Michigan football opens the 2020 season Sept. 5 on the road against Washington, and finishes Nov. 28 on the road against Ohio State.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Junior Colson chose May 24 to announce his commitment to Michigan football.
It’s the date he began a new life.
On May 24, 2012, Colson flew to America and became a permanent citizen, joining his adopted family after spending years in an orphanage.
“That day meant a lot to me,” Colson, a 17-year-old linebacker from Brentwood, Tennessee, near Nashville, told the Free Press. “Ever since I was a freshman, I wanted to commit on that day because it represented a new start, a new journey.”
Junior Colson. (Photo: Ryan Callahan of 247Sports)
Born in Haiti, Colson experienced loss earlier than most. When he was a small child, his father passed away. His father’s will stipulated that Colson live in an orphanage, in hopes that someone would adopt him and provide a better life. It meant leaving behind the rest of his family, including his mother, who remains alive.
His father’s last wish shaped Colson’s life, allowing him to become a gem in Michigan’s 2021 recruiting class as one of the top defensive players in the country. And, by extension, that decision has touched the lives of countless others.
“We’re just so honored and blessed that we get to call him our son,” said Melanie Colson, his adoptive mother.
Colson’s upbringing is one of his defining traits, as he was forced to mature quickly. And while he prefers not to dwell on his past, his life before and after adoption cannot be separated. One led to the other, and both are inextricably part of his journey.
“You see a lot of people going through some things and it hardens them, but he is the opposite,” said Buck Fitzgerald, Colson’s private trainer. “He is smiling, bright and a happy person that’s grateful for the opportunity that he has in life with his new family and school.”
As Colson puts it: “I got a lot more opportunities here in America than I would ever get in Haiti. … I got a better life, I got a better education. My dad basically helped set me up for success. He wanted me to succeed. That’s why he’s on my mind every single day.
“I’ve got to succeed.”
Colson was born in Mirebalais, a commune in central Haiti, and grew up on a farm.
Specific memories are hard to recall, but he remembers living happily. He had a beloved cow and worked on the land with his family, until his father died.
Based on his father’s will, Colson moved to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital and largest city. It was there, a couple years later in 2010, where Colson slept through the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked the country, killing hundreds of thousands and affecting millions more.
Colson doesn’t remember the deadly quake. But he remembers the aftermath.
“Everything changed for a long time,” Colson said. “People were scared. A lot of people died. A lot of houses were destroyed. A lot of places were gone.”
Thousands of miles away, the Colson family took notice of Haiti’s plight.
Amanda Colson, the eldest child of Melanie and Steve Colson, learned of a mission trip offered by Fellowship Brentwood, the family’s church at the time. She raised enough money for her and her mother to go.
“I felt like I was supposed to go,” Amanda said. “Something in my heart just said, ‘You’re supposed to be there.’ ”
Amanda and Melanie helped rebuild houses and churches. They spent time at orphanages, which were overloaded after the earthquake. That’s how they met Colson.
Colson was “very reserved,” according to Amanda, preferring to play with his close friends or by himself. Eventually, he began to warm up to them, and during one of the final days of the trip, he bonded with Amanda over stickers as they hung out by a pool.
“He reminded me of me when I was a little kid,” Melanie, 53, said. “I was a little bit shy. Not necessarily a wallflower, but more observant. Everyone was playing and having a really good time, and he was too, but he separated himself a little bit. He did a lot more observing than he did participating.”
After fostering 11 children back in Tennessee, the Colson family had decided they wanted to adopt. They didn’t travel to Haiti for that purpose, but everything changed when they received a phone call from the orphanage shortly after returning from the mission trip.
A family was backing out of adopting Colson.
“He started explaining how this family told him that they believed they were not supposed to adopt Junior,” Melanie said. “That he was not supposed to be their son — they believed it with all their heart.”
The decision came quickly: The American mother and daughter whom Colson had met would become his new mom and sister.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow,’ ” Colson said. “I wanted to learn everything about them.”
By Christmas, the Colsons had completed their adoption paperwork, compiling a dossier with hundreds of pages of information, background checks, psychiatrist visits and financial statements.
“We had a lot of hurdles to go through,” Steve said. “We did it privately, so we didn’t have a lot of help, it was all on our own working through the governments on each side.”
The process was long. The Colsons were told adoption through Haiti could take up to five years, though it ended up only taking two. They continued to visit Colson in Haiti as they waited. They FaceTimed him, wrote letters and passed along messages through friends and other travelers. But it was no substitute for having him home.
“It was really hard, those two years, knowing we were missing something,” Amanda, 25, said. “Something was empty, not complete.”
Time seemed to move slowly for Colson at the orphanage. His emotions about the adoption were complicated, and it took time to sort through them.
“I remembered I didn’t want to leave,” he said.
But when one of his best friends was adopted by a family in France, his perspective changed. “I was like, ‘What’s the point of staying here now?’ ” Colson said. “That’s the one time when the feelings intensified, like, ‘Let’s get out now. You’ve been here a long time.’ ”
In late May 2012, Melanie and Amanda returned to Haiti and finally brought Colson to Tennessee.
May 24 was a day of firsts for Colson, who had never been on a plane. He flew from Port-au-Prince to Miami and then to Nashville. His first meal in America was a cheeseburger (with the tomatoes and lettuce removed) and fries from Wendy’s.
“Watching the curiosity in his mind — he took everything in that he saw,” Melanie said. “All of the new things.”
Colson’s adjustment to America began the second he walked into his new home.
“The first thing I saw was this big old Rottweiler,” he said. “I was a little terrified.”
In those days, the biggest obstacle he faced was a language barrier. The Colsons prepared for his arrival by learning Creole, with varying degrees of proficiency; hand signals became commonplace.
Still, Colson was a quick learner. He grew to love school and the structure that it added. He was placed in an English as a Second Language class only for one year, shorter than the norm, and he read constantly (his favorite genre: war novels).
Books taught Colson a new language. They also taught him social and cultural norms. Football, however, taught him how to interact with the world.
Colson grew up playing soccer in Haiti, but he quickly was converted to football by his brother Josh, who was six years older and already was playing the sport. They formed a tight bond, playing soccer, baseball and football in the backyard. When Josh would return from football workouts, he’d go through a similar workout with Colson.
“I taught him what organized sports were in America, and I think that helped him adapt because that was something he could learn about himself or dive into,” Josh, 23, said. “He could get acclimated to living in America through sports. I think that’s something everybody in America does — live sports.”
Naturally athletic, Colson’s first year of football was not easy. The Colsons put him on a team soon after he arrived in 2012, when he was 9 years old. Colson didn’t understand many of the plays, so his coaches held up pictures that served as cues for what to do. Eventually, he developed a love for the game, taking back kickoffs for touchdowns and starring at running back and receiver.
“It was weird, but fun at the same time,” Colson said, “and I’ve just been playing ever since.”
In middle school, Colson began to realize football would be part of his future. He had met many of his closest friends through football, while also developing a sense of independence. Through football, he could relate to others despite coming from a different background.
“He was real shy at first,” Josh said, “but once he got onto a team, he was part of the team and it wasn’t just our family. Once he realized that there were other things out there and that we were here to support him always, he really started to get comfortable.”
Colson stood out in those early years and kept scoring touchdowns, and yet nobody would have predicted his ascent as a blue-chip defensive recruit (he’s the No. 8-ranked outside linebacker in the nation in 2021, according to the 247Sports Composite, and the No. 2 overall player in Tennessee).
“My third year of playing football, my coach put me on defense my first play, and I got trucked,” Colson said. “I was like, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ ”
Colson saw himself as an offensive player, and he even played receiver his freshman year at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood. But Matt Daniels, the coach at Ravenwood, believed Colson had more potential on defense — especially at linebacker, where Colson’s unique blend of size and speed fit better with the modern game.
Once again, Colson proved to be a quick learner. As a junior, he helped lead Ravenwood to a 13-2 record and an appearance in the Class 6A state championship game. His recruitment took off, as schools such as Tennessee, Oklahoma and Oregon began targeting him.
But Michigan already had an in. In the summer of 2019, Melanie — a Michigan native and longtime fan — had brought Colson to U-M’s annual summer camp. He impressed the coaching staff and received a scholarship offer, and the experience left an indelible impression. Six months later, Michigan gained another advantage when it hired linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary, the son of Haitian-born parents, who quickly became Colson’s primary recruiter. They talked about their shared background “quite a bit,” Colson said.
“It was amazing to find someone else that’s from there and understands it all,” he added.
Wherever Colson goes, he’s reminded of how his past shapes his future. Surrounded by loving family, he says he is immensely happy.
“It’s definitely been enriching,” Steve said. “That doesn’t mean it’s been easy by any stretch of imagination, I think anyone who adopts realizes that there’s struggles that go along with that, but Junior has been an absolute blessing. It just seems like he’s always been a part of our family.”
Junior Colson and his family on vacation. (Photo: Colson family)
Colson occasionally thinks about how different his life would be had he stayed in Haiti. And yet, in the midst of summer classes and preparing for his final season of high school football, he can’t help but feel joy with where he ended up. He summarizes it this way:
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Colson said, “and God gave me this opportunity. I’ve just got to take this and run with it and try to live up to the potential that he had in mind for me.”