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Pitt Football

Piano Sonata No. 19: Nate Yarnell’s Story Begins With Faith, Family and Perseverance

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Christina Yarnell went ahead and booked the flight anyway, just in case. It’s roughly 1,200 miles from Austin, Texas to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Christina and her husband William had no idea if their son Nate would even play. But they couldn’t take the risk. If there was even a chance Nate was playing, one of his parents would be there.

William is a youth football coach for the couple’s youngest sons, and the two boys — 12 and 10 — couldn’t simply make it up to Kalamazoo at the last minute. While William and the boys would watch from home, Christina made damn sure that she’d be in the stands at Waldo Stadium.

Nate entered the week as Pitt’s fourth-string quarterback. He wasn’t supposed to start. He hadn’t taken a practice snap since the third week of August. He served as Pitt’s scout team version of Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker the previous week of practice.

But when Nate called home over the week, he was positive. Hopeful.

“Hey, Bina,” Nate would say to Christina over the phone. “It was a good day of practice today. I’m having a good week.”

Bina, of course, being Christina. Christina is not Nate’s biological mother. Not that it matters; she’s, his mother. But as a two-year-old child meeting Christina for the first time, he wasn’t able to say her name. It came out as Bina every time. And it’s just stuck. There’s a close-knit bond between the two, and with the chance to watch Nate’s first game in person, she wouldn’t miss that chance.

So, she booked the flight without knowing whether or not he’d play. If Nate did end up playing, she’d be there to support him. Christina and William knew they wouldn’t know if Nate was playing until right before kickoff, but it didn’t matter. Christina was going to be there regardless.

It just worked out that Christina was able to watch from the stands as Nate made his first college start — his first game action since Nov. 29, 2019 — against Western Michigan. It felt like fate that he led Pitt to a win, the culmination of years of hard work and perseverance. Nate went through countless interviews, recapping the performance over and over, but he was able to text Christina.

“Meet me outside the locker room.”

So, Christina and Nate’s roommates hurried down to the opposing locker room, stood just outside with the parents who made the trip out and waited. Nate went through interviews, celebrations and everything in between before he stepped outside, spotting Christina. She immediately ran toward Nate, pulled him into a crushing hug — perhaps his hardest hit of the night — and just looked up into the smiling face of her son.

“I had a blast,” he said through a smile.

Courtesy of Nate Yarnell

The Fight to Make It

Nate wanted to follow in his older brother Jake’s footsteps. Jake, who is currently stationed in Korea as a member of the United States Air Force, played soccer, so Nate did too. But he wanted to play football too. He started with flag football when he was five, and William took over as his coach the next season. It was father and son all the way — well, father, son and Ty Detmer.

When Nate was around six or seven, just your average second or third grader with the dream to one day make it big, the Yarnell’s’ neighbor was hired as the head coach at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin. Ty Detmer, you may have heard of him from his time at BYU and in the NFL, was the new hire.

Detmer won the Heisman Trophy at BYU in 1990 before embarking upon a 14-year NFL career — largely as a backup. He retired from the NFL in 2005 and found his way to St. Andrew’s for a handful of years before returning to BYU as the offensive coordinator. William was keenly aware of who Detmer was, but the people in the area must not have been as Detmer’s local camp brought in about 10 kids.

Detmer was someone from William’s generation. The kids might not have known exactly who he was, but William certainly did. And he listened when Detmer spoke. He told William that Nate had ‘it’. He really wanted to work with Nate going forward. William couldn’t say no.

The pair, Detmer and Nate, worked together until Detmer left for Provo, Utah in 2015. But that wasn’t before Detmer taught Nate how to read defenses, how to leverage defenders and recognize individual coverages. How to move in the pocket, the proper footwork to evade the rush. Detmer almost became like family as he met with Nate once or twice a week out of the season.

With the way Nate was developing, William quickly realized that Nate was at a level he — while an adept mind — wasn’t able to further develop. He needed outside help, and Detmer was a blessing. And not just because he taught Nate. He taught William too.

“Ty told me that I needed to go to San Antonio one day to this guy named Hal Mumme’s clinic,” William said. “And so, I went to Hal Mumme’s clinic, and I guess Nate was probably 10 or 11 then. And so, an Air Raid — and this is back when these guys were outlaws, you know, they were snake oil salesmen.

“Ty started out with Mumme and the Air Raid. I mean just all that BYU stuff, (Mike) Leach was there, all of them. And so, he introduced me to Hal Mumme and there I met Mike Leach and I actually sat and white-boarded Mike Leach for like 30 minutes.”

It opened a whole new world of football for William, and he immediately applied it in his own coaching. William’s flag football team — headlined by Nate, of course — had been running traditional smash running concepts. But after that clinic, that quickly changed. It rapidly became an Air Raid offense, and that team advanced all the way to the national flag football championships.

It helped prepare Nate for the crazy landscape that is Texas high school football. And Lake Travis is one of the craziest. The Cavaliers from Lake Travis won five straight state titles — the first Texas high school to do so — from 2007-11 and have produced NFL players in Baker Mayfield, Garrett Wilson, Garrett Gilbert and Brenden Jaimes.

Nate received his first college offer even before he suited up for Lake Travis’s varsity team. Houston’s Major Applewhite, head coach at the time, extended Nate’s offer. That was around the time that Christina started to realize that Nate was special. She wasn’t around Nate on the football field every day like William. But she saw a special kid. He was calm under pressure, thrived under pressure even, and that unique attribute was something she didn’t realize wasn’t the norm until she watched him play in those moments.

Nate played better when his back was against the wall, when there was no guarantee that he wasn’t going to be driven into the turf, and he excelled under the circumstances.

However, while Nate was at Lake Travis, he was blocked in the lineup by four-star prospect and future Texas Longhorn Hudson Card. Nate started six games while Card was injured in 2019, completing 68% of his passes and throwing for 1,509 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he wasn’t the guy. Card was. Nate waited his turn; it was supposed to go from Card — a phenomenal athlete and even better person, according to Christina — to Nate. That wouldn’t quite be the case.

It was one of the first days of summer practice at Lake Travis. Card was now a Longhorn. It was Nate’s turn to lead the Cavaliers to the Texas state playoffs and show that he was the next in a long line of top quarterbacks out of Lake Travis.

Nate is a mild-mannered, composed young man who, by all accounts, has a fire deep within himself that ignites when he steps onto a football field. If a teammate needs a hand, Nate is the first one there. If a teammate takes a cheap shot, Nate isn’t afraid to jump in. And that happened on the third day of summer camp.

It was a day in which Nate felt like the defenders were taking liberties with the Lake Travis wide receivers and tight ends. After a particularly hard, high hit from a defender on one of his wide receivers during practice, Nate had enough. He stormed over to confront the linebacker who made the hit, it escalated, and Nate threw a punch with his right hand. His thumb caught in the linebackers’ facemask, a freak injury resulted, and it would sideline him for the entire season.

“(Nate) was fired up and trying to protect — he felt like the linemen were out of control and cheap-shotting his tight ends and his receivers,” Christina said. “And so, he went over to try and check the guy. And you know, now he knows that, you know, throw punches with your left.”

It was a freak injury, one that left Nate facing a long rehab. One punch in the passion of the moment, protecting his teammates, completely altered the future he had envisioned. It also left Christina and William searching for ways to comfort a dejected son who was questioning his future.

“We tried to encourage him that this wasn’t the end of his football road,” Christina said. “That this was just the end of high school football, and that there were other ways to be a leader on the team. And there are other ways to contribute by being an asset on the sideline, whatever that looked like. And that was a skill that he could take to college as well. Being a good teammate is an attribute that you can do without being able to throw, you know? And so, we really tried to frame it in that way because it was very sad.”

Through the period of uncertainty and instability, there was a constant. Pitt. Pat Narduzzi and Pitt. Narduzzi was never anything but upfront with Nate and the entire Yarnell family through the recruiting process — even during the dark days of recruiting in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. That relationship was perhaps the only reason the Yarnell family felt comfortable sending their son across the country for college.

Even with Pitt on the horizon, no matter how distant a horizon it seemed while missing his entire season, it was hard. He went from the star quarterback contending for another Lake Travis powerhouse to just a face on the sideline. The injury arrived as unexpectedly as anyone could’ve anticipated, but Saturday’s success came just as unexpectedly.

“One day you’re on the cover of all the local central Texas magazines, and the next day you’re done,” William said. “So, I guess what I’m saying is Saturday night happened about as fast as the future evaporated on that one day.”

Photo courtesy of Christina Yarnell.

The Debut Everyone Expected 

Christina was a nervous wreck as she rode to Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo with SirVocea Dennis’s mother Corliss. It had been nearly three years since Nate had played in a football game. Now here he was making a road start — in his college debut — against Western Michigan.

However, when Christina and Corliss heard from SirVocea, it was comforting news. ‘Voss’ told Christina and Corliss that Nate was doing great. He was actually playing piano in the hotel lobby in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Christina thought to herself for a moment. She knew Nate was playing Beethoven’s 14th — Moonlight Sonata.

“My middle son Will said, ‘I knew Nate was gonna have a good game when you told me he was playing the piano,'” Christina said.

The piano is an interesting instrument for the Yarnell family. It was not Nate’s choice to play piano. It was Christina’s. All the boys played. The lessons finally stopped when COVID-19 hit, but the piano had grown into a release for Nate. He continued to play on his own, learning Moonlight Sonata slowly over time.

Nate learned by ear. He would pick up a bit of the composition at a time. The piano, and the song itself, became a comfort. He was able to play the piano during his senior season, even with his thumb injury, and when William went up to Pitt for Nate’s birthday last year?

He brought up an electric keyboard for Nate’s dorm room.

Christina knew that when Nate was stressed or needed a release, he played the piano. That’s why she and William sent one up. So, when she heard he was playing the piano Saturday, it made sense. Nate needed a release, and as his fingers danced across the ivory keys, his stress melted away.

While the Yarnell family watched — Christina in Kalamazoo, Nate and the boys back home in Austin and Jake watching from the Air Force base in Korea at 9 a.m. with his squadron — Nate play, there may have been some nerves. But Nate himself showed no signs of nerves on the football field.

The family group chat was blowing up, but Christina wasn’t able to participate much with poor cell service. And she was okay with it. Living in the moment, it was a surreal feeling to see Nate play, but it wasn’t all that unfamiliar.

“It was just like watching him play like he’s always played,” Christina said. “It was just — he was in a different uniform. And then another part of it was just like — I’m at a loss for words. It was like a dream.”

Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti weren’t ready to go, so it was Nate’s turn to go. He just went out and threw for 179 yards and a touchdown on 9-of-12 passing attempts, picking up the victory in his first college action.

It wasn’t a surprise for many of Nate’s teammates. Especially not Marquis Williams, who roomed with Nate during fall camp before the season. Williams watched the diligence with which Nate worked and knew he was ready for the opportunity before him.

It was a bit of a surprise for some of the coaching staff. But it was also eye-opening in seeing him play for the very first time. Andre Powell went from wondering if Nate was able to check plays to seeing a young quarterback operate at 100%.

“(Nate) checked a couple of plays,” Powell said. “The big play we hit Jared Wayne, he saw the blitz, it was on the tip. He saw the safety get wide and knew the corner was coming. … I can’t say enough about that kid.”

All that either William or Christina wanted was for their son to find a way to contribute, to help the team in some way. Nate himself just wanted to contribute.

When he picked up an injury last season and couldn’t lead the scout team, he was disappointed. He felt like he had found his place as the scout team quarterback and subsequently couldn’t fulfill that role. If there was a way to continue, he would do it. And he contributed against Western Michigan.

If there’s any emotion to describe how Christina felt watching Nate play. It was pride. And that’s a feeling that could be described for the entire Pitt fanbase as Nate stood on the field following the win, embracing Frank Cignetti Jr. as the remaining fans chanted his name.

“It is a memory I’ll always remember,” Nate said Saturday. “A memory I’ll always remember. It was really special. Just knowing that whoever we play this week, the game plan we had, I was just really excited to get out there on the field knowing coach Cignetti had my back. It was just a culmination of all those things.”

The Family Nate Needed

A few days following Nate’s performance against Western Michigan, William still wasn’t able to put into words what it meant to see his son thrive.

“I can’t really say it has sunk in because he’s been through a lot over the last couple years — a lot of the moments that he worked so hard for,” William said. “He wasn’t able to do it. I don’t know if (Saturday) was kind of bigger than all that, honestly, it just maybe he’s back on the right track again.

“This happened about as fast as the injury; it’s happened about as fast. Everything was taken from him, from his senior year, honestly. That’s kind of why you don’t get too up or too down now because he’s been through so much.”

Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Stay where your feet are. It’s the kind of message Pitt has pushed throughout the last year, in the midst of an ACC championship run, and the Yarnell family has lived it.

While there were days where he was unsure of himself, turning to the piano as a way to let go, Nate never gave up. A short-term setback for a long-term reward. It wasn’t always easy at Pitt either. But all Nate has wanted to do was contribute.

When Nate ran the scout team, he felt good because he found a way to contribute. When he was serving as the fourth-string quarterback, he had a place working in the offense. And when he started against Western Michigan, it all paid off.

“Nate is one of my easiest kids, in that I never had to worry about him staying out late or going to parties,” Christina said. “He is just easy, very mature — has always been mature for his age. Would always win the awards in school for most respectful, best hallway etiquette, you know, those types of things. But when he is on a field, he is just different — his competitiveness is able to be released there.

“I think that’s just him. I think that’s just the way God made him … (the football field has) just always been really comfortable place for him. I think he just feels like he can be himself, and that’s like when his competitive spirit comes out.”

The football field, wherever it is, has been a way for Nate to showcase who he is. Kinda like his piano ability now. He can show his character, the fire on the field to the ice off it, and he’s served as a role model for everyone in his family. Especially his two younger siblings and nine cousins — all boys.

It was a lesson in perseverance, waiting your turn and being ready when your number is called.

Football, through the ups and downs, has been good to Nate. His journey has embodied all of what high school and college athletics are about, and his brothers and cousins have been able to see it firsthand. Nate is a leader, and William couldn’t be prouder of the man his son has become.

No one in Austin doubted Nate. It wasn’t vindication watching Nate win against WMU either though. It was just how it was supposed to be. It was the best thing any son could ever give his father. Not because Nate won, but because Nate got to do what he loves to do.

“I thought because Ty came in our life, and I knew all this Air Raid stuff that we were a football family, but the injuries really showed us that we’re a family that has a great football player,” William said. “I’ve really backed out of the football name. And I asked (Nate) for so much advice and the way I’m coaching now and what I’m doing now.”

William may not be coaching Nate any longer. But he has a better job now. He’s the proud father of a good football player. And William, Christina and the whole family wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Jason
Jason
2 months ago

Great article Karl! Thanks for taking the time to share this story. It is always great to read about our excellent, young PITT student athletes!

Michael
Michael
2 months ago

Great article! Extremely well written with good insight into the Yarnell family. Hope to see more of these.

DL
DL
2 months ago

Very nice article and it looks like Nate has the intangibles as well as the family support to be successful!

Dukes

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