Eddie Yarbrough thought he knew what it meant to be determined while following his long-shot path to becoming a defensive end for the Buffalo Bills.
Undrafted free-agent signee with the Denver Broncos in 2016 after a standout career at Wyoming. Cut at the end of the preseason. Brief, non-playing stint with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. Free-agent shot with the Bills in 2017. Continuing to survive as a backup on a roster that experiences regular shake-ups.
That’s all well and good. However, it has been Yarbrough’s involvement with kids with special needs — dating back to his sophomore year in high school — that has provided him with the true definition of persistence. He has gotten to witness it up close for the past two years as the Bills’ lone player-participant in the Town of Hamburg’s adaptive football program held through November and the start of December at the ADPRO Sports Training Center.
“Sometimes, it’s just watching whether some of our kids are able to catch a ball or not,” Yarbrough said. “And they can drop like 35, but when they catch that one, it’s like they won the Super Bowl.”
For as long as he can remember, his heart has always had a prominent place for people with disabilities.
Yarbrough’s understanding of their challenges and the greater appreciation it has given him for all that he has been able to achieve in life is rooted in his family. His father’s brother, known as Uncle Junior, was developmentally disabled.
“Unfortunately, I never got a chance to meet him because he died when I was little,” Yarbrough said. “But all the stories and things my dad and mother told me about him just kind of warmed my heart. For me, I’ve always been so thankful and just blessed to be able to run around and play football and have people cheer my name and everything (else) that comes with it.
“So to be able to give a piece of that back to some kids that maybe aren’t always getting their names called by the masses and being celebrated is so rewarding. People eventually just stay in their lane. You get caught up in the minutia of everyday life. But sometimes it makes all the difference if you can stop and kind of pick your head up for a time and kind of look at what’s around you and really take some retrospect with that.”
As a sophomore at Grandview High School in Aurora, Colo., Yarbrough collaborated with the school’s assistant principal and classmates to form a program called Unified Sports. The idea was to promote inclusion through sports. The program formed a natural tie-in with Special Olympics, which, along with Unified Sports, were represented on the shoes Yarbrough wore for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets as part of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative.
Once the Bills became aware of Yarbrough’s role in the formation of Unified Sports, they knew he would be the ideal choice to work with the Town of Hamburg’s adaptive football program, which recently completed the eighth year of its association with the team.
“He was absolutely phenomenal,” said Pam Rost of the Town of Hamburg. “He was the best Bill we ever had and we haven’t had many. You can really tell he enjoyed it, which was so much fun for us to see because we don't always see that when people come into our group because of the developmental disabilities or the physical disabilities. They don’t always know how to react, and he was just absolutely wonderful.”
The adaptive program has two groups, kids from age five to 18, and adults about 18 and older. There are roughly 25 to 30 participants in each session, which lasts for about an hour. Yarbrough spent most of his time with the kids.
“One of the kids who has been part of this since I began with it is Parker, who’s about six,” Yarbrough said. “I always told him last year, ‘If you always do your best and persevere, you never know what's going to happen. You can always hang your hat on that. Some profit’s going to come from your hard work and if you keep working hard, you're going to be where you want to be.’
“So we have this drill, where you run around hula-hoops on the ground at the 5- and 10-yard lines, then sprint for the goal line. And he came back this year and he still remembered what I told him. He was still out here giving his best, and it just really warmed my heart to see that.”