Colts Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin Shares Inspiring Story with Students

Phillip B. Wilson

His path to the NFL began in an impoverished neighborhood on the Eastside of Atlanta, where Rock Ya-Sin asked a coach to shine car lights on a football field so he could work out for 30 minutes after practice.

He was raised by his mother Abrenda Kelly, which meant his father figure was Southwest DeKalb High School wrestling coach Keith Johnson, who looked out for Ya-Sin from day one and picked him up for school each day. Ya-Sin won Georgia state wrestling championships as a sophomore and junior, but it was Johnson who talked him into trying football as a junior.

How did this kid from such a humble origin make it to the NFL as an Indianapolis Colts second-round selection in 2019? Ya-Sin thinks back to those car lights.

“I knew where I wanted to go and nobody was going to deny me of that,” he said. “One more drill. One more drill. One more drill. He was shining lights on the field from his car, and I’m trying to get one more drill.”

Ya-Sin shared his story of perseverance last Friday with students from Fulton County Schools’ PEAK (Pursuing Excellence and Knowledge) Academies in Roswell, Hapeville, and Union City, Ga., via Zoom.

The 23-year-old Decatur, Ga., native covered everything from getting into trouble at a young age, learning from and owning mistakes, setting his mind to outworking everyone, being the only kid in his apartment complex to go to college at Presbyterian (S.C.). After transferring to Temple for his final year, life changed dramatically in about six months when he was drafted 34th overall.

Life lessons shared resonated with students and teachers.

“Everybody wants to be successful,” Ya-Sin said. “Everybody wants to be a millionaire. Everybody wants to have a good job. Everybody wants to take care of their momma.

“Everybody wants to do everything good, where it comes down to who really is going to make the sacrifices and who is going to work the hardest. That’s anything in life. That’s anything in life. I’ve had plenty of successes in life and I’ve had plenty of failures. But I’m telling you, when I’ve had success, it’s because I outworked everybody.”

About to enter his second NFL season as a Colts starting cornerback, Ya-Sin admitted he was late for the video conference call because he was working out with his trainer in a sandpit. One more drill. Always.

He considered himself “a no-star recruit” out of high school. It wasn’t until some time later that he heard from Presbyterian, one of the smallest NCAA Division I schools. The college's decision to switch to non-scholarship D1 provided Ya-Sin an opportunity to boost his profile by transferring to Temple.

“It was a crazy story,” he said. “I went up there with like $20 in my pocket. I had a full tank of gas and $20,” he said. “By the time I left Philly, I was projected to be a first-round pick. So my life changed drastically in like six months.”

He elaborated on how having goals gave his life structure at an early age. He narrowed his circle of friends because he didn’t want to make mistakes that would prove costly from running with the wrong crowd.

“My story is kind of unique I feel like because it was never like smooth sailing,” he said. “It was never easy. I grew up in a place where many people don’t make it out. The difference between me and a lot of people is at a young age, I knew what I wanted out of life. I knew I wanted to go to college.

“In my neighborhood, nobody really made it out, you know what I’m saying? There was no NFL coming out of my neighborhood, there was no NBA. There wasn’t really even any going to college.”

That’s why, although his agent wanted Ya-Sin to go to Nashville, Tenn., to be on-site for the 2019 NFL draft, he opted to stay home to celebrate the moment with his mother, other family, and friends. When the Colts called, it wasn’t just about being happy for himself. He was thrilled for his mother.

“I knew that I could take care of them now. I grew up poor. I had nothing. We had nothing,” he said. “I finally made it. I can finally take care of the person who has taken care of me all my life. It was a surreal moment. It was the best feeling ever for me.”

Now that he’s realized a life-long dream, Ya-Sin thinks about those who helped make it possible. He realizes how much it would have meant at a young age to hear such life lessons, thus his desire to pay it forward with FCS PEAK Academies middle and high school students. The alternative education program offers a combination of computer-based learning, direct academic instruction, small group or individualized support, behavior modification, and peer accountability.

“Anything in life worth having,” Ya-Sin reiterated, “you have to work hard for it.”