INDIANAPOLIS – Austin Jackson may have been headed toward the most important season of his football career, but his sister, Autumn, was in a fight for normalcy.
When the USC offensive tackle learned last summer that he could help ease her burden – at the possible expense of his NFL draft stock – there was no hesitation.
"I'm glad I could do it," said Jackson, a Phoenix native who played at North Canyon High School. "I feel like everybody would have done it for their little sister."
Since birth, 18-year-old Autumn has dealt with Diamond-Blackfan anemia, a rare blood disorder which restricts the body's ability to create the required level of red blood cells.
While blood transfusions and medicine placated the issue during childhood, doctors eventually recommended a bone marrow transplant due to rising iron levels in Autumn's liver from the constant transfusions.
The most likely compatible donor would be a sibling, so Austin was tested.
"Thank God," he said, "we were a perfect match."
In July, Jackson went to Phoenix Children's Hospital and underwent the procedure. It worked splendidly, as Jackson said Autumn's body accepted the marrow and is now producing red blood cells.
With that level of peace residing in him, Jackson switched his focus back to football. The recovery period was complicated, and even though he returned to the field for the Trojans' season opener, a clean bill of health was still weeks away.
"I couldn't squat with weight on my back until about the fourth game of the season," Jackson said. "It was something I was actively recovering through throughout the season, and just working to make sure I was fully up to speed by the end of the season."
Jackson steadily improved and was named All-Pac-12 on the offensive line. He met with various teams at the NFL Scouting combine, but instead of being concerned about his early-season play, they showed compassion for his decision to put family over football.
"It's a respectful (conversation), for sure," Jackson said. "I'm doing all the medical tests, and I'm fully healed from the surgery and the procedure. They know that. Everybody knows that. It's mostly (asked) out of a character and respect thing."
Jackson is an intriguing NFL prospect. His grandfather, Melvin Jackson, played offensive line at USC and with the Packers. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah believes Austin could be a fast riser following his combine work.
"I think he's going to test really well and I think you're going to start hearing his name mentioned in that top-15-type mix," Jeremiah said on a conference call. "He's only 20 years old. He's got great knee bend. He can really move laterally. He's going to get better. … The upside is really endless. And I think he's somebody that maybe people are sleeping on a little bit at this point in time."
Jackson is keeping his head down when it comes to projections.
"You open your phone, get on Twitter and social media, and there's something different every day," he said. "There are late-first projections. There are early-first projections. There are second projections. You have guys that say you should be in the fifth round. All types of stuff."
Jackson's maturity shined through in a 20-minute media session at the combine, and Kliff Kingsbury heard similar reviews during his short stint as offensive coordinator at USC before being hired by the Cardinals.
"Tremendous young man," Kingsbury said. "I was there for six weeks and they raved about his character and the type of young man he is. It's awesome to see the success he's had, knowing he is that type of person."
Jackson showed his selflessness as far back as high school, choosing to remain at North Canyon instead of transferring to a football powerhouse for better visibility during recruitment.
"It's a big loyalty thing with me," Jackson said. "I went to (North Canyon) because all my middle school friends went to that high school. I played other sports as well there. Basketball. Track and field. In track and field we won state every other year. So there were great things there. And loyalty definitely was key."
Autumn couldn't watch her brother play at USC last season, remaining in Phoenix to recuperate from the procedure.
Hopes are high for this fall, when Austin is expected to be on an NFL field -- with his healthy sister watching from the stands.
"That," Austin said, "will be amazing."
The top images of the offensive line from the 2019 season