As a left tackle, Austin Jackson plays the role of protectorate — taking care of a precious commodity, a quarterback’s blind side. It’s a role for which the 20-year-old from the University of Southern California has long been prepared.
For as long as he can remember, Jackson has looked after his sister Autumn, who is two years younger and was born with Diamond-Blackfan anemia, a rare disorder that left her needing blood transfusions every three weeks and made her increasingly susceptible to diseases like leukemia.
Last year, doctors suggested a lifeline: a bone-marrow transplant, which was not without risk, but if successful could allow Autumn to live a nearly normal life.
Her brother was found to be a match, so last July — less than a month before the start of U.S.C.’s training camp — Jackson had more than a liter of bone marrow withdrawn from three points in his lower back. The next day, his sister, who had undergone chemotherapy to kill off her bone marrow, received a transfusion.
“The first thing I did was thank God for giving Autumn this opportunity,” said Jackson, who started in U.S.C.’s opener and was chosen for the Pac-12 Conference’s first team despite not regaining his full strength until October.
The change to his training regimen last year, when he had to lift weights and run by himself in his hometown, Phoenix, so he would not contract an infection, has left him well equipped to handle the way the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted training schedules and draft plans.
Jackson was shopping for a new suit and perusing Las Vegas hotel suites when the N.F.L. announced the draft would be held remotely. As such, Jackson, 6-foot-5, 322 pounds and among the better prospects in what draft analysts call a deep pool of left tackles, will gather with his parents and a couple of friends from high school when the draft begins on Thursday.
With his pro day workout at U.S.C. scuttled, his focus shifted away from combine-like drills to getting ready for the season. His day starts with yoga to loosen up his back, then he goes to his old high school to lift weights and run on the field. He also hikes Squaw Peak and Lookout Mountain, where the reward for the climb is an expansive view of the Phoenix area.
Most of his preparation for the season is now done in solitude.
“You’re a lot more careful about touching things and being around people,” Jackson said. “It’s a little different, but it’s for a good cause.”
That cause includes Autumn, who is recovering well — “in a couple months, she should be all clear,” Jackson said — but is immunocompromised, which puts her at risk of serious illness. She is staying with her mother and stepfather; Austin has his own apartment.
Jackson said he considers where they were a year ago, and how if her sister were undergoing the transplant now she would be isolated from the family. Instead, with plans to attend college, she is preparing to embark on a new chapter in the fall — not unlike her brother.
“The timing,” he said, “was perfect.”