INDIANAPOLIS — Austin Jackson watched his little sister Autumn require blood transfusions every three weeks for five years.
He said sometimes her body rejected the blood, which required hospitalization.
Autumn has Diamond Blackfan Anemia (DBA), a rare inherited disorder that prevents bone marrow from producing red blood cells. According to dbafoundation.org, only 25 to 35 new cases are discovered each year in the United States and Canada.
Last year Autumn’s health was deteriorating, her condition increasingly dire. So the University of Southern California left tackle knew he had to save her.
“Zero hesitation,” he said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine at the Indiana Convention Center.
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Jackson was a perfect match on all 12 criteria to be her donor for a bone marrow transplant. But the procedure, which involved removal from three spots in his lower back, would rob him of his strength and possibly affect the junior’s stock for the 2020 NFL Draft.
“Doctors reassured me that it wouldn’t,” Jackson said of his draft status. “You never know what could happen. It was a small thought, but to get through that process that’s not what you want your focus to be. I tried my best to stay away from that.”
He also knew this was what he called “kind of a test run” for the physicians involved.
“The doctors I worked with never had a bone marrow transplant patient return to football within a month after doing the procedure,” he said.
Yet Jackson willingly went through it last July. On Aug. 3, he returned to practice with the Trojans.
Autumn, 18, still needed chemotherapy, but that is behind her now. She’s finished high school in Phoenix and is making plans to attend college. Jackson can envision her pursuing a career as an esthetician because of her interest in makeup and beauty.
“She’s doing great. She’s making a full recovery. No symptoms,” Jackson said. “Her hair’s growing back. Her doctors say her blood’s producing at levels they’ve never seen.
“She has the world (in front of) her right now.”
The same might be said of Autumn’s brother.
Jackson is among a deep draft class of offensive linemen, projected as a first-round selection. He said he met with the Browns Tuesday night as they look to upgrade both tackle positions and likely also at right guard.
But as he prepares for his next step in football, he carries with him the miracle that bonds him and Autumn.
“Definitely. I feel like everybody would have done it for their little sister, their sibling,” Jackson said.
The day Jackson found out he was a 100 percent match for the transplant brought a mix of emotions.
“I was happy, I was excited. Most importantly I just thanked God. That’s a miracle and I’m glad I could do this for my family,” he said.
In preparation, Jackson had to go home to Phoenix and train on his own because he couldn’t risk getting sick. He worked out at a small gym at a community college, where he saw at most two or three people, and at his old high school, North Canyon, also virtually alone.
When he returned to USC, he said it took him most of the season to get back to full strength. Jackson, 6-foot-4 7/8 and 322 pounds, still started all 13 games (25 over the past two years) and was chosen first team All-Pac 12.
“I couldn’t squat with any weight on my back until about the fourth game of the season,” he said.
Now he pictures Autumn in the stands at his first NFL game. She wasn’t allowed to attend last season as she recovered.
“That would be great, that would be amazing,” he said. “I’ll be very happy.”
The choice Jackson made said much about his character. It also provided a lesson as he reaches the game’s highest level.
“Adversity’s huge,” he said. “You’ve got to recover from it, rebound from anything that happens. It’s the same thing that happens in a game. If something happens that’s not in the game plan, you just have to respond.”
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