Inside Notre Dame commit Deion Colzie's relationship with his PTSD-ailing mother

Carter Karels | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Yolanda Jackson says she will never forget Brian Kelly’s reaction to her son committing to Notre Dame’s football program.

After hearing Deion Colzie’s decision, the Irish head coach displayed emotions so raw that Jackson teared up. Kelly’s faced turned red. His eyes widened. He embraced Colzie with a handshake and pulled him closer, in excitement.

Then Kelly hesitated, took a step backward and eyed Colzie. He wanted to make certain of something before proceeding.

“Wait,” Kelly said, “are you kidding?”

The fact that the Irish poached a four-star wide receiver recruit out of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart’s backyard seemed unbelievable at first. But the Athens (Ga.) Academy product affirmed his pledge to Notre Dame, one of the first major programs to begin recruiting him as a high school freshman.

The commitment continued Notre Dame’s hot streak on the recruiting trail with skill position players. That weekend of the Oct. 12 USC game alone saw the Irish land two top receivers out of the 2021 recruiting class in the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Colzie and the 6-foot-1, 170-pound speedster Lorenzo Styles Jr. The Irish plucked Styles — a product of Pickerington (Ohio) Central — from Ohio State territory and its target list.

For an Irish offense that’s faltered at times this season, help appears to be on the way. Notre Dame’s 2020 class added speed, playmaking and prowess in wide receivers Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts, running back Chris Tyree and tight end Michael Mayer. The 2021 class ranks No. 1 nationally per Rivals and includes four-star tight end Cane Berrong.

“The 2020 class may be their best collection of skill players on offense that Brian Kelly has ever recruited in one class,” said Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting. “Then you are coming behind it with this group in 2021 — they have a chance to be really, really exciting on offense with this group of skill players.”

Wiltfong believes Mayer could become the best tight end of the Kelly Era. Better than starting junior Cole Kmet, who continues to garner NFL hype. Tyree (4.37), Styles (4.47) and Watts (4.49) bring the 40-yard dash speed and shiftiness needed to spread out a defense.

But none of them may be more equipped to translate their skills into elite production than Colzie, which is saying something when considering Notre Dame’s past fortunes with top-rated receivers under Kelly.

Three receivers to sign with the Irish under Kelly have been ranked among the top 112 overall players in their recruiting classes by both 247Sports and Rivals: Davonte’ Neal (2012), Justin Brent (2014) and Javon McKinley (2016). Neal (Arizona) and Brent (Nevada) both transferred. McKinley has cracked the starting lineup just once in his four seasons with the Irish.

Colzie’s recruiting pedigree compares to those three. 247Sports pegs Colzie as its No. 6 wide receiver and No. 55 overall player, while Rivals slates him No. 6 at the position and No. 95 overall.

“Deion Colzie has a chance to be Notre Dame’s next All-American receiver,” Wiltfong said. “He has all the traits you are looking for at the position. We will see what he does in college, but he’s big, he can run, he can go up and get the football, he can dominate in one-on-one situations and he can separate.”

In their search of finding a receiver that can finally meet those lofty expectations under Kelly, the Irish may have found one in Colzie. His life experience may have prepared him to do so, maturing him for what’s to come.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (left) and mother Yolanda Jackson (middle) pose with four-star wide receiver Deion Colzie (right) after his Oct. 12 commitment.

Being a trouper

A 10-year stint in the military didn’t haunt Yolanda Jackson to an overwhelming degree until nearly 20 years later.

Once her life settled down in the summer of 2015, Jackson started experiencing nightmares and hallucinations. She resisted sleep out of fear, which resulted in migraines. Then came the seizures and suicidal thoughts.

Heavy medication hardly curtailed Jackson’s anguish, leaving neurologists perplexed about the nature of her condition.

“I was about to attempt suicide,” Jackson said, “but my husband (Frank Jackson) woke up. He sleeps harder — he could sleep through a hurricane and not wake up. But on this particular night he woke up, because I was about to commit suicide.

“I was at the lowest point. I didn’t feel like anybody could help me. I didn’t feel like anybody understood what I was going through.

“He woke up and literally saved my life.”

Trauma and years of abuse toward Jackson — a former casualty clerk at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga. — had finally caught up to her. Jackson’s responsibilities included identifying dead bodies on the battlefield and preparing reports to notify their families.

Jackson was also tasked with determining whether individuals were ready for combat. She interviewed wounded soldiers in line for a Purple Heart, which could be a lot more treacherous than it sounds.

“I’m seeing them come back with no arms, no legs, severe shrapnel wounds to the head,” said Jackson, who assisted in the efforts of Operation Desert Storm. “They would be angry with me. If I was the last person they had to go through before they left, when they came back, their anger would be taken out on me.”

Doctors eventually diagnosed Jackson with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Knowing her condition helped Jackson start the healing process. Jackson calls herself a “PTSD survivor” in reference to the everyday fight.

Therapy soon made life manageable. Family made life enjoyable.

“Deion was phenomenal,” Jackson said. “I think any other kid that was his age at the time that had to watch their mother suffer through what I was going through at the time probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it.

“But he was a trouper. He was always right there to hug me and tell me that he loves me. He would tell me to keep fighting, that I love you, that I need you. That’s what kept me going.”

As the youngest child to three sisters, Colzie, 16, became the man of the house when his stepfather, Frank, left for work. When Jackson wanted to quit her pursuit of a doctorate degree, Colzie encouraged her to keep going.

Now she’s on track to receive the degree in September of 2021, the same month of Colzie’s first collegiate game.

“I definitely feel like I matured at a young age,” Colzie said. “Having to be there, take care of her, make sure she’s good first. Making sure she’s OK before I did my homework when I was younger.”

A helping hand

Another one of Jackson’s panic attacks felt imminent as she and her son maneuvered their way toward Sanford Stadium.

Crowded areas are a trigger for Jackson’s PTSD. That’s the one downside to Colzie’s recruiting visits for high-profile college football games. He also knew Jackson had long been waiting for this Sept. 21 game between her favorite childhood team, Notre Dame, and the hometown Georgia squad.

So Colzie grabbed his mother’s hand, guided her through the masses and offered words of encouragement to quell her anxiety.

“I want her to know that I will always be there for her,” Colzie said. “If she needs me to hold her hand and walk her through a crowd, I will. I’m not ashamed of holding my mother’s hand and walking her.

“If a crowd is what scares her or makes her feel a certain way, I’m going to be there for her and I’m going to help her through it.”

Football has provided Jackson another remedy. Jackson, a former high school football referee, embraced Colzie’s recruitment. She managed his social media accounts as he accrued offers from Alabama, Georgia, Florida and others.

“It really loosens her up when she’s feeling uptight,” Colzie said. “Watching me play, watching me enjoy what I do, it definitely makes it a little easier on her.”

So did moments like Colzie’s commitment. Without wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander to help stage the bombshell, Jackson would have never seen Kelly’s genuine reaction.

Colzie told Alexander of his decision moments before a scheduled meeting with Kelly. Alexander kept the news quiet, allowing Colzie to inform Kelly about his commitment.

“But if you see me out there doing cartwheels, you know why,” Alexander told them.

The announcement also surprised Jackson. By withholding his intentions from her, Colzie knew he would incite a memorable reaction. He knows how much those moments mean to her, particularly during times of struggle.

“My mom is my lady,” Colzie said. “She’s my ride or die. I just think that whatever she goes through, I go through the same thing with her. When she’s happy, I’m happy. When she’s sad, I’m sad.

“Everything she goes through really affects me in a positive way. It gives me a reason to go harder and a reason to do better for her.”

Four-star wide receiver Deion Colzie out of Athens (Ga.) Academy committed to Notre Dame on Oct. 12. Photo provided

The following recruits are expected to visit Notre Dame for Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech.

Graduate transfer candidate

S Isaiah Pryor

2021 targets

OL Wyatt Milum

WR Andrel Anthony Jr.

2020 commit

Jay Brunelle*

2020 prospect

K Harrison Mevis

2021 prospects

QB Ron Powlus III

RB Loyal Crawford

RB Willie Shaw

WR Jacob Gill

WR Reece Jesse

WR Christian Lewis

WR Preston Terrell

WR Jayden Thomas

OL Carson Briggs

OL Dalton Dueweke

OL Paul Rodriguez

DB Kamren Blanton

DB Dre Pinckney

DB Amari Wansley

DB Hunter Wohler

2022 prospects

QB Nicco Marchiol

RB Aaron Jones

RB Tevin White

WR Will Futhey

WR Elijah Griffin

WR Eian Pugh

OL Ryan Baer

OL Colton Burkhart

OL Kendrix Goodman

OL Jeremiah Jackson

OL Tyler Leopold

OL Gavin Rohrs

OL Carter Smith

DB Braelon Allen

DB Isaiah Bond

DB Kyle Johnson

DB Avyonne Jones

DB Nikai Martinez

DL Rico Franklin

DL Daniel Tooson

DL Popeye Williams

2023 prospect

DL Luke Montgomery

*denotes official visit