In his heart, Marshal Yanda knew this was the right time to retire.
Walking away from football would never be easy, especially when you love the game like he does. But after 13 stellar seasons with the Ravens and all the sacrifice it took to build a Hall of Fame-worthy career, Yanda officially retired from the NFL on Wednesday with no regrets.
Retiring in good health, and on his terms while still playing at a Pro Bowl level at age 35, was important to Yanda. He is the best guard ever to wear a Ravens uniform and he remained the best right up to his final game.
Years from now, people will watch tape of Yanda at the end of his career and still see someone who embodied what it meant to play with passion and excellence. That's exactly how Yanda wanted to leave the game.
"I watched guys as they got older lose a little bit more each year," Yanda said. "By the end, they were almost like a liability. In the back of my mind, I never wanted to be like that. I did try to control every single factor that I could to be great at the end of my career. I wanted to be up here, and have these guys wanting me back, rather than being at the other end of it saying, 'I'm happy you're retiring.' I wanted to end playing well."
In front of a packed auditorium that included current and former Ravens, Yanda reflected on his remarkable career. As always, he left a strong impression. He never once lost his composure, mostly reading from written remarks. But he also adlibbed at times, showing some of the passion and intensity that helped make him a special player.
Yanda said he knew that retirement was getting close after he fractured his left ankle early in the 2017 season. In 2016, he kept playing despite a painful shoulder injury, moving from right guard to left guard during the season to diminish the impact of the injury.
"When I went through those two injuries, I just felt in my mind I was put on notice." Yanda said. "Going into the 2018 season, I was prepared mentally to retire if I didn't stay healthy. It was in my mind a good two years. I think a lot of people didn't know that."
Yanda signed an extension last offseason that kept him under contract through the 2020 season, but he entered the 2019 season thinking it would be his last. He felt if he played again next season, his luck spell another serious injury and grueling rehab.
"I wanted to get out while I felt healthy and my body feels good," Yanda said. "I'm going to miss it and I still have that desire and the love of the game, but my family and my health started to outweigh that by the end of the year.
"My heart was set. I just wanted to follow my heart and my heart was definitely saying, 'You've had enough. You got to play a long time. Don't sacrifice your health or your kids and my family, and don't be selfish to keep chasing that with blindness.'"
After the Ravens lost in the playoffs to the Tennessee Titans, Yanda remained in his uniform to pose for pictures on the field at M&T Bank Stadium with family and friends, feeling he had played his final game. He thought about it for several weeks, but he didn't change his mind. Yanda was ready to say goodbye.
Yanda had a blast last season, relishing Baltimore's 14-2 regular season and an offense that set the all-time team record for rushing yards in a season. The Ravens played smash-mouth football, and Yanda reveled in it. It wasn't enough to change his mind about retirement, but it left Yanda with special memories of his final season.
"Being able to run the football last year, being able to get after teams again after all that passing?" Yanda said. "Great. It's getting me excited right now.
"The L.A. game on Monday Night Football. From the start of the game, it was a butt-kicking. That's what I live for as an offensive lineman. Obviously, you have to pass the ball too and we get that. But you know where my heart lies."
Yanda has lost about 45 pounds in the two months since the season ended, saying he was around 265 pounds, down from 310 pounds in early January. When the school year ends, Yanda, his wife and their three young children plan to move back to Yanda's native Iowa, where they will begin the next phase of their life.
"We're going to figure it out," Yanda said. "I don't have a definite plan. I can't tell you how much I'm going to miss football. I'm going to sift through that one day at a time and see how much I want football in my life. Football's been my entire life. Every fall, every August, I've been playing football. I just want to see where my heart's going to take me, spend some time with my family."
The Ravens will miss Yanda just like he'll miss them. With championship aspirations again in 2020, Yanda could have helped the Ravens get over the playoff hump. Now they have the impossible talk of trying to "replace" him.
"I don't want to say it for him, but he probably had a few more years left," center Matt Skura said. "Obviously, he wants to not be injured. When you put on film, you want to see that you're playing at the highest level still. … I think for him it was just the perfect time."
The packed auditorium reflected how much Yanda was respected by the entire Ravens' organization, and for good reason. Asked how he wanted to be remembered by teammates, Yanda gave the kind of answer you would expect.
"That I gave it everything I had on every single play," Yanda said. "There was no backing down. I was obsessed with this game, being great, wanting to be the best."