Dream shot: Eddie Yarbrough travels long path for a chance to stick with the Bills - The Buffalo News
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Dream shot: Eddie Yarbrough travels long path for a chance to stick with the Bills

PITTSFORD -- When you grow up in a trailer park in Pine Bluff, Ark., dreams have a way of vanishing before they ever have even the slightest chance to be realized.

"You're already kind of pegged," Eddie Yarbrough said. "People look at you and say, 'You know what this guy is going to end up doing the rest of his life.'"

Yup. He'll be behind the cash register at a grocery store. Or he'll be working at a gas station. He might be taking orders for burgers and fries. Maybe he'll collect trash.

Hope usually can't manage to squeeze its way into one of those overstuffed trailers. It certainly seemed like a long shot that it would take up residence with Yarbrough, his parents, and two older sisters.

"If you're born in Pine Bluff, Ark., you grow up in Pine Bluff, Ark., you die in Pine Bluff, Ark," Yarbrough said. "It's one of those places where you just get caught up and wrapped up in your slow life. Complacency sets in and you don't want to attain more or go get more. You kind of just say, 'I'm all right with my little trailer here and making ends meet and getting by.'

"Every day, people there go to work. They get paid every two weeks and it's that constant circle. I know some people still back there that have never even been outside of Pine Bluff."

Yarbrough spoke while standing on a football field about 1,000 miles from his home town. He had just finished his 10th practice of training camp with the Buffalo Bills at St. John Fisher College.

He wore a big smile as he drank in the perfect, sun-splashed day. He appreciated every second of where he was and what he was doing: trying to land a roster spot on an NFL team.

From the very start of camp, Yarbrough has been turning heads as a defensive end. He has consistently blown past offensive tackles and into the backfield. If contact with the quarterback was allowed in practice, Yarbrough would be among the team's sack leaders, if not first in the category.

His performance has been so impressive, he has gotten some first-team reps in place of Shaq Lawson, who has been day-to-day with a groin injury.

'Biggest effort guy'

"My thing is to come off with as much intensity in every fiber in my body to get off the ball and put all that towards making the play and that's what I try to do every play," Yarbrough said. "I just try to be the biggest effort guy you've ever seen."

"He continues to trend upwards," coach Sean McDermott said of the 6-foot-3, 259-pound Yarbrough. "We’re looking for depth along our defensive line, and he’s done a nice job. He plays extremely hard, he’s intelligent. One of the first ones in the team meeting room in the morning, working on his craft. There’s a reason he’s been successful."

Thursday night, Yarbrough gets to perform on a much larger stage, New Era Field, during the preseason-opener against the Minnesota Vikings.

This is what can happen when you get out of Pine Bluff. This is what can happen when hope and dreams are allowed to flourish.

In Yarbrough's case, their survival is directly linked to the fact his parents, Eddie Sr. and Dana, wouldn't settle for the typical Pine Bluff trailer-park existence.

Fresh out of college, Eddie Sr. was a guard at the Arkansas State Penitentiary, while Dana worked at a daycare facility. They weren't making much money, barely enough to put food on the table for a family of five.

"Sometimes, you had to struggle," Yarbrough said, putting the best face on his rugged past. "If that meant my parents having to go out and do a little extra to make sure all of us kids were fed, that's what they did. As a kid, if there was something missing, we didn't catch sight of it or we really didn't notice it."

But it was there. Every hour of every day.

No-excuse policy

Eventually, the family escaped Pine Bluff and moved to the Denver area, where Eddie Sr. and Dana found better-paying jobs in law enforcement. That allowed Eddie Jr. to attend Grandview High School, in Aurora, Colo., where he had a diverse athletic career. Besides excelling in football, he also played basketball, lacrosse, tennis, and was on the track team.

"My parents have kind of a no-excuse policy," he said. "Their mantra is, 'Hey, why not you? Why not you get it done?' If everybody agreed with the people that said they couldn't do it, those people wouldn't be successful. And that's kind of the way my parents raised me, so I always attack and attack everything.

"That's one of the things they preached to me my whole life, 'Always just grind. Hey, sometimes it's going to get hard, but when it gets hard, that's why you prepared yourself.'"

It didn't seem to be all that difficult for Yarbrough at the University of Wyoming, where he made first-team All-Mountain West as a linebacker. He became the Cowboys' all-time leader in tackles for loss with 39 as part of his 256 career stops.

Then, things changed.

Yarbrough considered leaving Wyoming as a junior. He was projected as a third- or fourth-round draft pick. Instead, he decided to see if he could boost his draft stock by sticking around for his senior year.

No takers in the draft

After Yarbrough's impressive college career, a rumor began circulating that he underwent knee surgery. He didn't know how or where it started. He only knew that it wasn't true. Yet no matter how many times he and his agent tried telling that to NFL team representatives, they were met with deaf ears.

Yarbrough plummeted to a sixth-round projection in the 2016 draft. As it turned out, he wasn't selected at all, and the Denver Broncos signed him to a rookie free-agent contract.

Yarbrough lasted until the final cuts with the Broncos. Still, the experience was invaluable. Not only was he coached by then-Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who preached "play every play like it's your last," but he also learned from two of the best pass-rushers the game has ever seen: Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.

After that, Yarbrough signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He trained with them for six weeks, but never played in a game.

On April 7, defensive line coach Mike Waufle, who had been tracking Yarbrough since his college days, reached out with an offer to join the Bills.

"I was taught and raised to never take anything for granted," Yarbrough said. "Just in everyday life, a lot of people go through the motions, get in their car, drive to work, come back home, kiss the wife goodnight. Life's OK, you know?

"But with me, my perspective is that, just to be here in America, we're so blessed that there's such an abundance. For me to come out every day, put on a uniform, put on the prestigious Buffalo Bill (helmet), and to go out here and be coached and have an audience, that's awesome. What else can you ask for?

"So I try my best to keep that perspective and really just to put my best foot forward, because why not? We're blessed to be out here."

Some are more blessed than others.

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