A second chance at life and football: Inside Richard Yeargin's comeback

Yeargin making the most of his second chance at football (4:51)

After suffering a broken neck in a car accident, former Clemson DL Richard Yeargin III is making the most of his second opportunity at Boston College. (4:51)

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Rain pelted Richard Yeargin's blue Honda Civic as he spoke into his cellphone, assuring his brother he would be safe.

Yeargin, an emerging star on Clemson's defensive line, figured he would wait out the storm before making the 45-minute drive from Greenville, South Carolina, to his on-campus home.

He drove up for a class earlier in the day, then found a Caribbean place for a late lunch. He loved authentic Caribbean food, and it was tough to find closer to home. He stopped for gas and filled his tank. Still, rain showered the roads. He needed to get onto the highway and back to campus. He'd be careful, he thought. It's just a little rain.

There was construction ahead on I-85 as Yeargin pulled onto the on-ramp from I-385, forcing him to hit his brakes hard. The wheels locked. The car skidded. The rest of that day in June 2017 is blurry -- the screeching of tires, the car's momentum going haywire, Yeargin twice tumbling head over feet.

He picked up his phone and called his brother again.

"I just flipped the car," he said.

Yeargin grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a tall, athletic kid who always played up a level in football because he was too strong and big to tackle kids his own age. Now he was watching two strangers approach the car, saying they were calling for help. Yeargin didn't want his family to hear about the accident secondhand. They'd be terrified. He needed his brother.

Yeargin's brother, Richard Jr., is 12 years older, but they've always shared a close bond -- first by name, then through football.

Yeargin told Richard the accident was bad. He said he was going to kick out the windshield and crawl to safety. He said he'd be OK. Only then did he realize he might be hurt, and that his future -- so certain just minutes ago -- was in jeopardy.

"My neck," he told his brother, "it really hurts."

YEARGIN'S FIRST taste of football came when he was 4 or 5, and he hated it. His brother played high school football, and the games were full of action and excitement. On the pee wee fields, however, all the practice and repetition was a slog.

"This is hard," he told his father, begging to quit.

The elder Yeargin refused to hear it.

"You're going to see this through," he said.

So each afternoon, Yeargin trudged back onto the field and did as he was told, and after a while, a funny thing happened. All that routine started to make sense to him. Football offered an opportunity to change his life, to change the lives of everyone he loved.

By the time he was a senior in high school, Yeargin was considered one of the top outside linebackers in the country, with offers from dozens of elite programs, including Florida State, Southern California and Notre Dame, where he initially had committed to play. But there was something about Clemson that intrigued him. His brother had walked on at South Carolina State, and the family had ties to the area. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney sold Yeargin on the school's family atmosphere and a commitment to things outside of football. Three years later, those would be the things that saved him.

On the day Yeargin left for Clemson, his brother -- the one who had always been the trailblazer, the one who had fought the battles before him -- pulled him aside so he could pass along a blueprint to his little brother.

"It's all peaches and cream now," Yeargin's older brother told him. "But someday, you'll have to fight for something. And you better be ready when it shows up."

Yeargin arrived at Clemson in 2014, part of a class that included Deshaun Watson, a group that had privately shared texts and calls promising to deliver a national championship. That's exactly what they did in January 2017, less than six months before the accident. Yeargin's role was minimal, though. Clemson's depth chart was loaded with talent on the defensive line, with Vic Beasley Jr. and Shaq Lawson, two future All-Americans and first-round NFL draft picks, already chewing up opposing quarterbacks.

So Yeargin waited for three years to get his shot at starting.

"He was getting ready to be the guy for us," Swinney said. "He had a good year, was gaining confidence, had a great spring."

At Clemson, a starting job on the defensive line is akin to a one-way ticket to an NFL paycheck. All those monotonous practice sessions, all the workouts -- Yeargin had seen the path, and it led him here.

"I worked and prepared, and I'd done everything that was asked of me," Yeargin said. "I just couldn't imagine anything getting in my way and stopping me from elevating to the next level."

THE HOURS after the accident are fuzzy. Yeargin remembers calling his brother, snippets of the ambulance ride, waking up in the hospital to find his brother, his girlfriend, teammates and coaches.

Yeargin had fractured the C5 through C7 vertebrae at the base of his neck, along with suffering a few other broken bones and a concussion. A lot of folks don't survive an injury like that, doctors said, and those who do are often paralyzed.

For three days, he was kept immobile, as teammates and family members cycled through the hospital.

Yeargin eventually was fitted for a halo to stabilize his neck, then transitioned into slightly less cumbersome braces throughout his recovery. For nearly three months, he was on bed rest, stuck in his apartment pondering his future. If all went well, doctors said, he might be ready to try football again in a year, but there were no guarantees.

"That's a hard conversation to have when you're in the middle of the storm and there's so much uncertainty," Yeargin said.

When the season began, Yeargin was relegated to cheerleader. Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, players who had arrived a year after him, blossomed into stars with bright futures in the NFL. Yeargin would retire to the film room and pop on tape of the upcoming opponent and think: "if I were out there."

On Saturdays, his brother often would fly up from Florida and sit with Yeargin in his apartment, watching games on TV. But they rarely talked much about football. It hurt to think too much about all Yeargin had lost. His brother wanted him to remember all he still had.

"Most guys, football and just getting to college, that's enough for them," Yeargin's brother said. "And that's fine. But you have to see the advantages of using opportunities when you have them."

Yeargin filled his hours with school. He pursued internships. At the behest of one of his professors, he started writing, keeping a journal of his recovery. He graduated in December 2017 with a bachelor's degree in sports communication, then enrolled in a master's program the following spring.

"I just had to wrap my head around feeling disabled," Yeargin said. "I couldn't move my neck around, I couldn't drive. Sometimes I couldn't get out of bed. So reading and writing, just spending time with my family, that helped."

No, this wasn't how he had envisioned his life back when he first fell in love with the game, but now he saw so many other opportunities beyond the field.

"When you have a traumatic event," Yeargin said, "you start to live with a little bit more juice, a little more purpose."

BY THE TIME fall camp opened in August 2018, more than a year had passed since Yeargin's accident. He was eager to play, and doctors had cleared him to return to action, but Yeargin said he didn't feel like himself.

After practice, his neck still hurt. He had numbness in his shoulder. The explosiveness and ferocity that had made him a prized prospect were gone. He sought advice from a new doctor, who recommended surgery to repair the damaged bones in his neck. The procedure was similar to what Peyton Manning underwent in 2013, but that would mean another year of rehab and, possibly, an official end to his career.

Yeargin went to his family for advice. They all agreed he should have the surgery. If the past year had taught him anything, it's that he was strong enough to live without football, if that's what it came to. Yeargin stayed on with Clemson as a student-coach, and he was with the team in California in January when the Tigers won their second national championship in three years.

Amid the chaos of the celebration that followed the game, Clemson's backup quarterback, Chase Brice, sought out Yeargin in the scrum.

"I could see the look in your eyes and tell how special this moment was for you," Brice told him. "Remember, we did this. Not us and not you. We did it together."

Yeargin hoped his presence around the team would be inspiring, a reminder of how quickly football can be taken away, of how every moment matters. He didn't realize how much he needed to hear Brice's words until that moment.

"I'll never forget that," he said.

YEARGIN OFFICIALLY retired from football in September 2018, and he had the surgery to repair his spine a month later. The days that followed, he said, were the hardest. The same long slog awaited him again, and now he was fully aware of the pain and boredom and loneliness that lay ahead.

In the midst of his rehabilitation, however, a new picture of Yeargin's future took shape. He got engaged to his girlfriend, Kayla Womack, and in February, they had a son, Elijah. Yeargin was on track to receive his master's degree in the spring. And he had a lucrative job offer in the health care industry in Milwaukee; he already had flown in and found an apartment. Nearly two years removed from the accident, football had all but disappeared from his life.

In April, Yeargin's grandmother died, and he flew home for the funeral. That night, he had a dream in which he called Swinney on the phone. They talked, and Yeargin told his coach he was ready to play football again, but that's where the dream ended. He woke up thinking how strange it had been to dream about a return. He hadn't given football much serious thought in months. Perhaps it was the upcoming NFL draft, in which four of his former linemates would soon be selected, that had him on edge. He was happy for them, Yeargin said, but it was hard. His name was supposed to be called too.

A few days later, Yeargin saw his surgeon for a routine follow-up appointment. He sat in the office, half-interested, figuring the meeting was a formality.

And then Yeargin heard something he wasn't expecting.

"I believe you can make a full comeback," the doctor said, "and be better than you ever were before."

Yeargin was shocked. Was this real? Surely it was a mistake. He had a job offer and an apartment and -- could he really play football again?

"Doc, quit pulling my tail," he said. "Shoot me straight."

The timetable for a decision was dizzying, and even his family and closest friends worried he was risking too much by returning to action.

"I'll be honest, I tried to talk him out of it," Swinney said. "I told him he didn't have anything to prove to anyone."

But it wasn't about proving something, Yeargin said. If anything, his time away from the game offered clarity about his own strength and perseverance. Yeargin had spent the previous two years writing about his hopes and dreams, his highs and lows, and now he saw a chance to script the ending he'd always wanted.

Still, there was the matter of finding a place to play. When Yeargin retired, he had lost his spot on Clemson's roster, and he wasn't sure anyone else would take a chance on a guy two years removed from the game. Yeargin entered his name into the transfer portal and waited for a call.

"And lo and behold," Yeargin said, "good old Boston College was the first one to champ at the bit."

THE FIRST TIME Yeargin stepped back onto the practice field, he knelt down, ran his hands across the field and wrapped his fist tight around the turf. For more than two years since he tumbled across an interstate in a careening car, he had been looking for something to grasp on to, to pull himself back to this place.

"I squeezed it tight," he said, "and I was just like, 'Let's go. We're doing this.'"

Boston College needed help on a depleted defensive line, but more than that, Eagles coach Steve Addazio wanted the perspective Yeargin brought to his team. Yes, Yeargin had been at Clemson, so he knew what it took to win at the highest level. Yeargin also understood the value of each rep, each step toward a dream that might never come true.

When defensive line coach Jim Reid returned from his summer vacation to his office at BC, there was Yeargin, armed with a litany of questions about how he could fit into the Eagles' defensive scheme. Yeargin calls Reid several times a day, fires off dozens of text messages. He's always in the film room, always begging for new cut-ups of opponents so he can prepare.

"When you have a traumatic event, you start to live with a little bit more juice, a little more purpose."
Richard Yeargin

"In my mind, I have visions of what I would love all football players to be, just like I have in my mind what I hope my children are exactly like," Reid said. "This guy Richard Yeargin has come in and he has been exactly that. Give me a positive category, I'm not even going to hear you say the last syllable, I'm gonna say, 'Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten.'"

Reid hasn't asked Yeargin about the accident, but they talk routinely about his health and his progress and his future. Reid made Yeargin promise to always provide an honest assessment of how he was feeling, and Yeargin has obliged with endless reports on every detail.

Reid was in his office this summer when he got a call from a member of BC's strength staff, raving about the work the D-linemen were doing that morning. Reid was confused. There was no workout scheduled. Who was working with them?

"It was Richard," Reid said. "And the guys just love him."

It wasn't long into that first practice that Reid got a glimpse of the old Richard Yeargin too. The offense snapped the ball, and Yeargin shot through the line like a dart -- "I mean, you could see the dirt flying off his cleats," Reid said -- finding the runner and driving him into the turf.

The entire team erupted in celebration.

"Everybody was cheering," Reid said, "and you could see the smile on his face."

AT BC, YEARGIN wears No. 2. He said it represents second chances.

The day Yeargin was discharged from the hospital, his brother took him to the salvage yard to empty out the remains of his car. They found it parked along a fence, a tarp over the crumpled roof and the front bumper dangling askew. There was broken glass everywhere. Tree branches jutted through the window, and debris was strewn across the seats. Yeargin's brother works for an insurance company, and he had seen wrecks like this before. Some people don't survive them.

They gathered Yeargin's things and started to leave, but his brother stopped short.

"You need to get a picture with the car," he said.

Yeargin wasn't interested. It had been a hard day. Seeing the car was just another reminder of the pain and the loss. But his brother insisted.

"No matter how this turns out," his brother said, "you'll want this picture because you have a real story to tell."

Normally, Yeargin is just the type to think about all this, to ask the big questions about destiny, about the future, about what all of this really means. Reid calls Yeargin "an old soul," a 45-year-old inside the body of a 23-year-old, armed with the wisdom that only comes from asking the really hard questions. The truth is, though, Yeargin isn't interested in thinking that far ahead right now.

He has played in every game this season, coming off the bench to add some pop for the BC pass rush. His performance isn't quite where he'd like to be, but he slowly is working his way back.

He hopes Saturday's return to Clemson (7:30 p.m. ET on ACC Network) -- his first time taking the field there in nearly three years -- will be a breakthrough. He is on a text chain with a handful of the guys still on Clemson's roster, and they trade messages nearly every day. He watches every Tigers game he can too.

"It's weird, like thinking about how to break into your own home," Yeargin said. "I'm trying to think how to destroy them. That sounds terrible, but that's how my mind works from a competitive standpoint. I wish them all the best, except on Oct. 26."

Where the road leads from here, he isn't sure. He still would love to get a shot in the NFL. He is working on a second master's degree. He has yet to set a date for his wedding because, well, he has no idea where he'll be in six months.

What's certain is that Yeargin wasn't supposed to be here, wasn't supposed to have this second chance at his dream, and he desperately wants to devour every second of it. He still is writing. He'll be inspired in some small moment, then tap away on his phone. He has about three dozen journal entries so far, and maybe one day he'll turn them into a book.

"Usually, the game doesn't end the way we want it to end," Swinney said. "Usually, you're not good enough anymore or you get hurt. Very few people end it on their terms."

That's what this is all about, Yeargin said. He has a son now, and one day he wants to tell Elijah to follow his own dreams, to fight like mad for every last opportunity.

"Everything I do now is a direct reflection of how I want him to live his life," Yeargin said. "I can't not practice what I preach, so I have to live my life in a way to justify the lessons I'm teaching him."

Now Yeargin scrolls through his phone and finds that photo his brother insisted he take more than two years ago. He is standing there next to the car, medical tape on his arms, a hospital ID band around his wrist and a brace fit tightly around his neck.

He still thinks about that day, more than he'd like to, if he is being honest. What if it hadn't rained or if he had left a little later or if -- well, he tries to push those thoughts aside. There are a thousand twists and turns in a lifetime, but today, he is right where he is supposed to be.

"What I wanted to do, I'm doing," Yeargin said. "I'm at peace."