Nine months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, Luke Jackson is back on the practice field for Tulane. Even if he does not play a down this season, he already has won his most important battle.
Jackson, a redshirt freshman linebacker from LaPlace, learned of his condition in November. He finished chemotherapy treatment in February, had surgery to remove lymph nodes in his abdomen in April and has been cancer-free since then.
Just like that, he was ready to resume his dream of playing college football. The thought of giving up because of the cancer never entered his mind. The only thing he lost was his hair — temporarily — due to the chemotherapy.
“It’s serious, but I didn’t think it was that serious where they would stop me from playing football,” he said. “It just took me a little time to recover.”
Jackson, who was 18 at the time of the diagnosis, is one cool customer, but he had the facts on his side. Testicular cancer is the most common type of cancer among men age 15 to 34, and the recovery rate is better than 95 percent, particularly when the problem is treated early.
Jackson already received a clean bill of health when he was checked three months after his surgery. He is due for his next appointment in another three months, with the following checkups six months and then a year later.
“I was definitely shooting to play this year, but I really didn’t know the route to it,” he said. “They told me three different ways it could go — from the best scenario to the worst. It ended up I had to have this one big surgery, and it took like eight weeks to recover from it. I had two months over the summer taking classes, and I was able to train. Now I’m back full speed.”
He is not at full strength, though. He lost 30 pounds during his ordeal, dropping from 230 to 200 and getting too light for a defensive end, his position last fall. Back up to 215, he has worked out at linebacker from Day 1 of preseason practice, going through every individual drill and getting a few reps with the third-team defense in 11-on-11 work.
“If there are any restrictions, I’m not aware of them,” said co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jon Sumrall. “Nobody has come to me and said cut back on this. He’s being one of the guys and doing everything.”
Sumrall already had a close relationship with Jackson because he was the defensive line coach last fall, so he has coached him from the start. “I’m blown away by his resiliency and perseverance and just his attitude toward the whole thing has been amazing to me,” Sumrall said. “A lot of people in that situation would have easily said, ‘I have my scholarship, I don’t have to play and I can be a normal student and have an easy life.’
“Luke’s a fighter. He stared the situation straight in the eye and dealt with it. He is an amazing inspiration to all of us.”
Linebacker is a learning curve of its own for Jackson. He played multiple positions in high school, spending plenty of time as a stand-up end but moving around wherever St. Charles Catholic High School needed him the most.
Realistically, he will spend a year getting comfortable at linebacker on the scout-team defense, then see where he stands next spring.
“I played linebacker a little bit in high school,” he said. “This fall, it’s all kind of been thrown at me, but it doesn’t feel too bad. I feel like I’m getting it. Once I understand it more and get some more reps, it will be a lot better.”
Jackson’s uncle, David Jackson, played linebacker for Tulane in the early 1980s, and his 163 tackles as a senior rank fifth on the school’s all-time list. Luke Jackson, who helped lead St. Charles Catholic to a state championship as a junior, was named first-team All-State (Class 2A) as a senior.
He has the attitude and the pedigree to be more than an off-field inspirational story.
“He certainly still has a long way to go physically to get back to full strength, but just the fact that he has the passion and the desire to do what he’s doing motivates all of us,” Sumrall said. “He’s doing better than you could imagine as far as attacking practice and playing hard, running to the ball and trying to be physical. He’s really coming along.”
In November, the coaches were concerned only about Jackson’s health. They had no idea the focus would be back on football this soon.
“It’s very impressive,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “He’s very courageous. You had a guy with a substantial sickness, and he’s already back. He’s doing fine.”