Ten Years Later, Jackson Still a Success Story at Illinois

Kevin Jackson used to set his sights on the goal line.  Now the former
running back is engaged in medical research at the University of Illinois,
with visions of conquering not linebackers, but disease.
Kevin Jackson used to set his sights on the goal line. Now the former running back is engaged in medical research at the University of Illinois, with visions of conquering not linebackers, but disease.

March 8, 2000

by Erika Rowell

A picture of a runner jogging down a hilly, two-lane road, surrounded on each side by green vegetation and random power lines perfectly represents its accompanying caption, "There is no finish line." The ad, which aired for Nike in 1977 and is posted on the company's web site and explained "If there is any way to describe the fire of a true competitor it was the line from this ad. Success has no past. Just a future."

Even though Nike had other motives in mind when creating the ad, it might as well have been designed for Kevin Jackson, a second year Ph.D. student in microbiology at the University of Illinois. Jackson was recruited out of high school for the UI football team, and during his undergraduate years was a full-scholarship athlete. He was a member of Illinois' last Big Ten championship team in 1990, and went on to rush for 752 yards and pick up 152 yards in pass receptions during his career with the Orange and Blue. His finest athletic moment with the Fighting Illini was a 125-yard rushing effort vs. Purdue Oct. 2, 1993.

But Jackson's success hasn't come easily.

Despite the many hurdles life has thrown Jackson, his character, stamina, and closeness to his family have helped to carry him through. He embodies the fire of a true competitor, and his success already makes it evident that he has a bright future, with no finish line.

Jackson grew up in a predominantly black area of Robbins, Ill., surrounded by gang life and drugs. His father died after being hit by a drunk driver before Kevin and his twin sister were born, so he grew up in a house with four women: three sisters, and his mother.

"Being the only boy, I would go right to my room when I came home from school and start my homework," said Jackson. "I was always a quiet boy who lived a sheltered life."

Growing up with women has left him with a few skills he probably wouldn't have come away with otherwise. Along with his household chores of mowing the lawn and washing dishes, Jackson was taught how to cook, clean, and sew. All three, he says have come in handy since he has been on his own at college.

Jackson got into football around the age of six when he and his neighborhood friends would gather together to play ball in the street.

"The first time I went to play, I lied to my mother about where I was going," he recalls. "With me being the only boy, she was very protective of me getting hurt."

However, playing ball at an early age paid off for the guys on Kevin's block, as the majority of them went on to earn scholarships at major universities.

Along with Jackson's athletic abilities, his reasons for attending the U of I stretched beyond the game of football. The school's proximity to his family was important, along with his interest in the science program, both of which are a huge part of his life. Due to a `family history,' Jackson was interested in biomedical research. He did his undergraduate study in microbiology as a result.

While Kevin was growing up, his older sister was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 14.

"I could see what it (the disease) was doing to her body, and this was where my first application of science was." explained Jackson.

In the spring and summers of 1993 and 1994, Jackson began working in the animal science lab alongside graduate students under the supervision of Associate Professor Matthew Wheeler. This lab work cultivated a friendship between Jackson and Professor Wheeler that has grown over time. Wheeler is currently Jackson' advisor for his Ph.D. research.

Professor Wheeler has had quite a bit of exposure to the athletic side of the university over the years. He worked with former UI football players Gary Voelker and John Conroy, along with ex-strength coach, Reb Russell. All three have gone on to be quite successful in the science field, but anyone who sits down to talk with Wheeler about Jackson will realize in no time how much respect he has for his current student.

"As a teacher, all I can ask is my students do the best job, and Kevin is a wonderful example of that," said Wheeler. "Kevin is also one of the reasons we have so many athletes (in the program)--he makes an excellent role model...I'd take 10 more of him."

In the spring of 1994, Jackson applied for a program offered by Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company that sponsors university research. The nationwide competition resulted in him being one of the two people selected for sponsorship by the company. Through the sponsorship Jackson collected data for a project on embryonic stem cells that involved the manipulation of mouse genes. In 1995, the same year he applied for graduate school, Jackson wrote up his findings from the experiment in a paper that he sent to `IETS', the International Embryo Transfer Society. The IETS people liked what they read and sent Jackson to present his findings at a conference in Calgary, Canada, where he was able to interact and share his findings with world renowned scientists.

"Presenting the project showed me that this (science) is something I really wanted to get in to," said Jackson. "You have to have some thoughts that get you where you have never been."

Wheeler accompanied his understudy on the trip to Canada, and because the convention was rather intimidating for an undergraduate, he told Jackson he would stay nearby.

"As I watched Kevin talk to people about his project and explain his work to them, I realized he could handle it all on his own," said Wheeler. "Society should want from its scientists someone like Kevin."

In the midst of his success in science and on the football field, the other most important aspect of Kevin's life, his family, took an unexpected twist his senior year when his mother suddenly died from diabetes.

"The coach pulled me off the field in the middle of practice and said my cousin was here to talk to me," Jackson recalled. "She told me the news, and my coach was there right behind me. It was such a shock...Coach came up and gave me a hug, and I just cried on his shoulder."

Kevin had spoken to his mother over the phone the night before she died. "The last words she ever said to me were "I love you," recalled Jackson.

The support from Jackson's friends and family kept him going while dealing with his mother's death. The football team canceled practice for a day and most of the guys drove to Kevin's hometown for the funeral. Jackson received sympathy cards from alumni who didn't know him or his mother, and the respect and kindness he was shown made what he calls his `most memorable experience' at the U of I.

"You never realize the impact you have on anybody just by being who you are," Jackson said. "There are people watching that you don't realize."

After graduation and his final year on the football team, Jackson spent two-and-a-half years in graduate school getting his masters degree. During that time he took classes that would count toward his Ph.D., as he know he wanted to continue on in school. In the fall of 1998, Jackson was awarded an Illinois Minority Graduate Incentive Program fellowship that was to go toward his Ph.D. work. He currently has close to a year-and-a-half of school remaining before he defends his research.

"I stayed to do my Ph.D. because I felt I needed further knowledge to enhance my creative side," related Jackson. "I want to take what I have learned and apply it to my own knowledge."

Along with school, Jackson has a number of activities that occupy his time. He has been a teaching assistant for the last four years and is currently teaching Animal Science 231. He also attends banquets and travels to minority high schools, giving talks on being a minority in the science field. During the summer he works with RAD, a research apprenticeship program for minority students, where he helps high school students gain exposure to different aspects of the science field.

"Being book-smart doesn't mean anything to me--you have to know how to apply it (the information)," said Jackson. "I am now realizing that not everything written in papers is always true or correct, I have to be able (to analyze) and think if it is done right or not."

When it comes to his classroom, the former running back does his best to get to know his students. He says that being a TA doesn't mean he teaches class and runs away from his students, but he likes to be there to make sure they understand the material as clearly as possible.

"I like teaching because, with my background, science wasn't an option," said Jackson. "A lot of people don't go to college, and for me to be able to sit down and really want to do this, I have to be able to explain and relate it."

If being an athlete, a student, a teacher, and a role model, don't keep Kevin Jackson busy enough, he has one more title to add to his list: guardian. Jackson and his twin sister are the legal guardians of their two nephews. The boy's mother, Kevin's oldest sister, passed away in February of 1999 after a long battle with diabetes. Jackson's sister now raises the boys, but Kevin has to drive home occasionally to take care of his share, the academic and schooling side of his nephews' life.

With Kevin being the `science person' in his family, he was the one to talk with the doctors about his sister's condition before her death. He was told the hospital was treating his sister to keep her alive and gave him the choice of whether or not to take her off her medicine.

"It was the hardest decision I ever had to make, but my family stuck behind me the whole way," said Jackson through teary eyes. His sister died 12 hours after being taken off her medicine.

"I work hard at what I do (in science) because I don't want anyone to go through what I've gone through and not understand it," Jackson explained. "My sister's death made me only want to push harder."

Jackson's nephews adjusted well to being with Kevin and his sister, as they have always been around each other. Both boys are following in Kevin's athletic footsteps, playing football, basketball, and running track.

Even though Kevin has had to find things to fill the void of football in his life, he is glad he made the choice of school over sports.

"The football program (at the U of I) needs to give students options. Guys need to know there is more out there than the NFL," he says. "I am never going to put an athletic event over the rest of my life."

For Kevin Jackson, the road of life that lies ahead looks bright. When he finishes his Ph.D., he would like to get a job near Robbins so he can be close to his family.

Professor Wheeler believes that society should want from its scientists someone like Kevin. However, society should also want more people like Kevin who have the motivation and positive attitude to make it through the good and bad, to be the role models for the younger generations.

"I know my mother wouldn't have wanted me to stop doing what I was doing," says Kevin. "If you are strong in your beliefs, you can do anything."