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2020 NFL Draft: Austin Jackson inspired by sister's fight to live

NFL.com's "Why I Play" series provides a thoughtful peek into the minds of the next generation of NFL players to better understand what drives them to make it in the league. Other prospects included in this series: TCU DT Ross Blacklock, Auburn DT Derrick Brown, TCU CB Jeff Gladney, Florida edge Jonathan Greenard, Utah CB Jaylon Johnson, Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor and Michigan LB Josh Uche. Today's featured prospect is ...

2020 NFL Draft standing: Jackson sits at No. 26 on NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah's ranking of the top 50 prospects and is projected by many to be a first-round selection in April's draft.

Prospect bio: Last summer, Jackson donated bone marrow to his younger sister, Autumn (who suffered from a rare genetic disorder known as Diamond Blackfan Anemia), before returning to the Trojans for his junior season. He started all 13 games at left tackle in 2019, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. The Phoenix, Arizona, native started all 12 games at left tackle as a sophomore after appearing in all 14 games as a reserve in his freshman campaign. Jackson's grandfather, Melvin, was an offensive lineman for the Trojans' 1974 national championship team and he played for the Green Bay Packers for five seasons.

This interview, conducted on March 9 at NFL Network in Culver City, California, was condensed and edited for clarity.

How I started

I played a year of Pop Warner when I was 8 but didn't play competitively until high school. I was a basketball player and that was my focus. I played on a club team, which is year round, so it was always basketball, basketball, basketball. When I was a freshman, I talked to the high school (football) head coach, and he convinced me to come out and try it. There were a bunch of guys who played both sports, and it was cool. I love to compete and football became something I love. I'm from a football family, so I always liked it.

After my first year playing football in high school, that's when the switch came. It's just a different experience completely. I loved it and I never felt that way playing basketball. I think the atmosphere kept drawing me to football. There's 11 guys on the field and you all gotta work together to make it happen and when it does, it's great.

Who inspires me

My sister, Autumn. I kinda used to play sports just to play. I've always loved playing sports, but just seeing my sister go through a bone marrow transplant, I kinda got a little more thankful along the way. I have the luxury of doing what I love to do, so she's altered my "why." She's always supporting me and I see what's on her plate. I play football and she pushes me to make the most of it. She's been doing great since the procedure. I think she's glad to have that relief and freedom from the hospital. She's full of energy and has a whole new outlook. I think she's really excited to be cleared so she can live her life.

As far as mentors go, my high school basketball coach, Mike O'Guinn, was a big mentor for me. His mentality was approach every day like it's your last and use every day to get better. I kind of took that into football. I have good relationships with all of my former coaches and they've given me different pieces of knowledge along the way. My family (members have) also been mentors to me, especially being in a football family.

My greatest challenge

I was tested to see if I was a match with my sister for a bone marrow transplant, and I was. It was exciting and really relieving, too, for my whole family. More relieving than anything. If I wasn't a match, she'd have to go back on the transplant list and who knows when she would've been able to get a procedure. I didn't think twice about doing it. The recovery was pretty tough for sure. It was a really big mental battle going into the procedure because you didn't know what was going to come out of it. Knowing that football season was around the corner, it was tough. Physically, I had great trainers at USC, so getting physically healthy wasn't an issue for me, but it was just a process.

I got on my feet from the procedure about the last week of July, and the first game of the year was August 31 and I played the whole game. Just really that whole month going through camp, starting off slow and not pushing too much, I slowly had to work my strength back up. And my confidence. My first game back was unreal. You know, you can practice but a game is a different animal. We were playing in a new offense, too. It was nerve-wracking, but I was really excited just to be out there. I was just happy to be in front of my USC family and my guys again. Probably after the first game, I felt like myself. I guess it was really after a few plays because adrenaline takes over.

What keeps me going

My family. I'm glad that I am doing something that makes me happy, and that makes my family proud, too. The game isn't a challenge to me, it's an opportunity. That's how I look at it. Being a freshman in college, getting the opportunity to compete for a starting role, earning respect. I like that stuff. It's something to look forward to. It can be difficult and challenging because there are weeks and days when you feel like you're inadequate but you gotta enjoy the whole process.

Follow Brooke Cersosimo on Twitter @BCersosimo.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) makes a deep catch as Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Kyzir White (44) trails on the play during an NFL football game , Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif.

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