This is part of a series highlighting the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame's 2018 class. The 15-member class will be inducted Oct. 9. For tickets, visit GBSHOF.com.
Jeff Yeates was a little confused. A friend from his high school days at Cardinal O’Hara had called him earlier this year, telling him some people were trying to get in touch with him.
“It shouldn’t have been too hard to find me,” Yeates said. “My mom lives in the same house with the same landline she’s had for over 50 years.”
Yeates may have left Western New York, choosing to stay in Atlanta after his professional football career as a defensive lineman ended with the Falcons in 1984, but his family remains firmly rooted in Buffalo.
Still, the phone call caught him by surprise because, while Yeates was still very much connected to Western New York, he didn’t know about the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The organization began bestowing honors in 1991, when Yeates was already established in Georgia, working for Coca-Cola and returning to law school. Which meant the news that he would be part of the Class of 2018 seemed to come out of the clear blue sky.
“I never knew it existed,” Yeates said about learning he was elected to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. “When they finally got in touch with me and communicated to me about it, I thought it was a terrific honor for me, personally, to be put in a Hall of Fame for the greater Buffalo area. Then I did some research as to the people already in the Hall of Fame, and that made it more important.”
Yeates had an 11-season NFL career, which began with the Buffalo Bills in 1974. He played just three games with his hometown team in 1976 and was waived. He then spent eight years with the Atlanta Falcons, becoming a starter in 1978, solidifying the team’s defensive line, which remains one of the best in pro football history.
But his football career goes back to his childhood, to his family, to his Buffalo roots. That’s where he first fell in love with the game and where he realized, with hard work, he had athletic potential.
“My father was a high school and college football player,” Yeates said. “He played for Bennett High School and then went out to school at North Carolina State University. So, you know, that was instrumental in me wanting to pursue a career in athletics.
“When you’re young, basically you just get your ball and go outside and play. Then as you get older, the competition gets stiffer and then you have to work hard. It’s also about developing a passion for the game. If you’re going to play this game, you’ve got to play it well and there’s a lot of things that go into getting to that as far as working out, having general size and athletic ability, then refining everything.”
The refinement started at Cardinal O’Hara, where he earned All-Western New York honors. He remembers most vividly his senior year when a new coaching staff took over and the possibilities for a college scholarship came into focus.
“They were a young coaching staff and it kind of put more enthusiasm in the program,” Yeates said. “These guys would say to me: You have talent. Work hard. Do this. Do that. And you’ve got the possibility to go on and play in college and the possibility of a college scholarship.”
That possibility became a reality when Yeates went to Boston College. In 1973, he earned a trip to the Senior Bowl and All-American Honors.
His pro career took off with the Falcons, but specific highlights are difficult for Yeates to pinpoint, particularly as a member of the defensive line.
“That's so hard because football is a team sport,” Yeates said. “Everything would be a team highlight because you're only one little cog in the system, one of 11.
“Every Sunday walking on the field was a highlight. To go out in a stadium, home or away, for 70,000 or 80,000 people was always a highlight. The game was always the game. It didn’t change much when I was playing. It just was a great feeling when you finished up a game and you knew that you did well – you covered your assignments, you had fun, didn’t get hurt. Did the team win or lose was secondary as long as you produced and did the best you could.”