IOWA CITY, Iowa - It came out of nowhere, unscripted.

Iowa football Coach Kirk Ferentz was talking about defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, and the leadership he was providing. And then Ferentz transitioned in mid-sentence to Marshal Yanda, who was standing in the back of room during Tuesday’s weekly news conference. 

As he started speaking about this year’s America Needs Farmers Wall of Honor recipient, Ferentz started getting emotional as he touched on Yanda’s leadership skills.

“Good football player, yeah, but there’s a reason the (Baltimore) Ravens basically made him their franchise player,” Ferentz said. “They weren’t going to let him leave the building because they understood what he did in the locker room. There’s so much value in that, besides running 40-yard dashes, and all that other stuff.”

Ferentz’s face went from stoic to teary-eyed in the time he talked about Yanda, who retired from the NFL in 2019 after playing 13 seasons and being named to the Pro Bowl after eight of them. One thing is abundantly clear. Ferentz and Yanda have a deep and passionate respect for each other.

“For Marshal to be honored this weekend is really special, so deserving,” Ferentz said. “What a great list of awardees on that wall, too.”

And then he told Yanda, “You more than fit on any wall worth having.”

Yanda’s path to the NFL wasn’t lit by five-star recruiting accolades. He got there with smarts and the tools he learned on the family’s dairy farm five miles north of Anamosa. Marshal is the fifth generation raised on that farm.

Growing up on the farm, you learn things by hard work and discipline and sacrifice,” Yanda said. “That really transitioned to football for me. My parents kind of showed me the way, working hard every day.”

Yanda played at Anamosa High School, then spent two seasons at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City before achieving his goal of playing for Iowa. He played the 2005 and 2006 seasons for the Hawkeyes.

Ferentz once redshirted his junior college signees. Yanda was an exception. 

“I looked at Marshal’s film and thought, “At least we can redshirt this guy’ ” Ferentz said. “He seemed like a tough guy on film. I didn’t know how good a player he was. Expert evaluation, right? After about three days of practice that spring I was like, “This guy is our best lineman right now.’ It took that long to figure it out.”

A third-round draft pick in 2007, Yanda became one of the best offensive guards in the NFL. He was a unanimous selection to the NFL’s All-Decade Team in 2010. He helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl in 2012. He made the Pro Bowl six consecutive times from 2011 to 2016. 

Now, he hopes his journey serves as motivation for youngsters with big dreams. 

“I was a JC transfer, so I had a really long way to go,” Yanda said. “It shows you can unlock the potential inside you that you didn’t know you had at that current time in your life. As long as you’ve got goals and work ethic and take it one day at a time, you just never know. When I was in junior college I was just hoping to make it to Iowa and be a starter. That was a heck of a battle to climb. You’ve got to work extremely hard for what you want.”

Yanda played the 2018 and 2019 seasons without a major injury. He figured his time was up. “I knew I was due to get hurt if I played one more year,” he said. “I never made it more than three years without having a major injury in the NFL.”

He struggled with shoulder and knee injuries during his career, and usually rehabbed at Iowa. He also spent the off-season in the Hawkeye weight room, setting a good example to current team members about the hard work it took to play at the highest level. And he never got special attention when he worked out, something he appreciated.

“Your expectation is the Iowa Way,” Yanda said. “Being looked up to by the younger guys was awesome.”

Yanda misses football now.

“I definitely miss Sundays, the competitiveness in the air on Sunday mornings,” he said. 

No longer does he have to worry about how he’ll block J.J. Watt or Aaron Donald. He’s spent the past two falls helping his father with the harvest on the family farm, something he couldn’t do with an NFL season running from training camp in July to the postseason starting in January. He gets to spend time with his wife and three children, and his parents. He’s lost 60 pounds, down to 245. And his menacing beard is gone. Life is good.

“I was always conscious of my ego, and not letting my ego get too big,” Yanda said. “Guys with the really big egos have a tougher time transitioning (out of football) than the guys that are prepared for it, ready for it and understand they’re not bigger than the team.” Yanda has considered a future career in coaching, but right now spending quality time with his family makes him a happy man.

“I do love football,” he said. “I love every aspect of the game. I’m still in the transition of figuring it out.”

As he reflects back on a career that could take him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame some day, Yanda said he has Ferentz and his coaching staff to thank for preparing him for his 13-year pro career.

“There’s two words that just come to mind,” Yanda said. “Preparation and focus. You can carry that to any part of the game. Everything around here is about preparation. That battle is won before it is fought. Every Iowa team that takes the field is prepared. That starts with Coach Ferentz. He really paved the way. The whole staff paved the way. They put you on those railroad tracks.”

Yanda is living proof that potential can be reached, no matter how challenging. “I definitely learned that here,” he said. “Coming to Iowa for the rest of my journey, I was really on an uphill every year. Every year, I got a little bit better and better. In year five and six in the NFL, I was still getting better.”

He got there with mental toughness, two words that don’t describe everyone. But this farm kid learned that trait a long time ago.

“It’s physically demanding, so you have to be mentally tough,” Yanda said. “I was exposed to that at a young age. Maybe you don’t want to do something, but you have to. That makes you mentally tough. I feel like it was a way for me to take football and really love it.”