“(Being the top basketball player in the country) has been my goal since fifth grade on,” Yates said. “And I didn’t get there, obviously, but, I mean, I figure I did all right. That’s what kind of made me have that work ethic and those goals.”
Or, as his father Evan Yates put it, “I always think, if you have a goal of making a million dollars, you’ll never make 10 million. So you’ve got to set those goals further out than you even think is possible.”
Yates, who may be the Yellow Jackets’ quarterback of the future, has arrived at this station in his life’s journey not only because of a willingness to set out stratospheric goals for himself, but also because of his diligence in trying to achieve them.
“It’s kind of like a pretty broad answer, but I just like being good,” Yates said. “I like kind of being out there. It feels weird just being on the field, like, average. I guess I would say I like to stand out.”
The aspiration has long bubbled in Yates. As a fourth-grader, Yates played on a state-champion travel football team, but wasn’t the star. In hindsight, his status wasn’t necessarily a forecast of limited athletic potential, as the Alpharetta Eagles were ridiculously loaded. Teammates included C.J. Abrams, who was the sixth overall pick in the major league draft this past June, J.D. Bertrand, a freshman linebacker at Notre Dame, and Steele Chambers, a freshman running back at Ohio State.
Regardless, Yates committed himself throughout the following summer to lifting his game. He ran sprints up a hill in his backyard. He improved his footwork on an agility ladder. And when he showed up for tryouts in the fall, Yates said, he had transformed into the fastest player in the league. (A year later, Yates made ESPN’s top 10 plays of the day with a spectacular one-handed catch, a grab that even caught the attention of Hall of Famer and TV commentator Jerry Rice.)
When he was in middle school, he surprised his stepfather Ray Grayson, a personal trainer for numerous celebrities and high-profile athletes, with a request. Was it OK for him to start getting up early to work out on his own? Granted permission, Yates began to rise early to train at home before school.
“I guess a lot of things I do is because I just saw it growing up,” Yates said.
It is an ethic that he carried with him to Milton. When coach Adam Clack was hired at Milton before Yates’ junior season, Yates caught his new coach’s attention by wanting to know when he could see the playbook, learn the offense on the field with him and get in touch with the new offensive coordinator. He was a lead-by-example type who also conferred with Clack on how to help his team practice better. He worked with private quarterback coach Quincy Avery, whose most notable pupils include NFL first-round draft picks Deshaun Watson and Dwayne Haskins.
“I don’t know that I have the vocabulary to accurately describe that young man’s work ethic,” Clack said. “From the first day I met him, you could tell he was different.”
Yates referred daily to his goal sheets, which also included objectives such as not being afraid to make mistakes, to pray on a nightly basis and not to miss any school assignments. His goal setting, a practice encouraged by his father and stepfather, provided a framework for his drive.
“I remember coaches would introduce us to goal setting in high school,” Yates said. “I was like, I’ve been doing this since I was in fifth grade. … It definitely just gave me a leg up.”
Yates’ ambition is fed by many sources, not least of which is his uncle T.J. Yates, who was a record-setting quarterback at North Carolina and then played seven seasons in the NFL, one with the Falcons. (Yates wears No. 13 in homage to him and his grandfather John Yates, who was a walk-on at Purdue.)
Yates looked up to his uncle, following his career, playing his best when he came to watch his youth-league games and, when Jordan was at Milton, breaking down opponents together over FaceTime. T.J. also planted in his nephew the idea that he could do likewise.
“I’m huge on exposure,” said Grayson, Jordan’s stepfather. “It shapes your reality. So he’s just always been exposed to a higher level, so he always knew that it was attainable if I just focus and work hard.”
His uncle, now an assistant coach with the Houston Texans, is just one member of a blended family that has endeavored to put aside differences to create a supportive environment to launch Yates into the world. Yates’ parents were teenagers when he was born and later divorced. (Both parents remarried and had children. Yates has four half-siblings.)
Yates’ mother Camille Grayson acknowledged that maintaining unity takes time, and there are inevitable disagreements, but “everyone has to want to be on the same page, and we all did.” At Milton games, it wasn’t uncommon for 20 family members to be in the stands.
“It’s one of those rare, rare, rare instances where Mom and Dad kind of maybe grew apart, but instead of having a divided household, it was almost like he gained parents in the process,” said Clack, Yates’ coach at Milton.
Yates committed to Tech last summer to play for coach Paul Johnson, but now finds himself possibly in a position to be better utilized in the spread offense of coach Geoff Collins. He also arrives at a time when being a under six feet (Yates is generously listed at 6-foot) is not nearly the negative it once was for quarterbacks, thanks to the exploits of undersized passers such as Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, Oklahoma’s back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners.
Yates’ goals at Tech are no less daring than those he set in middle school. Getting on the field as soon as possible, being the best player he can be, but also a national championship and, in his words, “a bunch of ACC championships.”
He may or may not get there. But it won’t be for a lack of effort.
Said Clack, “He’s going to find a way to outwork, to outhustle to get himself in position to achieve the goals that he wants.”
This is the seventh story in a series about members of Georgia Tech’s incoming freshman class.
The series so far:
Nazir Burnett's path to Georgia Tech was not an easy one
Zach Owens brings ‘a chip on my shoulder’ to Georgia Tech
Michael Lockhart is Georgia Tech’s ‘diamond in the rough’
Cornelius Evans’ path to Georgia Tech: Four different high schools