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  • Writer's picturePatrick Engels

Allen U's Resilient Jayda Jackson

Growing up as a tall and athletic child in Atlanta, Jayda Jackson experienced what may seem like an ideal childhood. But her early adult years have presented one challenge after another. Suffering and recovering from six total knee injuries on her ACL and meniscus, Jayda Jackson has shown the ultimate resolve amid an influx of major injuries – eventually returning to the basketball court as a senior standout at Allen University.

Let’s go back to those early years. Jackson loved the company of her three dogs, Coco, Max and Bear. She spent hours playing basketball and kickball in her driveway alongside neighborhood friends and twin sister, Jayla. At age 7, she joined her first basketball team with Cedar Grove Methodist Chruch run by "Coach Eddie." A few yers later, she dominated on the hardwood, winning MVP awards in both 7th and 8th grade at Atlanta’s middle school all-star tournaments. “It was actually fun growing up,” Jackson said.

While Jackson’s childhood was full of success and excitement, her mother, Debra Folks, always knew that at some point her daughter would have to endure adversity. “I just let her know, it’s going to get greater, it’s going to get tougher,” Folks said. “They don’t understand it, but as they get older, they go through things, and it gets tougher.”

Just as her mother predicted, Jackson’s adversity came. And when it did, it swept over her in waves, which crashed right on her two kneecaps. Jackson’s first life obstacle came in 2015 as a freshman at Cedar Grove High School in Ellenwood, Georgia. Although she would emerge as one of the best freshmen in all of Dekalb County, averaging 11.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a game, her inaugural campaign came to a screeching halt in the last game of the season.

“We were playing a home game, and my family was there,” Jackson said. “Somebody was coming down the court for a layup, and I was coming behind her. I was going to block her shot, I’m telling you, I was going to block it. But I ended up jumping, and I came down wrong. I just remember I was crying and screaming. [My knee] was just swollen, it swelled real fast, and I couldn’t move it, because every time I’d move it, it would hurt. I was just screaming and crying, I was just in really bad pain.”

She was taken off the court on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital. Doctors performed an MRI and confirmed the severity of the injury: Jackson had suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in her right knee that would require surgery.

Tending to Jackson during her tedious months of recovery, her mother recalls a moment of sheer agony her daughter experienced. “She was in so much pain. I remember her first surgery, me running upstairs to come in [her room], and she is balling because she is in so much pain. And I’m just holding her hand and just feeling helpless, because there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could do but just hold her hand and just sit there.”

Others tried to help as well. Her stepfather, Greg Stewart, did his best to keep her knee clean to avoid infection. And Jayla, her twin, well she definitely did a lot: she fixed the food that Jayda needed to eat with her medicine, brought her everything she needed, assisted with her attempts to move around the house, and "cleaned up behind" her every day. That is one stellar sister.

But when it came to advice throughout the rehab process Jackson, facing anguish for one of the first times in her life, leaned hardest on her mother. Mom was an excellent guide, as she had experience dealing with hardships of her own.

Raising four children and working three jobs to support the family as a single mother, Folks had suffered a heart attack at the age of 40. Although she was forced to relax for about a month, she was able to recover and continue providing for her family of four — a display of resiliency that she wanted her daughter to emulate after her injury.

“I just told her, in life, there are ups and downs,” Folks said. “This is a down, but you don’t have to stay down. I always say, ‘You fell down, but you just didn’t fall down with your face down, you fell down with your face up. So you just gotta keep working hard.”

Taking her mother’s advice to heart, Jackson returned to the hardwood in grand style during her high school junior campaign. After sitting out her entire sophomore season, the Atlanta native re-introduced herself to the city, ranking in the top five in Dekalb county in points, rebounds and blocks, as well as earning a spot on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's All-Dekalb County first team.

After that impressive season, Jackson received offers from 12 schools throughout the region, including Division-I institutions Alabama State and Appalachian State.

However, Jackson’s collegiate aspirations were put on hold again after yet another significant setback in her senior season when she suffered yet another torn ACL and meniscus, this time in her left knee.

She could have felt alone at that point. Her number one choice Alabama State was among several schools that rescinded their official offers following the second injury, and Jackson questioned whether she would ever return to the game she had loved since age two — a realization that allowed depressive thoughts to creep into her head.

“I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t drinking anything, I was just upset. That was my first time feeling what a depression was. So I had lost a whole bunch of [weight]. I went from like 150 to 120 [pounds], my weight, it had dropped. And I was just feeling like, ‘I’m never playing again.’ I was crying because I lost my offers, because I really wanted to play college ball.”

With her back against the wall, Jackson once again turned to the one person she trusted most for guidance: her mother — who offered the same advice she had two years before.

“I just explained to her, in life, things happen for a reason,” Folks said. “I could never explain to her the reason, but I just always told her, ‘things happen for a reason, sometimes we just don’t have any control over it.’ Things that happen, we just have to pick up and keep going.”

Fast forward through four years and two more knee injuries. Jackson is still taking her mother’s advice to heart. After injuries — and the COVID-19 pandemic — derailed her last four seasons, Jackson returned to the court as a full participant at Allen University during her senior campaign.

Jackson said her first game during her college senior season was an emotional rollercoaster, as it served as a testament to all the struggles she had endured along her basketball journey.

“I was really nervous, like, I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous,” Jackson said. “I was sweating, just nervous, scared. I couldn’t believe that we were about to play in a game. I was thinking about how I would play, what would I do, I was hoping I wouldn’t get hurt. It was just kind of shocking that I was going to play a full season, because that’s been my first full season since junior year of high school.”

After shaking off the cobwebs in the first game of the season, Jackson helped spearhead the Yellow Jackets’ offense throughout the season, ranking second on the team with 168 points scored and first on the team with 134 total rebounds.

For Jackson, her favorite moment from the season was her team’s come-from-behind senior night victory over Albany State. Jackson, who praised the performances of her two teammates Cadrina Nolen and Aniya Keeling, put on a show of her own. With her entire family watching, the senior added six points, 11 rebounds, three assists and three steals to help secure the 66-59 win, placing a positive bow on a career filled with significant injury troubles.

“It was a proud moment, because we ended up winning on senior night,” Jackson said. “We were down a lot by halftime, and we played really good together, getting stops, sharing the ball and scoring before they can score again.”

Jackson may be leaving the Yellow Jackets program this spring, but the significant imprint she left on this program, especially on the defensive end, will be remembered by the program forever.

How so? For head coach Tocarra Toland, she thinks Jackson’s name should be etched on a bronze trophy.

“She leaves behind a tradition of commitment to defend,” Tocarra said. "When I recruit, I look for players who take charges or sacrifice their game for the team. Maybe in the future, our Defensive POY award will be named after her. The Jayda Jackson award- I like it."

While Jackson’s rollercoaster college basketball career is now history, her career off the court is just getting started.

Jackson, who is majoring in biology and wants to be a veterinarian, plans to graduate in this spring with a Bachelor of Science degree, making her the first collegiate graduate on her mom’s side of the family.

For the woman who spent sleepless nights studying with her daughter, seeing Jayda walk across the stage and make history in the family will be something she will cherish forever.

“I didn’t graduate, so she’ll be the first in my family,” Folks said. “It’s just so amazing. I would always have to drill Jayda, but I didn’t have to drill her this time. She made the Dean’s list last semester, and she’s getting ready to graduate. So, it’s just unbelievable, I’m so excited. I guess with me sitting with her drilling and studying, it just paid off.”

And for the coach that took a chance on a hobbled and fearless forward, it serves as a moment of pride.

“Jayda is very resilient,” Toland said. “Many times she's been injured and I would have to force her to sit out. I even tried to convince her to stay and play her final season but I will be sad to see her go. I love her and everything about who she is and the impact that she will make on this world. I'm excited to see what her future holds. There's no doubt in my mind that Jayda will be successful at whatever she chooses to do. I know that she wants to be a veterinarian and I'm excited for that- for her."

From the countless rehab stints to the nights of agonizing pain, Jayda Jackson has endured more during her basketball career than she could have imagined.

“My mom always says that, since we didn’t struggle, that's why God put me through the struggling things,” Jackson said. “She said stuff like, ‘That’s the world.’ You will be happy, and then something will knock you down. And then you gotta figure out if this will make you or break you. I feel like, now that she told me that, the reason why I was put through what I was put through was because I was never put through anything struggling wise. So, I had to be put through something to figure out if it would make me or break me. And I realized that it made me.”

However, in her mind, everything she has gone through was worth it, as it has made her a better person. A person who has persevered and succeeded. On the court and off.

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