Former football player applies research to sport

Kevin Jackson has moved his talents from Memorial Stadium to Beckman Institute.

The 39-year-old is long done with his days as an Illinois running back (1991-94),but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped thinking about football. The Ph.D.-holder in Animal Science is using his scientific knowledge to research sports-related concussions, hoping to develop a cooling helmet to stop long-term injuries from football’s constant hits.

“You’ve seen guys like John Mackey, who had dementia, and other athletes have Alzheimer’s develop,” Jackson said. “I talk to the guys I used to play with and we all wonder, ‘Could something be wrong with us?’”

Jackson works with Dr. John Wang, a neurosurgeon who studies thermal properties of the brain and was developing a cooling helmet for the department of defense before meeting Jackson.

Wang became interested in the football applicability after speaking with Jackson.

“I’m not very interested in sports because when I watch it, it’s all head trauma to me,” Wang said. “Kevin represents a person with an athletic and a Ph.D. background. He has scientific insight to promote long-term well-being within athletics.”

The two met after Jackson was recommended by Matthew Wheeler, Jackson’s adviser throughout college. Wheeler helped Jackson decide to become an Animal Science major and then get his masters and eventually his Ph.D. Wheeler advised Jackson during his 13 years in Champaign, from Jackson’s undergraduate degree to masters degree to Ph.D., all in Animal Science.

“I still talk to him all the time, he guides me through a lot of decisions,” Jackson said.

Working with neuroscience is unlike anything Jackson has done before, but he just goes with it and continues to learn.

“It just happened. Sometimes you get to the point where you have to be flexible on your feet,” Jackson said. “Football has helped that a lot, you never know what’s gonna happen or how you have to change yourself. You always have to be ready for the next step.”

Jackson played running back for Illinois and “was one of the best running backs I’ve ever seen come through the system,” said Leonard Willis, Jackson’s running back coach at Illinois.

During Jackson’s undergraduate years, he focused on school and athletics, devoting equal time to both.

“It was like I had to get up and study my playbook and I had to study for my test. I had to get ready for this game, get ready for this test,” Jackson said. “That was the approach I took. I’ll tell you I’m not the world’s smartest person, but I’m probably the hardest worker.”

He had hopes to play professionally, but constant knee injuries kept those dreams from coming to fruition. However, he had a backup plan in his education, something his family always put value on when he was growing up.

“At first it kind of hurt that he didn’t make it to play football professionally,” Willis said. “But then I looked at him and the research he is able to do and there is nothing I could be more proud of than him becoming Doctor Jackson.”

Jackson grew up in Robbins, Ill., in a tightly packed neighborhood where all the kids played football, many going on to play in college.

“My mom said I had to stay off the streets or find a job, so I played sports instead,” Jackson said. “I was around everybody else playing football at the time so that’s how I became interested in that. But I grew up in a house full of women so it was hard, the women are who got me interested in health and research.”

Jackson’s mom and sister struggled with diabetes, which sparked his interest in women’s health.

After he presented his dissertation in 2003, his goal was to study women’s health.

“I was very proud of him and proud to go to his defense of his dissertation,” Willis said. “It was a great moment for me, knowing that I coached him. He helped prove something that day, proved that football players can be academics.”

From 2003 to 2009, after he finished his Ph.D., Jackson worked with various projects at UIC, studying stem cell research and ovarian cancer research.

He didn’t imagine that he would end up back at Illinois, working with Dr. Wang.

“Interesting projects just keep bringing me back here,” Jackson said with a laugh. “The research here is awesome, you have some of the most renowned scientists here. Most of the people say this is the middle of nowhere, the cornfield, but for research this is a great place to work.”

He has been working with the athletic training staff, communicating about the project at hand and seeing if they would be able to use football players for their experiments. Jackson hopes to follow a group of football players from freshman to senior year, having them wear a cooling helmet while icing their bodies. He will then see if the helmet has any effect. The researchers use a phantom, or model of the brain, but there’s only so much a phantom can do. More intricate experiments and research will be done on pigs, where Jackson’s animal science background comes in.

The process is now in the research stages, and soon they hope to begin testing with veteran and college athletes, using a cooling helmet for 15 minutes after a workout to measure its effects.

Jackson has found his fit researching at Beckman Institute, committing to be there until the end of the project, which could take at least four years.

His love of Illinois football still stands strong.

Jackson’s love of Illinois shows at work, as he often wears Illini apparel. In his office, scattered among the piles of papers and research stands one lone decoration: a framed picture of all the newspaper clippings written about him — articles about football and academics, because both are very important to him.

“I will always have orange and blue in my blood,” said Jackson, who goes to every football game he can, sitting at the 30-yard-line with other former players.

“I like being able to talk to student-athletes and tell them, ‘There’s life beyond sports,’” Jackson said. “Not all of us are going to be professionals, but being able to have those connections and lessons you learn from sports can help you.”