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Five years later, he’s come to embody the football ethos of the URI program where hard work and determination pay off. Today, Yianakopolos is a team captain who’s on full scholarship and started 18 straight games on the defensive side of the ball for the Rams.
“Instant gratification isn’t something you should expect. You’ve got to be able to work for everything that you want in life,” said Yianakopolos, listed as a redshirt senior who has seen time at safety and linebacker at URI.
It’s a story that began in a humble fashion. After touring the campus as a prospective student, Yianakopolos went to Mike Flanagan’s office. It was summer, 2016 with Yianakopolos on track to graduate from high school the following spring. He explained his story in an email sent to Flanagan, one of the main recruiting contacts on the URI coaching staff.
“Looking back, that email is pretty reflective on who he’s become,” said Flanagan. “He wrote how much he wanted to be successful at the next level and as a coachable player, he never hesitated to do what he was asked.”
Flanagan recalls Yianakopolos “wearing a serious look on his face” when the pair met face-to-face for the first time.
“He had a plan but also a self-realization to the point of ‘I know I’m not as good as I can be right now,’” said Flanagan.
For Yianakopolos, the journey from writing his original e-mail to presenting concrete evidence that he was serious about playing high-end college football began modestly. Fully aware that he was going to redshirt the moment he walked through URI’s doors, the Hopkinton, N.H. native spent the 2017 season laying the groundwork for what he envisioned would blossom into a bigger role as time marched forward.
He established a post-practice routine of running extra sprints and sharpening his footwork. It became common for Flanagan and other Rhode Island coaches to look outside some 45 minutes after practice concluded and see Yianakopolos putting in additional time.
“He was a guy that we would have to tell to get off the field because he had been out there for too long,” said Flanagan. “It was clear he was driven and wanted to work extra hard to be noticed.”
“I knew I was going to be the low man on the totem pole,” said Yianakopolos. “In my mind, I kept saying, ‘Who knows if it’s going to work out for me?’ I wanted to play at this level and stick it out.”
As a scout-team participant on defense and special teams, Yianakopolos set out to put his teammates in the best position to succeed on gameday. His efforts weren’t going unnoticed. The evidence lies in the increase in the number of games he logged between the 2018 and 2019 seasons – from three games to 10.
With his college graduation looming in 2021, Yianakopolos was asked by URI head coach Jim Fleming about what would prevent him from remaining in the football fold. Between his redshirt season and the NCAA granting an extra year in response to COVID-19, Yianakopolos still had two seasons of eligibility on the table.
“I didn’t want to move on from football but it was at the point where I (thought I) didn’t have a choice,” said Yianakopolos.
Citing his walk-on status, Yianakopolos received a reply from Fleming that he had longed to hear.
“You’re on full scholarship,” Fleming informed Yianakopolos. “I was lucky to receive that shot to come back again.”
Staff changes to URI’s coaching on defense helped Yianakopolos broaden his horizons and unlock his versatility. Last season marked a shift from safety to outside linebacker and featured 46 total tackles along with one interception and one sack.
“I felt that was the position I belonged at,” said Yianakopolos. “I was more comfortable [at linebacker].”
The tale of the unrecruited walk-on hit another high note when Yianakopolos was voted by his teammates to be a captain for the 2022 season. He’s expected to wrap up his graduate school requirements in communications later this year after having received an undergraduate degree in marketing.
“You like to take the time to reflect on where you came from,” said Yianakopolos. “If we were having this conversation back when I was a freshman, in my wildest dreams you could never have told me that I was going to be a captain.”
From the URI assistant coach who received Yianakopolos’ initial email inquiry asking for a chance to the full scholarship presentation, there’s only one way to sum up how everything ultimately played out in Kingston.
“It is a great story,” said Flanagan. “He’s reset the standard for everybody who’s following him in that same situation.”
Brendan McGair is a sportswriter and columnist with the Pawtucket Times and the Woonsocket Call. A graduate of Providence College, McGair is a five-time recipient of the R.I. Sports Writer of the Year Award as voted by the National Sports Media Association (NSMA).
Follow McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03 and on Instagram @bwmcgair.