“My grandma passed away with colon cancer. That was my heart right there. It just broke me down,” Deon Yelder says, placing his fingers in his eyes to clog a possible flood of more tears.
“My family is still recovering from it, but, it’ll never be fixed.”
Vera Holden was 63 when she died May 19. Her departure from this world was the latest blow to Yelder and his family, a unit which has rallied to stay together despite years of misfortune.
The weight Yelder felt of Holden’s ongoing cancer battle was apparent April 21 when the Western Kentucky football program gave him a scholarship for his final season as a Hilltopper.
“I lost a lot of people in my life. That really affected my life,” Yelder said. “I have a lot of people that I lost and I didn’t have no guidance and stuff like that so I was going down the wrong path. I just started to play football again and it helped me throughout life to this point where I’m at now.”
WKU's Ben Holt and Deon Yelder were awarded full scholarships after today's spring football practice. pic.twitter.com/dQPEqRn6Kq— Dominique Yates (@RealDYates) April 21, 2017
A 6-foot-4, 255-pound tight end, Yelder didn’t have a single reception coming into this year. And he had only played in 18 games in four seasons with WKU.
But heading into Saturday’s game at Marshall, the Louisvillian has become one of Western’s primary weapons on offense with 33 receptions for 399 yards and four touchdowns. He also has a rushing TD and a pair of two-point conversions.
His statistical success in the eight games he’s played in this season have seemingly come out of nowhere.
“It doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen the way that he’s worked,” WKU tight ends coach Ryan Mahaffey said. “I think if you see the way that he goes about his business, if you know the type of person he is and how competitive he is, I think he’s just been given an opportunity.
"Certainly, there were questions about the tight end position before we came here, but being around this group and seeing them work, I’m not surprised at all the way (Yelder’s) playing.”
Yelder was a standout basketball player at Southern High School in Louisville going into his junior year in 2011. His athletic success, however, had not translated into academic and personal strides – and he was teetering on the edge of sliding down the wrong path.
He had played football as a child, but hadn’t considered it in high school until a pair of mentors suggested he give it another try.
“He didn’t know his ability on the football field. He was a basketball player, but we had to transform him so he could get more physical,” SHS teacher Koby Clark said. “He started getting more physical and using that anger on the football field. It became a coping skill for him. Once he saw it, he fell in love with it.
“That’s what I was trying to teach him, how to cope, because that was the way I used football, as a coping skill.”
Clark, a former Louisville defensive lineman, and former Southern High coach Corey Crume saw the potential in Yelder as not only a football player, but as a person. He began to lead his teammates on and off the field and become a mentor for his peers in the classroom.
The Trojans went 5-17 in Yelder’s two years on the team while he played wide receiver and defensive back. Those win-loss totals were inconsequential to Yelder’s impending success.
“I just think growing up I had a lot of anger in me so I wanted to release it,” he said. “Instead of getting in trouble I’d rather tackle people and run people over, stuff like that.
“I did this for my family because I have a lot of folks at home. I’m just telling ‘em that you can do it if you put your heart and mind to it.”
In the spring of 2013, Yelder had decisions to make. His love for football was stronger than his desire to play basketball – which he said he could have pursued at the Division II or III level.
It was then that newly-hired Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm approached Yelder with an opportunity. Former WKU coach Bobby Petrino didn’t have any scholarships left to give, but Yelder was more than welcome to become a Hilltopper as a preferred walk-on.
“For real, this was my dream school growing up,” Yelder said. “I had cousins and stuff that went here years ago. I always said I wanted to go to school here because I liked the school. It was a big party school at the time.
“Then when coach Brohm was recruiting me and told me he’d give me a preferred walk-on, I was like, ‘It’s better than nothing because I come from nothing.’ I’d rather be here than at home doing nothing.”
There’s a strong chance Western fans weren’t aware Yelder was even part of the team for his first three years. He redshirted in 2013 and never played in 2014 while watching tight ends Mitchell Henry, Tyler Higbee, Tim Gorski and Devin Scott.
In 2015 Yelder played in the final four games of the year as a backup tight end and special teams contributor. Last year, behind tight ends Stevie Donatell, Shaq Johnson and Desmond Maxwell on the depth chart, Yelder’s biggest contribution – one that shouldn’t be undersold – was blocking an extra point in a 44-43 overtime win at rival Middle Tennessee.
No one would have blamed the seldom-used Yelder if had decided to hang ‘em up after a few years of relative inactivity without a scholarship to fall back on. But he had a promise to fulfill and a dream to actualize.
“I just love football. I said that once I start something I always finish it. It don’t matter if I didn’t play it my senior year, I would still finish it out,” Yelder said. “That’s my main thing, finishing football out and graduating. God got a plan for everybody, that’s my whole motto, god got a plan for everybody. If it’s my plan to play football still after college, it’s in god’s hands, not in my hands any more.
“All this happening right now, this is crazy. This is really crazy. But I had a dream about this though, no lie. I had a dream about this when I first came here. I dreamed about this and I told my girlfriend, I was like, ‘My senior year it’s gonna be a big change. I’m gonna get a scholarship. And I’m gonna be playing. It’s gonna be crazy. Just trust me.’ This year it happened – so it’s really crazy.”
One year before Holden’s death, Yelder lost his stepfather Dewayne Snead who died due to complications with diabetes. Yelder’s great-grandmother and a close cousin also passed away in the years since he first enrolled at WKU.
Daily prayers to god for guidance along with a strong relationship with his mother, Sherita Yelder, and his four brothers and one sister have allowed him to keep his head up – the family uses a daily group text message to stay in touch with each other. Sherita’s mantra of, “keep working, keep grinding, keep your head down, be humble” is always on Yelder’s mind.
And all of those factors have helped the transformation of a kid from Louisville that has been as unlikely as it has been impressive.
“When he recognized he could start helping himself, he started helping his peers to lead them in the right direction,” Clark said. “As I helped him, he helped others, and by them seeing what he’s doing right now, the kids look up to him now.
“It’s unbelievable. I knew he had the ability to do it. Me, coming from Miami (Fla.), coming from where I came from and I had to go through the same struggle that he had, so if you believe, you can get anything taken care of. You just gotta believe. He bought in and he believed. So I’m very proud of him.”
The Hilltoppers (5-4, 3-2 Conference USA) have just three – maybe four – games left this season. Those opportunities are the only ones remaining for the redshirt-senior tight end to continue to make a name for himself as far as his professional football prospects are concerned.
Regardless of that future, Yelder is on track to graduate in December with an interdisciplinary studies degree with an emphasis on business. If his football days come to an end, he’ll enroll in WKU’s graduate program for engineering.
Yelder had sincerely hoped his late grandmother could see him play this season. But above all else he promised her he’d leave The Hill with a college degree. He’s come through on that declaration
“I was just working as hard as I could to get a role on the team. Coming in as a walk-on, you gotta work harder than anybody else. I was just working as hard as I could,” he said. “I just worked and kept my head down, praying to god that something would happen – and I got a scholarship.
“I really wanted (my grandmother) to see me play. That’s the main thing, to see me play and graduate. It was definitely a blessing, the whole thing, to get a scholarship. But I’d rather see her.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop