go, Yanda knows well how unlikely he was to have the career did.
Of the 35 players drafted in the third round in 2007, only 18 became starters for even one season. Of those, exactly one other, Yanda’s eventual teammate, Jacoby Jones, made a Pro Bowl. Yanda made eight, and on Sunday, he’ll become the 11th Ravens player to join the Ring of Honor at M&T Bank Stadium.
“I just got my hair cut and I was talking to my hair lady,” Yanda said on the phone from his native Iowa. “And I was like, ‘Listen, I was a junior college transfer, so for me to go from that to a Ring of Honor inductee, it’s unbelievable.’ I unlocked potential inside of me that I had no idea I had.”
So how did this farm boy, who didn’t even bother fantasizing about the NFL when he was toiling anonymously at North Iowa Area Community College, become the one to defy those long odds?
It’s a story of discipline and toughness built over childhood days working the harvest but also of an innate feel for football and of the luck required to land on a team overflowing with professional role models.
“Football was the No. 1 goal in my life,” he said. “The more success I had, the more I wanted to be a better player.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t the least bit surprised when Yanda outperformed his draft slot. He’d watched him do it before.
“He kind of recruited us,” he recalled. “We looked at his tape and it was good but not ‘wow.’”
When the young transfer showed up, he didn’t exactly blow Ferentz’s staff away. He did not have prototype size or strength, and he moved, kind of awkwardly? It wasn’t until they strapped on pads and started crashing bodies that Ferentz realized what he had.
“He went from being a guy I thought we might end up redshirting to, at the end of the week, this guy might be our best lineman,” he said.
Ferentz assumed the same revelation would strike coaches in Baltimore, where he’d worked before he took the Iowa job: “When I talked to scouts, I just told them that: ‘You’ll get him in the out-of-season program when he’ll be in shorts and he’ll be OK. But three days after you start practicing football, the line coach will come down the hall and thank you.’ That’s his strength, just playing football.”
Chris Foerster, the Ravens’ offensive line coach at the time, recalled Greg Roman, then his assistant, traveling to Iowa to work out Yanda and reporting that the kid repeatedly tripped over bags set up for an agility drill.
“Marshal wasn’t a cone-drill guy,” said Foerster, who now coaches for the San Francisco 49ers. “But that’s where Eric DeCosta, Ozzie [Newsome], all those guys through the years have done such a good job: finding the right kind of guy. That’s what Yanda was.”
Yanda, always practical, did not fully believe he was an NFL prospect until he received an invite to the Senior Bowl. He knew 90% of players selected for the postseason showcase made a pro roster the following fall.
Still, he was the third-most-hyped rookie lineman on the Ravens behind first-round pick Ben Grubbs and mammoth tackle Jared Gaither. When he walked into the locker room, his jaw dropped at the awesome stature of left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who’d made the Pro Bowl 10 years in a row. Yanda, six inches shorter with comparatively stubby arms, knew he couldn’t be that.
But what could he pick up from these grown men who’d cracked the code of NFL success?
He watched Ogden fine-tune his pass sets, even as the future Hall of Fame tackle came down to the last weeks of his career, slowed by an ailing toe. He noted how outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (and later center Matt Birk) seemed impervious to the grinding pressure of the NFL. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, as accomplished and brash as Yanda was unsung and understated, taught him what it meant to work at the game seven days a week.
“He was calm, he was collected, he was never late, he never missed a meeting. Football was No. 1,” Yanda recalled. “On Sundays, I could trust these guys. When it comes down to it, your actions are going to be exposed. So if you aren’t doing things the right way, you’re going to be exposed on the main stage.”
To this day, he sounds irritated when describing the (unnamed) teammates who did not care as much.
Yanda started the first game of his rookie season, at tackle, because Ogden sprained his foot. By his own contemporary assessment, he was “pretty bad,” with a pair of false starts and a holding penalty.
Foerster saw a player who was in over his head at times, who couldn’t demonstrate a perfect pass-block set to save his life, but who found ways to succeed regardless.
“His start was rough,” he said. “Not rough in that he played poorly; he played well. But he had to figure it out, playing out of position as a rookie for a team that, at that point, we weren’t very good.”
He noticed a quality that Ferentz also mentioned: Even if Yanda was off-balance or confused on a play, he always hunted for a defender to eliminate. “I remember a game, we were on the sideline in Buffalo, and I said, ‘Marshal, I’m trying to figure out, did you pick up this guy or that guy?’” Foerster said. “And he said, ‘Coach, I’ve got to be honest; I just saw a whole bunch of them coming, and I picked one out and blocked him.’”
And of course, there’s the Taser story: Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister showed up with the shocking device and $500 for any teammate who would take a jolt. No one immediately stepped forward, so the pot grew to $600, at which point Yanda grabbed the Taser and shocked himself not once but twice. John Harbaugh, who coached Yanda for 12 of his 13 seasons, referenced this episode recently when asked what set him apart.
“That’s a guy who’s got a future in this league,” Harbaugh said, chuckling. “Especially at offensive guard.”
Even so, Yanda hardly took off like a rocket. He played in all 16 games and started 12 that first season. But he tore up his knee the next year, and he had to jump back to right tackle — a position where he held his own but never felt he had the physical stature to dominate — to cover a roster hole in 2010. Not until his fifth season, 2011, did he settle in at right guard and begin his long run of Pro Bowl appearances.
“I really got addicted to being the best I could be,” he said, recalling the rigid offseason fitness plans, the refinements he made to his technique, the adjustments, such as the shift he made to the left side in the middle of the 2016 season to protect his damaged left shoulder. He never wanted to be “put out to pasture” because he had left some stone unturned.
Somewhere in that post-2011 span, Yanda became the model for young linemen who walked into the Ravens locker room or into the weight room at Iowa, where he still worked out in the offseason. They noted the way he tried to make every practice repetition perfect, the way he set a personal best in the back squat during his penultimate season, when he was 34 years old, coming off shoulder surgery and an ankle fracture.
“His Pro Bowl jersey was up in our O-line room, and there was a picture of him,” said Ravens center Tyler Linderbaum, who arrived at Iowa more than a decade after Yanda left. “If any Iowa linemen are mentioned, he’s one of the first to come up. We all kind of knew how he operated.”
Foerster said Yanda would be on the dream starting five of linemen he’s coached, with 2009 Hall of Fame selection Randall McDaniel at left guard, Ogden and current 49ers star Trent Williams at the tackles. “You get in the club by having enough talent,” he said. “Once you’re in the club, how do you become one of the best? That’s by who you are and how you work and how you prepare and what you do when adversity strikes. A guy like Marshal wasn’t going to come out and have instant success. It was going to be a grind.”
What does Yanda say to an Iowa kid who’s walking the same steps he did 15 years ago, aspiring to the same improbable future?
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“I keep it simple for them,” he said. “I grew up on a farm, where work ethic was a way of life. So I tell them you have to work extremely hard for things you want in life. Every human has choices to make every single day; you have to make the right ones. And then discipline, which is doing that stuff when you don’t want to, 365 days a year. Do you really want to do this? Then, this is what it takes.”
Broncos at Ravens
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 8 1/2