TAMPA ― His football career seemed grounded. At best, it flashed delayed.
As a senior in 2016 at North Clayton High School in Atlanta, YaYa Diaby had no football scholarship offers. Not from a Football Championship Subdivision or Division II program. He was considered an undersized linebacker at 6-feet-4, 200 pounds.
Diaby took a job as a wheelchair passenger assistant at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Working at what is sometimes known as connecting flight purgatory, Diaby had to practice patience with passengers.
“Everybody has a different journey, man,” Diaby said Friday at Advent Health Training Center in Tampa. ‘Working at the airport, it just made me stronger, stronger mentally, and just not taking things for granted. You know, certain guys came out of high school and went straight to a Power Five school, you know. I just took a different path. And, you know, that path worked for me and I’m here now.”
Diaby had just completed his first walk-through workout with the Bucs at outside linebacker. The third-round pick has beefed up to 262 pounds and is coming off a nine-sack season at Louisville. He’s looking forward to joining the veterans for offseason workouts.
“I would just say learning from the older guys,” Diaby said. “Just be a sponge. I’m here to win a job, but at the same time, I want to learn what I can learn.”
There is still much for Bucs fans to learn about Diaby. Start with his first name: YaYa. His parents are from Guinea, a country in West Africa. YaYa was named after his maternal uncle.
“(His mother) just looked up to her brother, and she just felt like I was going to be that kid, like, the chosen-one type,” Diaby said. “It was just how he took care of his family. You know, my mom was younger, so he had to be the man of the house. So, she looked up to him. That’s where I get my work ethic from, my mom. She works hard to this day, and just hopefully one of these one of the days I can get her to stop working.”
Before Diaby could find his way to Louisville, he had to work hard to begin his career at Georgia Military College. He recorded 77 tackles and two sacks in two seasons at the junior college in Milledgeville, Georgia. Those who graduate receive an officer’s commission from the U.S. Army. But it came with some regimented practices.
“Don’t get me started with that,” Diaby said. “The first year, it was crazy. You know, we had to go in there, shave our hair off, and they threw us right into — they call it the barracks. So we had to wake up every day and go to formation. It was a whole lot. On one day, they woke us up early. We’re thinking it’s a parade or something, but we had had to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the GMC building. To the building … sing it to a building. ‘Happy Birthday.’”
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At Louisville, Diaby played five solid games before he was injured against Notre Dame, forcing him to miss the next week’s game against Florida State. When he was prepared to return, he tested positive for COVID-19. Even though he was asymptomatic, he was restricted to his living quarters for 10 days.
Last season, everything clicked for Diaby, and he emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the ACC.
“He grew into his weight,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “He has good size. He can go up to about 264, and he can still run. We see him as an outside linebacker in base, and he can still help us in sub. He can also go inside some as he gets acclimated to the system.
“It’s just a matter of what are the tools that he has to see if he can move around or stay in one spot. But he has heavy hands, he’s a load to handle, and he can run. That gives us some hope.”
Already, Diaby has found a way to carve out a piece of history with the Bucs. He will be the first player to wear No. 0. Other than offensive and defensive linemen, NFL players can utilize the number this season.
“They just said it was available,” Diaby said. “They said, ‘No other guys wanted it,’ so I was like, ‘Hey, it’d be cool, you know?’ I couldn’t get (No.) 6 (that he wore at Louisville) because of (quarterback) Baker (Mayfield). He deserves it. So 0 it is. That’s me.”
Jersey number aside, the Bucs expect Diaby to contribute something this season. His career is about to take off.
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