Jaden Yates worked hard for many years to make his mark as an elite high school football player.
However, the Gahanna Lincoln senior linebacker said he was inspired to take his game to another level this season in honor of close family friend Justice Dunham.
Dunham was murdered by a shot in the chest on December 14, 2021 in Newport News, Virginia, just seven days after his 17th birthday and just two days before Yate’s 17th birthday.
“It was tough when my cousin died because he loved football too and we talked about it all the time,” said Yates, who refers to Dunham as his cousin because their fathers have been best friends and each other for more than three decades be superior to other brothers. “Losing justice has definitely given me extra motivation because I feel like I have to get it done for both of us now, not just for my name but his name as well.
“For the past year, every time during practice I felt like I couldn’t do that one last rep, I thought about justice and it motivated me to put in that extra bit of hard work because I want to play my best for him.”
Yates’ hard work paid off this fall as he amassed 127 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss to earn the Ohio Capital Conference-Ohio Division Defensive Player of the Year and District First-Team All to be appointed and Allliga.
With Yates at the helm, Gahanna’s defense has yielded just 11.6 points per fight as the Lions have an overall record of 13-1 and break the previous team record of 11 wins in a season.
Gahanna also won 5-0 in the OCC-Ohio to capture his first championship title in 21 years and defeated New Albany 25-17 in the Region 3 finals on November 18 to capture his first regional championship in 40 years to win.
The Lions will play Lakewood St. Edward in the state semifinals on Friday, November 25 at Arlin Field in Mansfield.
“Jaden is an intense competitor who always plays hard and loves the game of football,” said Gahanna Linebackers coach Kirk Jackson. “He has a great nose for the ball, but he also understands the reads. He’s a smart kid studying the game and there are very few games where he actually gets beaten.
“His pad level is lower this year and he has a really good blast. Jaden is strong enough to shock larger offensive linemen and has a great hip blast that he uses to create block destruction.”
Yates’ physical abilities and natural instincts that allow him to excel as a linebacker aren’t that surprising considering he learned to play that position at a very young age from his father, Max, who was a high-profile linebacker for was many years.
Max Yates was recently inducted into the Marshall University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019 after finishing with the ninth most tackles (383) in team history from 1998-2001 while playing for the Thundering Herd.
Marshall had an overall record of 44-8 and won three Mid-American Conference titles and four bowl games (three Motor City Bowls and one GMAC Bowl) during Yate’s career by being the first second-team All-MAC sophomore -Team All-MAC as a junior and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
Max was also signed by the Minnesota Vikings in 2002, and after spending two seasons on their practice team, he played in one game and made two tackles in 2004. He was also signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005.
“I was kind of born with a football in my hands,” Jaden said. “My dad obviously knows a lot about the game and he taught me the basics and fundamentals from a young age.”
While Jaden’s older brother Micah never played soccer, Max quickly fell in love with the sport, says Max.
“I didn’t push football on any of my sons, but from day one Jaden played football it was his passion,” said Max. “From his freshman year you could see he was talented and gifted.
“Jaden probably got most of his athleticism from his mother (Michelle), who ran track and played basketball. She is a fitness trainer who is in great shape. She is an amazing mom who has done wonders with our children, including his younger sister (Chloe).”
Jaden blossomed so quickly in football that he spent most of his youth playing against athletes two to three years his senior. Despite this, Jaden persevered and helped lead his youth football team to three consecutive Pop Warner Super Bowl titles in 2014-16.
“Playing with kids who were older than him forced Jaden to work harder,” Max said. “The one thing I always taught him was to be first on the practice field and last off. The other things we really worked on was his hand-to-hand combat, because linebackers have to be great at getting rid of blockers. When he was little we used hand fights and pillows every day.”
Jaden credits Jackson with helping mold him into a more cerebral player.
With Jackson’s support, Jaden became a varsity starter early in his freshman season. Last year, Jaden had 60 tackles, six tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks while being named first-team all-league and all-district and third-team all-state for the Lions, who finished 7-3 overall .
“When I was younger, I was always bigger, stronger, and faster than most other kids my age, so I got to play a lot with my raw athleticism and hard work,” Jaden said. “But coach Jackson taught me how to read games and put me in a better position to play more games, which improved my football IQ and made me better.”
Jaden said working with Personal Performance Enhancement Trainer Derick Alexander at HOPE Fitness Academy has improved his overall strength, speed and athleticism.
Alexander was a 2006 Division III All-American at Capital University and played professional football for the Ancona Dolphins of the Italian Football League in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. He has coached several Division I college football athletes, including former Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix and current Baltimore Ravens linebacker Malik Harrison.
Having worked with Alexander for the past six years, the 6’2″ and 220-pound linebacker is now able to bench press 325 pounds, squat nearly 500 pounds and hang 330 pounds clean .
“Many people have helped me get to where I am today, including Coach Alexander,” Jaden said. “People used to ask me how good I was at moving in space, but I’ve worked hard to turn my weaknesses into strengths. And after putting in a lot of hard work, I’ve been able to open a lot of eyes with what I can do in the weight room.”
In fact, Jaden’s hard work on and off the field caught the eye of several Division I college coaches, earning him more than 20 football scholarship offers through the summer.
Not surprisingly, Jaden decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by making a verbal acceptance to Marshall University just two hours before Gahanna’s season opener against Mason on Aug. 19.
“Honestly, my dad stayed out of it and told me to go where I wanted to go,” Jaden said. “The first main reason I went with Marshall is so I can play there early because a lot of their linebackers are leaving. But it helped that I was familiar with the campus because our family has gone there to watch games over the years. I feel at home in this area and feel comfortable with the people there. I think they will take care of me and bring me to my full potential.”
Just moments after running into Gahanna’s field with a Marshall flag in hand, Yates amassed 13 tackles, five tackles for losses and two sacks to lead the Lions to a 9-7 win over Mason.
That game set the tone for a record-breaking season for the Lions.
“My dad is by far my biggest critic who is always quick to point out the things I need to get better at,” Jaden said. “After that first game, Pops told me for the first time in my life that I played a perfect game and it meant a lot to me.
“We had a great season rewriting our record books and notching big wins over Pickerington Central, New Albany and Pickerington North. This all feels good, but our work is not over yet. The ultimate goal that every high school football player dreams of is winning a state ring, so there’s still work to be done.”
Although Max has set an incredibly high standard with his performance at Marshall, he said his son has the potential to surpass his achievements in the Hall of Fame.
“I always tell Jaden not to compare himself to me or compete with the things that I’ve achieved,” Max said. “Just be the best version of Jaden, and when he does that, he’ll excel at what.” I’ve achieved at Marshall and will go further than I did in the NFL.
“Jaden is more physically fit and understands the game better than I did at his age, so it’s just a matter of continuing his relentless pursuit of his dreams. If he does, one day people will be like, ‘Max Yates, who?'”
And regardless of what Jaden achieves at the next level, his father said he’s proud of the way he is
has already honored the son of his best friend Mike Dunham with his style of play this season.
“Mike and I have been best friends since second grade and his son was a great receiver who spoke a lot with Jaden about football,” Max said. “Justice was a good friend and his loss at gunpoint hit Jaden hard.
“It’s not easy for a 16-year-old boy to lose a childhood friend, but Jaden is very mature and he took something that was so negative and disastrous and did his best to honor his friend’s name and legacy.” to keep alive. Jaden has grown into a great young man and we are more proud of that than anything else.”