His instinct had always been to protect her. He was the older brother. As he saw it, it was his responsibility.
So when his sister’s body began to fail her, when the treatments stopped working and the side effects grew stronger and the disease she’d fought her entire life became increasingly dire, Austin Jackson did not hesitate.
While blood transfusions kept Autumn alive over the last five years, Jackson, now a 6-foot-6, 310-pound junior left tackle at USC, could do little to protect his little sister from the one thing he wanted to most. Autumn suffers from Diamond Blackfan Anemia (DBA), an exceedingly rare genetic disorder that keeps her bone marrow from producing red blood cells. Managing her condition, which afflicts fewer than 3,000 people worldwide, meant year after year of endless pills and constant prodding with needles. Still, Autumn fought through it all, rarely complaining.
But as treatment options diminished recently, she could no longer fight on her own. She needed a bone marrow transplant.
Her older brother just happened to be a perfect match.
“It was a godsend,” Jackson says. “There are 12 criteria through blood that you match. I matched all 12.”
After years of watching her suffer and searching for ways to help, it felt like fate. In a blog post about her transplant, Autumn called her brother “my only hope.”
Jackson had already decided long before he was tested that, if called upon, he would happily be his sister’s donor. In that calculus, he hadn’t given football much consideration. But when he told Clay Helton of his intentions, the USC coach offered his full support.
“Football is just a game,” he said. As far as Helton was concerned, this was “a blessing from God.”
Less than a month after bone marrow was extracted through three points in his lower back, Jackson took the field Friday for USC’s first fall camp practice. The starting left tackle was able to work through most of the non-contact portions of practice. As he recovers from the surgery that could save his sister’s life, USC plans to take things slowly with his return.
Jackson spent most of this past summer back in Phoenix, awaiting word on when Autumn’s body would allow for the transplant. When the day finally came last month, the procedure took 3½ hours. It left him almost completely immobile for the next week, his lower back throbbing with pain. Still, as soon as he was discharged the night of his operation, he went to see Autumn.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen after,” Jackson said. “It was pretty emotional. We’re not a big crying family, so there wasn’t a whole lot of that.”
It was the uncertainty that awaited that would prove most agonizing in the weeks that followed. All Jackson and his family could do was wait to see whether Autumn’s body accepted the foreign bone marrow.
Then, a week ago, the family received good news. Autumn was coming home from the hospital a month earlier than expected. Her body had begun to accept her brother’s marrow.
“She’s a fighter,” Jackson said. “She’s really tough.”
The process of rebuilding Autumn’s immune system will require more fighting still. She’s currently undergoing chemotherapy, and more treatments might be necessary.
But as Jackson returned to the practice field this past week, he was finally able to move forward. He’d done all he could to keep his sister safe. Now, his family told him, he could focus on football again.
It felt like a new beginning.
“I had to come back out here and start my life back up,” Jackson said. “That’s my focus now. My family told me to trust that my sister is going to be OK. They’re going to take care of her.
“I’m going to hold down the left side.”
Linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu, who came to USC a year ago as a high-profile, five-star recruit, did not practice in the spring and has yet to practice through two days of fall camp.
After dealing with a foot injury in his first season, which kept him from playing at all, Tuliaupupu remains out for the same injury a year later.
“His foot is sore,” Helton said. “We’re still trying to rehab it. We’ll see where it goes from there.”