Platoons and locker rooms: How Dasarte Yarnway adapted to life beyond the lines

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In bitter safety I awake, unfriended; / And while the dawn begins with slashing rain / I think of the Battalion in the mud. / ‘When are you going out to them again? / Are they not still your brothers through our blood?’

Siegfried Sasoon wrote this poem, called “Sick Leave,” while recovering from combat injuries sustained during World War I in an effort to express the alienation that many soldiers feel while away from the battlefield. Now, to the average civilian, the idea that anyone, a soldier especially, would long to return to the dangers of a war zone — one as hellish and grim as a WWI trench, mind you — is utterly perplexing.

“War is hell.” It’s a maxim that veterans and those who never served in the armed forces express with equal measure, but as Sebastian Junger details in his work “Tribe,” there’s some light to be gleaned from that darkness as well.

Junger explains that it’s not the combat itself that soldiers necessarily miss, but the unity that it engenders.

“A modern soldier returning from combat — or a survivor of Sarajevo — goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively.” 

It’s a sentiment shared not only among soldiers but civilians as well. After World War II, many Londoners of that era claimed to miss the days of the Blitz. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a sense of national unity that hasn’t been recaptured since.

Nidžara Ahmetašević, a prominent Bosnian journalist and survivor of the siege of Sarajevo in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, remarked: “I do miss something from the war. But I also believe that the world we are living in — and the peace we have — is very fucked up if somebody is missing war. And many people do.”

Ahmetašević was 17 when she was injured by a piece of shrapnel that hit her parents’ house. She had to undergo reconstructive surgery on her leg without anesthesia but shockingly still expressed longing for that time in her life. Recalling how during the siege, her neighborhood formed into a cooperative that shared everything it owned or could gather, she said that during the war, “We were happiest. And we laughed more.”

Examining these cases, it’s clear that in spite of the tragic violence and loss that inevitably accompanied periods like these, the absence or disappearance of communities of this nature “seems to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit,” as Junger wrote.

War was the last thing on my mind as I walked through the charming streets of North Beach on my way to interview the subject of this piece.

It was one of those perfect San Francisco sunny Saturday mornings, made all the more special considering that this was the middle of July, when the city is typically engulfed in a thick layer of fog that scandalizes tourists expecting warm California sunshine and leaves locals unimpressed, mumbling to themselves that “I’ve seen worse.”

My photographer, Nick, and I walked down Grant Avenue, chuckling at all the trash that had accumulated on the street and in front of the bar storefronts from the Friday night revelry. We made our way down Columbus Avenue, slightly cleaner but seemingly just as exhausted, as even the coffee shops and cafés had yet to open along the thoroughfare. A cruel hangover evidently gripped the neighborhood.

We turned right on Taylor Street, following the cable car tracks until, finally, we stood in front of a dark beige two-story converted office space that easily could pass for a classy bayside apartment.

Dasarte Yarnway, a former Cal football running back, is the founder of Berknell Financial Group, which happens to operate out of the aforementioned building. Berknell provides fee-only financial planning and investment management for young professionals and investors planning for retirement.

As we entered Yarnway’s office, it was clear that the space was personal — there was a portrait of his hero Nipsey Hussle and an art piece created by his cousin — but also still a work in progress (Berknell has been there for only two years and has existed for three). There was still a bare blue wall behind his desk, practically begging to be decorated.

“What should I put there?” Yarnway asked.

“Something not blue,” Nick replied.

We all laughed, Yarnway’s laugh deep and sincere, one that would put anyone at ease. Yarnway has a way of speaking — frankly, of carrying himself — that instantly relaxes you, makes you comfortable enough to joke with him about his office within the first five minutes of meeting.

There’s a confidence about Yarnway that all the best athletes carry with them: humility mixed with an almost religious belief in their talent and skill.

Yarnway’s decision to leave HSBC, one of the most successful banks across the globe, after serving as its youngest vice president of wealth management when he was only 24 years old to finally start his own financial firm reflects that confidence.

“But I had to be a little crazy, even delusional to believe that I could do it,” Yarnway conceded. “So in some ways, you have to have this ultimate belief about yourself.”

Yarnway isn’t only an interesting subject because of his athletic gifts — which allowed him to lead our shared alma mater, Sacred Heart Cathedral, to capture its first high school football championship, cementing himself as perhaps the best San Francisco high school running back since O.J. Simpson, and also allowed him to gain a scholarship to Cal — or because of his incredible back story.

The most fascinating aspect of Yarnway’s immensely fascinating story is just how much success he’s had since he stopped playing.

Stories of retired athletes who’ve had mental health struggles or debt issues or even gone broke after their playing days are legion among both college and professional ranks. Many simply slip into anonymity. With these stories, there’s a common theme that animates nearly all of them: a nostalgia for bygone glory blended with a razor-sharp bitterness for the wrong choices they made or the bad luck they had. There’s a sense that they can’t quite let go of their past and so can’t succeed into the future.

But not Yarnway. As soon as he graduated, he dived into the world of banking and finance, first with Fisher Investments, followed by investment giant Edward Jones and banking power HSBC before he finally founded Berknell in 2016. Since then, he’s authored three books focused on financial advice and hosted the “Young Money” podcast, featuring a mix of motivation and personal financial topics. NerdWallet named Yarnway one of its “12 African-American Financial Gurus to Follow in 2018” and gave him the same honor in 2019.

Yarnway speaks as if his best days are in front of him, and he’s constantly plotting out his next move — how he can get better, how he can improve, how he can find success not only for himself but for his peers as well.

Why has Yarnway managed to thrive outside of the game while a large portion of athletes have not? An excerpt from our long and free-flowing conversation explores that very question.

Rory O’Toole: So you mentioned they are kind of holding your hand, that whole process of being a student-athlete—

Dasarte Yarnway: Holding your hand and dictating your life. Like, game night when we are playing Stanford or something, you were probably turning up. We were not turning up, even if we weren’t playing. Say basketball is playing, say rugby is playing, say something else is happening, it was like, “Oh, I have to get up at 6 to go run,” and I had to be there. I think that’s the trade-off in terms of control. Like you had a little more autonomy than we did academically or socially, and that was a difference.

ROT: So when guys leave that program — graduate or whatever — have you seen them struggle without that structure?

DY: Some guys do. I talk to a lot of my former teammates, and there’s some guys who really wanted to go to the league, did not get injured and had no impediments, but didn’t make it. I think there’s a case of post-traumatic stress sometimes where they are like, “Damn, what do I do?” Nobody talks about working for something your entire life, trying, maybe succeeding or failing, not knowing what to do after that. With pro days, the hottest year is the year you stop playing, so right then, you would try out, hopefully get picked up by a team. You would see guys who came back one, two, three years after they stopped playing to do pro day, and the question is, why? Like, what is it about football or life that is preventing you from exploring all the other opportunities?

ROT: What do you think that was?

DY: I just think that, like I said, it’s a case of, “I can’t get this out of my head; I’ve never had anyone show me a world outside of this.” Often, if you can’t see it, you don’t think you can be it. So it’s about that too, and that’s not just a Cal thing. It’s probably way deeper than just the football program or just student-athlete life, right? But unfortunately—

ROT: But you see it especially with football?

DY: I see it. I see it.

ROT: A lot of what former athletes miss after leaving the game is not just the sport itself and the glory it brings, but the community that was a part of it — the locker room, that sense of brotherhood and kinsmanship, almost like a tribe in its nature. It’s difficult to replicate outside of the game, so how did you manage to thrive outside of it? Can you recapture it?

DY: I don’t think you can replicate that. But I do think that one of my goals, which I talked about in my book “Young Money,” is I wanted to make the university small. It’s a big university, and so I tried to make it small. So essentially, I would pick out individuals in the communities that I felt like I could learn from but I could be sure that I could really grow with. So I think that again, you can translate literally everything from university life, the good and sometimes the bad, into your life, and that’s what I’m trying to do now. I try to surround myself with people who I can grow with, connect with, potentially employ. So I think that’s the name of the game, and I think people find trouble going back outside of student-athlete life because maybe they never had to challenge themselves to do that, because there was always a locker room, right? But not having that, how do you build that? I think that’s the struggle. Not having people around you after school, people have trouble dating people, have trouble doing a lot of things because there’s not just a surplus of people or things without that structure.

ROT: Is the locker room something you miss?

 

DY: It is something I miss because it’s your dudes who are going to war together. I don’t know what that feels like, to actually go to war, but—

ROT: I mean, in some sense, you are putting your life on the line.

DY: You literally are, and it takes 11 people on the field to succeed. You played football, so you know that if one person misses a block, if one person does this, then you’re going to get crushed. You’re going to get crushed, so it’s going to affect the entire team. The locker room was just an extension of the dependency that we had for each other.

ROT: In a good way.

DY: In a great way. It’s like, “I’m depending on you, man!” And that, I miss.

ROT: The sum being greater than the parts.

DY: With my business now, I do get an exhilaration of scoring a touchdown or making a great play when I bring on a new client or my firm has a great quarter. Those things I can replicate, but I can’t replicate the dependency on having brothers that are willing to fight for me on and off the field.

ROT: Is that something you and your teammates talk about too?

DY: Yeah, and that’s something that makes the bond forever. I travel a lot, and I just spoke at Essence Festival in New Orleans, and I was riding through Houston, and I hit up Kendrick Payne and I was like, “Ay, KP, what’s up?” And then he said, “Bro, if you stop for longer than, like, six hours, let me know!”

ROT: That bond is forever.

DY: It’s forever, and you see that in the Cal football program. You’ve got Pappy’s boys that will have their annual get-together. I don’t think that’s unique to us; I think that’s something you can see in locker rooms across the country.

ROT: When you look at some of your former teammates who have perhaps had a more difficult time adjusting to life after football, what do you see as the most difficult challenge they face?

DY: It’s not lack of drive. These dudes are driven — it’s just that they were driven to put their energy towards football. It’s the mental shift you have to make in accepting that that football is over, you know what I mean? That’s a hard thing to do. Have you ever liked something so much that it’s hard to let it go?

ROT: Yeah, like when I found out Santa wasn’t real.

DY: Yeah! Like, “Damn, Santa’s fake?! That was you, Mom?”

ROT: Yeah, like, “What?!”

DY: Basically you have to let go of this idea and forge a new one, and that’s a hard thing to do.

ROT: How did you manage to do that? Obviously you’re a self-driven guy—

DY: Self-driven guy, but I got injured, so I had to begin thinking differently about my playing days.

ROT: So it was a blessing?

DY: A blessing in disguise. If you’re fully functional, nothing’s going wrong—

ROT: Let’s say alternate timeline: You never get injured.

DY: I probably would have stayed and come back for my fifth year. Or I would have started way earlier my career, because I was pretty good, but I think the injury just rerouted my destiny.

ROT: Was that hard to accept — just mentally, like, psychologically — that this wasn’t going to happen?

DY: Dude, it was the hardest thing I had to do at the time, and it was, like, grief because my football career was dying.

ROT: Like the five stages of denial, acceptance—

DY: I went through every emotion with that, and I had to get to this point, because otherwise, I would have kept looking in the rearview mirror asking, “What if?” And I don’t say that.

ROT: Did you feel that (you)I let someone down or maybe a sense of shame? Because people were talking about you, like I saw this headline asking if you could be the next J.J. Arrington.

DY: Oh really? (laughs)

ROT: Yeah, right on Bleacher Report.

DY: Shame, no, but I just felt like I didn’t meet my own expectations. You know you can do it, you know you’re good enough, obviously other people think so too, but it’s like, I know I didn’t meet those expectations for myself, and no one’s going to be more competitive or believe more in me than me, and I know I didn’t meet those, so it kind of sucks.

ROT: That’s kind of what your teammates went through right when they don’t make it.

DY: Exactly, and we’re all going through the same mental thing. The difference is being able to accept the fact that those goals may not come to fruition, because if you’re able to accept it, maybe you’re able to shift and pivot into other things that may bring you joy, and I think that that was the case for me. I found something that I can do — apply the same drive, commitment, work ethic — and it still brings me equally if not much more joy out of the situation, and I think a lot of people have a hard time getting to that.

Now, comparing football to war has always struck me as distasteful, but nonetheless, it’s a comparison that the sport can’t let go of, judging by its continued popularity in the game’s vernacular.

That being said, the parallels between the experiences of veterans or people who’ve lived through war zones and those of former football players are hard to ignore. The stakes between them obviously aren’t on balance (though it’s probably closer than we realize), but the social dynamics are undeniably similar.

The sense of cohesion and fellowship that comes with not only spending so much time together but also experiencing adversity as a single unit is one that builds bonds that last a lifetime in both wartime and sports. Whether it’s in the locker room or in the barracks or on the streets of a city under attack, there is a natural tribal identity that attaches itself to these groups, in the most positive sense of the word. In these social structures, both formal and informal, human beings find a social unit that provides support, identity and purpose greater than themselves. Once someone leaves that structure behind, the same often happens to their identity and spirit.

In much the same way that Yarnway said, “The locker room was just an extension of the dependency that we had for each other,” the unity that colored post-9/11 America or bombed-out Sarajevo was something that participants looked back upon with tepid wistfulness because of the interdependency it bred.

It should be unsurprising when both athletes and soldiers struggle to readjust to a modern society that essentially emphasizes the individual over the community and personal gain over the collective good.

Forming a post-athletic identity or finding meaning outside of the locker room and the platoon is challenging in that context, but Yarnway provides a model that athletes and anyone undergoing a transitionary period or looking for that meaning can follow. He concedes that the locker room dynamic may be impossible to replicate, but by investing in one’s self, chasing down one’s passions, nurturing one’s own communities and helping others along the way, real joy is attainable.

“My advice would be cast a wide net and then put your mind to something and watch how quickly the universe stands aside to let you pass,” Yarnway said. “I think that we often don’t think outside of the game or how to make that decision process, but once you find those one or two things that you are really passionate about and are able to stick to those things for a long time, I think it’s inevitable that you’re going to succeed because you have all the skills. It’s just about picking up the thing and sticking to it long enough so it’ll stick to you.”

Rory O’Toole is a Daily Cal sports staffer. Contact him at [email protected]