Dec. 31, 2011
PHOENIX, Ariz. - This Yankey doesn't wear pinstripes, and he's not an American citizen.
But David Yankey does have an American story. And he does wear his uniform proud - a cardinal red one.
As a redshirt freshman making a position change to break into the starting lineup, left guard Yankey overcame some early struggles to blossom into an integral part of one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses.
As No. 4 Stanford (11-1) makes its final preparations for Monday's Fiesta Bowl showdown against No. 3 Oklahoma State (11-1), Yankey learns from the likes of Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro and hopes to uphold the standards that his All-America teammates have established for the Cardinal offensive line.
Yankey was a tackle last year who was tried at guard in fall camp and never left.
With Yankey and two other new starters on the line - center Sam Schwartzstein and right tackle Cameron Fleming - Stanford has maintained its high level of play. The Cardinal has averaged 207.9 rushing yards and has allowed only nine sacks, while scoring 43.6 points per game. Each figure ranks among the national leaders.
"Every year, you're always worried," DeCastro said. "You get old guys leaving and new guys stepping in. I think it took me a little time to realize we're going to be OK. And then the new guys come in and you realize, `Yeah, we'll be all right.'"
Quarterback Andrew Luck said the improvement indirectly can be credited to DeCastro and Martin.
"As much as they've wanted to succeed for themselves," Luck said of the new starters. "I don't think they wanted to let David or Jonathan down."
That's true, Yankey said.
"Dave is an example of who I want to be," Yankey said of DeCastro. "He's one of the strongest guys on the team and one of the best conditioned linemen I've ever seen. He's 310-plus, and he just runs and runs. Hopefully, one day I'll get close to that."
Yankey has had to learn to pull on sweeps, and to work in a small box in close proximity to other players, making communication of utmost importance.
"Pass protection may be harder as a tackle because you're spaced more against more athletic pass rushers," Martin said. "But run blocking is definitely tougher as a guard, because the guy's right in front of you and it's usually a 350-pound D-tackle."
In the second game of the season, at Duke, Yankey missed an assignment that left Luck, Stanford's franchise player, exposed for a big blindside hit.
"I was pretty upset about that," Yankey said. "It's a really bad feeling and definitely part of the learning curve. But Andrew's awesome. He doesn't complain or anything."
Martin mentored Yankey last year and has been impressed with his teammate's progress.
"He's playing at a very high level right now," Martin said. "We thought it would be temporary for a game or two. But he really flourished in the role."
While Yankey has outstanding role models on his own team, he also has some in his own family.
Yankey's mother, Darina, is a native of Bernolakovo, a centuries-old village in the former Czechoslovakia, and grew up behind the Iron Curtain.
The family raised chickens and grew vegetables in the region of Bratislava in what is now Slovakia. But their life was far from bucolic. Her father, Gustav Pagac, forced out the country for fear of imprisonment.
As a pastor, Gustav's church building was shut down by the government because Christianity was not a state-approved religion. From then on, services had to be conducted in secret, in people's homes and away from the watchful eyes of the secret police.
Family members were trailed, and friends and acquaintances were questioned. But the family continued to secretly host western Europeans - Germans mostly - who smuggled in bibles and used the home as a safe house.
"Back then, I knew there was tension," said Darina, the oldest of five children. "I spied on my parents. I eavesdropped, especially if people from the West were visiting. But I knew I couldn't share anything with my friends at school."
News was censored if it did not reflect communist propaganda, but people built their own radios and antennas to capture the sounds beyond of life beyond the Berlin Wall.
Darina fell asleep each night to the distant sounds of music from Germany on her "souped up" transistor radio.
"People there were hungry for knowledge," she said. Those influences, "were the beginning of change in eastern Europe. It changed how people saw their lives, that maybe they can learn a better way."
Meanwhile, the harassment worsened as Gustav campaigned outwardly to get his church and Christianity itself legalized.
"Dad would be followed," Darina said. "They kept tabs on him. They kept their eyes on us all the time."
Finally, Gustav was brought in for interrogation. The secret police said they were close to getting the proof they needed of his illicit church gatherings to arrest him and added that he would not be seen for some time.
"It became very clear that we had to leave the country," Darina said.
That 1983 night, at 4 a.m., they did so.
"I didn't get to say to goodbye to my friends," said Darina, then 15.
With help from the United Nations, the Pagac family arrived first in Yugoslavia and then in Austria, where they waited for several months before receiving political refugee status, before choosing to settle in Australia.
It was there that Darina met and married David Yankey, a native of Ghana, who had arrived in the country to look for work.
Their son, David Famiyekyi Yankey, was born in Sydney. He was 8 when the family relocated to Roswell, Ga.
The sacrifices of his family have helped make him the person he is today, and created the opportunities that he now enjoys. For that, Yankey is thankful. Today, he wears No. 54 for the Stanford Cardinal.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics