Ravens newest player Yannick Ngakoue talks about coming back home and becoming a Raven.
On Thursday, Yannick Ngakoue called the mother who had always been there for him. He wanted to tell her he was coming home.
Marlene Chantelly had raised Ngakoue in Bowie. She’d watched him become a star pass rusher in College Park, then one of the NFL’s most productive defensive ends in Florida and Minnesota. Now, Ngakoue explained, he was about to fly back to Maryland, to play for the Ravens.
It was an emotional call; as a single mother, Chantelly had given Ngakoue everything he needed to find his way. She worked long hours as a nurse. She took double shifts. She kept him fed. She drove him to and from football practice. She made sure he stayed on the right path.
“She’s a huge impact on me,” Ngakoue said during his introductory video conference call Friday. “She’s definitely a major reason why I’m in the shoes I’m in right now.”
As a kid growing up in the Washington suburbs, Ngakoue didn’t root for the Ravens or the Washington Football Team. His allegiances were to the Pittsburgh Steelers — the team Ngakoue will face in his Ravens debut inside M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 1.
“Which is quite ironic,” Ngakoue said. But then, so much about this week has caught him by surprise. Until a few days ago, he said he was “all packed in” in Minnesota. Then the Ravens, looking to upgrade their pass rush during the bye week, offered the struggling Vikings a 2021 third-round draft pick and a conditional 2022 fifth-round pick for Ngakoue.
“Things just happen sometimes,” Ngakoue said, and before he knew it, he was calling his mother to let her know he was on the next flight out to Maryland.
“It just felt like the best fit and the best thing to do at the time,” said Ngakoue, a pending free agent. “So that’s what made me ultimately make the decision to come here.”
Ngakoue, who has 42½ sacks, 16 forced fumbles and two touchdowns over four-plus seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Vikings, acknowledged Friday that he was close to ending up in Baltimore last offseason. But with the Ravens' salary cap limitations and Minnesota offering a one-year, $12 million contract as part of its trade package, he would have to wait.
Those who knew Ngakoue long before he became a Pro Bowl pass rusher are happy to have him back home. Friendship Collegiate Academy athletic trainer Tina Carrillo met Ngakoue after he transferred to the Northeast Washington high school from nearby Archbishop Carroll.
Ngakoue was a “great kid, super driven,” Carrillo said. And his relationship with his mother, she recalled, was of “monumental” importance. Years after he graduated, Ngakoue would return to Washington to speak at summer camps for Positive Choices, a nonprofit helping local inner-city youth. Chantelly would sometimes tag along.
“They’re really close,” Carrillo said, “and I think he’s motivated and driven strictly so he can help his mom and take care of his mom.”
Kenneth Wonsom, a longtime football operations official at Friendship Collegiate, recalled Ngakoue being someone “you’d have to tell to stop working out and go home.” When he emerged as a four-star linebacker recruit in the Class of 2013, Wonsom initially thought Ngakoue would leave home for South Carolina. Instead, he picked the Terps.
“I was happy,” Wonsom said. “I was more happy for his mom, but I’m just glad he got it done. He went out there and did what he was supposed to do.”
Early on in his recruitment process, then-Maryland assistant Lyndon Johnson was enamored by Ngakoue’s resolve. Ngakoue was just an underclassman when he first met Johnson, but he had a poise beyond his years and an unwavering desire to get to the NFL.
Mike Locksley, then Maryland’s offensive coordinator and now the Terps' head coach, ultimately took over Ngakoue’s recruitment. His pitch to stay home resonated.
“Family is a big thing for Yannick,” said Johnson, now the special teams coordinator and safeties coach at Towson, “and having his family and friends being able to see him play and take a part in his development, I think, was important to him. … I think he did take a lot of pride in being a local guy.”
Ngakoue played in every game as a true freshman, and as a junior, he set the school’s single-season sack record (13½). He left Maryland a year early for the 2016 NFL draft, where Jacksonville selected him No. 69 overall. Even as he spent his first four years with the Jaguars, Ngakoue continued to give back to his hometown.
In July, Ngakoue donated Google Chromebooks to over 20 Prince George’s County Public Schools students beginning the school year with remote learning.
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“I was a kid in a similar situation as those kids, not having, really, a lot of guidance around the house and having a single mom,” Ngakoue said Friday. “So sometimes you tend to look for guidance outside of that, [but] it’s not always positive. I just wanted to give them a positive light, and just try to brighten their day, and just give back and help them further their studies while we’re going through this pandemic.”
Ngakoue, now playing for his third team since August, couldn’t answer any questions about his future in Maryland. “Things like that, I leave up to God,” he said. But wherever his career takes him next, Ngakoue is determined to leave an imprint back home.
Asked what playing in his home state meant to him, Ngakoue said: “It just means that I need to give back. After the season is over with and I figure out where I will be for the long term, I’ll just have to give back. Hopefully, it is here. Hopefully, it is in Baltimore.”