There is nothing remotely typical about the path that eventually led David Yankey from Roswell to the Rose Bowl.
It passed through four continents and spanned nearly the breadth of the United States. It involved none of the usual thrall that binds the young Southern male to football. And, just as it was opening to a vale of possibilities, there was loss.
“He’s definitely unique,” Darina Yankey, his mother, said.
A unanimous All-American, the eighth in Stanford history, Yankey has enjoyed a spectacular bloom since moving on from Centennial High in 2010.
He will be an anchor point of a Stanford offensive line confronting a Michigan State defense that gives up few points (fourth in the nation in scoring defense) and few rushing yards (No. 1 against the run) in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Yes, there is football, some of it quite passionate, played outside the South’s sphere of influence, something the Georgia Yankey now fully appreciates. No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Stanford meeting in the Rose Bowl is “a huge game,” he said last week.
“I didn’t completely get it, either, growing up. I know it’s the ‘Granddaddy of Them All,’ but coming out here you realize how much people care about it, how much it means to get a berth into that game.”
Considerably weakened when its captain and leader, senior linebacker Max Bullough, was suspended before the bowl game, the Michigan State defense still will provide Yankey a worthwhile challenge: “We see a very good defense on the other side of the ball, and know it’s going to be a long, physical game probably dominated by defense on both sides. We have to go out and make something happen,” he said.
It also very likely could be a farewell performance for Yankey, who has a year of eligibility remaining at Stanford, but is thought to be among the top interior linemen in the 2014 NFL draft. Athletic and versatile, he may be quite close to turning a game he did not grow up with into a career.
His background separates him from the rank and file of college player every bit as much as his ability.
Diversity on the line — he has played at every position except center for Stanford, moving from tackle to guard this season. Now mix that with an even greater diversity of experience. The package was so popular that when Stanford’s offensive line coach brought home a new puppy, he wanted to name it “Yankey.” He eventually re-thought the plan, believing the other linemen might not understand.
Yankey’s is a backstory written by Rand McNally: His mother was born in the former Czechoslovakia. His father was born in Ghana. They met in Australia, where David and his two brothers were born. In 2000, a corporate relocation brought the family to metro Atlanta.
It wasn’t until seventh grade that David Famiyelkyi Yankey first ventured into organized football. His family didn’t know a snap count from a gingersnap. And two years later, a high school freshman, he had about all he could take of coaches climbing up and down him like a firehouse ladder. But he decided to give a new staff at Centennial, led by coach Jeff Measor, another chance.
Much to Measor’s delight. “I knew in 10th grade he was special because he was tall and long and thought he didn’t have a lot of weight then, you knew that was going to come,” he said. “He could bend and move better than any big guy I’ve seen, and that’s including back at Florida (where he was a grad assistant in 2000-01). He was infinitely better than them just from a physical ability standpoint.”
Georgia whiffed on a soon-to-be All-American player, not offering a scholarship until he already was set on Stanford. It might not have mattered had the Bulldogs picked up the chase earlier, for the family had no kind of emotional attachment to the school. And, shockingly, when Yankey was choosing a college, he wasn’t measuring one against the other as the best springboard to the NFL.
“When he first started at Stanford he looked at me and said, ‘Coach, if it’s possible, the NFL would be great, but I’m not sure I really want to do that.’” Measor said. “I looked at him and told him he’d be an idiot if didn’t do it for a while if he could. He has since decided football is kind of what he wants to do.”
Football did serve as an important guide for the family in its new surroundings. No sport could have better introduced the Yankeys to the culture in which they found themselves. Yankey’s father, also David, went from blissful ignorance of American football to becoming one of those fathers who showed up to watch practice from afar several times a week.
“He loved football. He loved being out there on the field,” his son said.
Nine days before he died, David Yankey was in West Point, watching his son play against Army. The setting had additional significance as he had just months before become an American citizen.
A sudden heart attack claimed the elder Yankey on Sept. 23. His son missed one game, then, battling with the regret of leaving his family so far away, went back to his life at Stanford. If there were tributes to be paid his father, they would be done so quietly. His mother noted that instead of wearing a white shirt beneath his pads, he began to wear black, the color of mourning.
The path laid out in part by his father was so different than most of those that lead to some kind of football prominence. His father had prepared him for such a life without ever showing him a single move or pretending to know the first thing about the game’s structure or lore. The path less taken was paved with other lessons.
“His legacy in me and my two younger brothers is how he lives on, with his core values,” his namesake son said.
“He always believed education was a big deal. Caring about people was really important to him. He loved people. And he believed that whatever you do, go and do it really well. Don’t do something halfway, there’s no point to that.”