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BOCA RATON, Fla. – The bus didn’t look like it was coming.
Deon Yelder felt like this was his best shot, his only shot at a college scholarship. A Division I coach was waiting for him on a Friday morning at his Louisville high school. All he had to do was make it to the meeting.
But the bus ran late. By the time it arrived, he realized he would miss the transfer to the next bus. He wouldn’t get to school until almost 1. By then the coach would be long gone.
He wouldn’t get any offers.
“I just messed this up,” Yelder thought to himself, in a moment of fear. “No way I can fix it.”
The story of Deon Yelder must include his bus rides. He grew up in a working-class part of Louisville and his middle school was a 20-minute drive, but both of his parents worked long hours – his mom at AT&T and his dad in construction – and they didn’t always have the chance to drive him. The school bus didn’t make that trip from the neighborhood where he lived. So Deon would wake up early and board the TARC (Transit Authority of River City). He would sit in the back so he could see any trouble that may arise on the bus. He would leave one earbud dangling so he could hear what anyone might be saying. He would listen to Drake or Eminem and look out the window on the cold, dark mornings. He would grab his transfer and board his connecting bus. The trip would take more than an hour, there and back.
Deon was 12.
His football life may have started sooner if it wasn’t for this commute. He started playing at age 8, but when he got to middle school, the sport became a long-distance relationship.
“I loved football,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of ways to get to practice.”
Yelder doesn’t complain about this, or anything else for that matter. He simply explains it. His parents worked; his school was far; he wasn’t about to put a sport over family or school. Period.
So he gave it up. He played some basketball. He tried to keep his grades up and the video games off. He dreamed of working as a car technician. He rode the bus.
Yelder went to high school a little bit closer to home, so his bus rides got shorter. He kept playing basketball, took a couple of shop classes, and then when he became a junior, he figured he could go out for football again.
Turned out he wasn’t bad at it.
By the time he was a senior, he was a starting wide receiver who also played safety and returned kicks. Jeff Brohm, then an offensive coordinator under Bobby Petrino at Western Kentucky and now head coach at Purdue, took an interest and visited him at the high school. They set up another meeting and that’s when the TARC let him down. Yelder texted the coach to let him know what was happening, but he thought he had lost his only shot. No other schools were interested in giving him a full scholarship.
He still thinks that missed connection cost him his scholarship. “I think so,” he says, “but you never know. You never know unless it happened … but it didn’t happen.”
Still, Brohm kept the faith.
“If you get guys that come from that background, they really know what hard work is, and what it’s going to take,” the Purdue head coach says. “I felt like he had it in him. When things didn’t go his way, he worked through it. I felt like if we could get him to stick it out, he had the talent to grow into an athletic tight end.”
Western Kentucky eventually offered him a preferred walk-on spot and he took it.
He would walk on for four years.
It’s a bright Wednesday afternoon in March and Deon Yelder is in a South Florida neighborhood dotted with auto shops. One is called Smokey’s, another is called Last Chance. Power tools and hydraulic lifts whirr and jolt everywhere. There are beaters and classic cars and totaled wrecks. This is the kind of area where Yelder imagined himself as a grownup. He loves cars, loves everything about them, even though he has never owned one.
Yelder is not here for cars, though. He’s in a warehouse carpeted in turf. He’s here to prepare for the NFL draft.
For the first three years of his career at Western Kentucky, he had no stats. He played special teams and did some blocking as a tight end. That was it. Then Petrino and Brohm left for other schools, Mike Sanford Jr. came in, and the new boss realized he had a hole in his roster.
“We hadn’t even started spring ball,” Sanford recalls. “We’re a two-tight-end offense. One guy is a redshirt and the other is a walk-on without film.”
The “other” guy was Yelder.
“My first thoughts were, ‘We better start to recruit,’ ” says tight ends coach Ryan Mahaffey.
Yeldon would get loaded with work. The WKU offense was physical and he would need to block throughout every single practice without any promise of glamour on game day.
“We were running power and inside zone,” Mahaffey recalls. “He had to take nine or 10 reps in a row. Our defense was subbing guys in and out. He kept answering the bell. His technique wasn’t perfect, but he was battling. He has real courage. I thought, ‘This guy’s got a chance.’ ”
It was his last and only chance. He dreamt one night that he made the NFL, but that seemed farfetched for someone who had no stats. He was picking up shifts at the local IGA Express – getting there by bus or foot, of course – and that wasn’t usually a sign that someone was about to be paid to play football.
Still he worked, even after losing his great-grandmother, his stepfather and a cousin during his years on campus. (His Twitter bio mentions them all, with “RIP” before their names.) Before the end of spring practice, Sanford announced to the team that Yelder had earned a scholarship for his fifth season. Deon hugged the coach for what seemed like minutes, and became so emotional that he had to lean on the wall of the team meeting room. He promised Sanford it would be the best decision he’d make all season.
Starting an actual college football game in 2017 overwhelmed him. He had played in only 18 games over four seasons; his shining moment came on a blocked PAT in 2016 that helped vault WKU to a conference championship.
“This is crazy, this is real, real crazy,” Yelder says, eyes wide at the memory. “What am I gonna do [in] this game? I’ve never been a starter. Oh. My. Gosh. Everybody is rooting for me.”
He made it count: Yelder had 52 catches for 688 yards in his one real season, with seven touchdowns. He got an invite to the NFLPA Bowl and, when players slotted above him bailed, he got a chance at the Senior Bowl. That’s when the NFL world began to learn Yelder’s name. He scored a third-quarter touchdown in the game, Senior Bowl director Phil Savage gave him a “SuperSleeper” hashtag, and he has since received interest from the Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. He’s 6-foot-4 and north of 250 pounds – very much a tight end build who is projected as a Day 3 draft selection.
There was no scouting combine invite for Yelder, but his pro day is Friday.
“I’m ready to tear it apart, make a statement of who I really am,” he says.
If he gets drafted, he wants to buy his mom a house, but he’s not sure he wants to finally buy a car. (Here in Florida, his agent rented a car for him to get to workouts.)
“If I need to, I’ll get a lower-end, cheap car,” he says. “A high-end car is just too expensive. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad purchase; you don’t get a lot out of that. It’s a lot of gas, high insurance.”
How will he get to work? He’s not about to risk any other football appointments on public transportation.
“If I live close,” he says, “I’ll ride a bike.”
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