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Trojans football star and bone marrow donor Austin Jackson heads to NFL

Football star’s season was slowed after the donation procedure that saved his sister’s life, but it couldn't stop his NFL career.

by USC Athletics and USC News staff
Austin Jackson USC left tackle

USC offensive tackle Austin Jackson put his college football career on hold to save his sister Autumn’s life in 2019. A year later, the Jackson family celebrated together as the National Football League came calling.

The Miami Dolphins selected Austin Jackson as the 18th pick in the NFL Draft, the first draft ever run virtually from the living rooms of pro football executives across the country. Thanks to stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, he had to celebrate the unforgettable day in his family’s home in Phoenix — instead of the NFL’s original draft site in Las Vegas.

No matter.

The Jacksons’ story

A year before, college football fans nationwide got to know the Jacksons when their heart-wrenching story was shared on College GameDay.

Autumn, Austin’s little sister, was diagnosed at birth with a blood disorder called Diamond-Blackfan anemia. People with this condition do not make enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to other cells in their body. It is so rare that only a few thousand people in the world have been diagnosed with it.

For the siblings, the disease was just a fact of life. “My brother is my best friend,” Autumn said. They both grew up as athletes, and she ran track, just like he did. She also played volleyball.

Sports was their common thread until her condition worsened and she had to undergo regular blood transfusions. She had to stop running.

A major decision

During Austin’s freshman year at USC, his mother contacted him about a way he could potentially help his sister.

“My mom told me about the option of being a bone marrow donor for Autumn,” he said. She asked if he would be willing to be tested to see if his bone marrow was compatible and suitable for transplant. With no hesitation, Austin said yes.

“They say the best match is someone in the family,” Austin said. “Then you have to go through 12 different blood tests. They hope to match in about seven or eight out of 12 tests to be a good donor. But luckily, I was a 12 out of 12.”

Being a perfect 12 out of 12 donor match is rare.

Autumn was thrilled. “For me, it was amazing because we are so close and I always felt like we’re the same person in a way. I think it was beautiful that he was truly a perfect match for me.”

Said Austin: “It was crazy! I was really excited. I was really thankful because I had been praying a lot about being a match for her.”

After Austin’s status as a donor had been confirmed, the siblings scheduled to have the donation procedure take place in summer 2019, after Autumn graduated from high school.

Jackson made Coach Clay Helton aware of the potential transfusion as a freshman. He returned to Helton early last year when he found out he was a perfect match, as the procedure would potentially cost him months of summer conditioning.

Helton “was ecstatic and was very happy that I could have this opportunity to help my sister. He was so great about the entire thing,” said Austin, whose grandfather was on USC’s 1974 national championship team.

The transplant

During the summer, Austin went to an uncrowded gym to stay in shape. “I would have to clean the equipment really well to make sure everything was super sterile. I still wanted to train so I didn’t lose muscle mass, but I had to be really conscious that I was being as sterile as possible while in a public gym. My high school also let me work out when no one was around.”

When it came time for the operations in July 2019 at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Austin’s procedure came first and lasted three hours. The doctors took a large needle and inserted it into his hipbone via his lower back. Then they gradually took out bone marrow a little at a time.

After his surgery, Austin felt stiff and his back ached, but he immediately went to see his sister.

“When he was done and cleared to leave, he came upstairs to see me,” she said. “I was shocked because I was like, ‘Don’t you want to go home?’ But no, he came to see me and we took pictures together. It made me so happy to see him.’”

The next day, Autumn received Austin’s bone marrow in a process that was almost identical to a blood transfusion. While recovering in the hospital, Autumn began the engraftment process and her body began to make its own cells. After 20 days, she was able to go home ahead of schedule.

Austin never hesitated when deciding to give his gift to his sister.

“I embrace my role as a protector,” he said. “It’s all I do on the football field. And I do it as an older brother. I’m supposed to watch over my little sister.”

Autumn can’t thank him enough. “This is such a huge thing that he has done for me without even second-guessing it. I don’t even know what I could ever do in return except to love him and support him.”

After the procedure, Autumn gradually got better and was able to look forward to a healthier future.

It took a while for Austin to recover, too. Even though he was able to go to the gym, his training time with the Trojans early in the 2019 season was limited. NFL scouts had to look at his tape with an asterisk, knowing that he had been through a unique journey.

On Thursday, as Austin was on the phone with the Dolphins, the family celebrated. They had more than a football career to be thankful for.

An earlier version of this story appears on the USC Athletics website.

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