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Autoimmune disorder won’t sideline CDS’ N’Jhari Jackson

A faulty immune system hasn't stopped the 15-year-old from flourishing in sports, Boy Scouts and community service

SARASOTA — At the behest of their host, the cancer conquerors — about a dozen of them — stood to be recognized.

Their diversity reinforced how indiscriminately this scourge attacks. Receiving this round of applause in a foyer of the Ritz-Carlton, site of the annual Dick Vitale fundraising gala for pediatric cancer research, were prepubescents and teenagers, black and white. Some appeared frail, others vigorous.

Related: Tearful Leonard Hamilton joins cancer crusade at Dick Vitale Gala

Then Vitale, ESPN's foremost college hoops ambassador who knows the back story of each of these kids like the nuances of a 2-3 zone, singled out a few. Among them was a robust teen with dreadlocks cascading past his shoulders. His floral-print dinner jacket was complemented by a red dress shirt and black bow tie.

"The battles he had with cancer, forget about it," Vitale said as he beamed toward N'Jhari Jackson. "He's an accomplished swimmer, athlete. This guy, I would bet my last dollar, you're going big-time somewhere. No doubt about it."

Jackson, 15, beamed back. Vitale, on an indefatigable quest to supplant every grim portrait of pediatric cancer with a picture of health, found a veritable quality-of-life Picasso in this Carrollwood Day junior.

"He does a great job of hiding (his condition) well," said CDS football coach Mark Jones, who plans to start Jackson on defense in Saturday's 1 p.m. spring game at Bishop McLaughlin. "And you know what, the great thing about N'Jhari is, he doesn't want anybody to feel sorry for him."

Lurking within Jackson's 185-pound body is an autoimmune system that periodically goes haywire, attacking bad and good cells and even spawning tumors every now and again. During those rampages, small doses of chemotherapy or immunotherapy are needed to break down the immune system, making him susceptible to various maladies.

He has had two growths removed from his vocal cords, and one from his elbow. "We were at the doctor just Monday, and right now he has an enlarged lymph node on the side of his neck," said his mom, Lashina Lewis.

"For you and me, it's like, 'Okay, let's just watch it and see.' But when he gets it, it's kind of like a concern. Okay, is it a regular lymph node? Is it something they need to ultrasound or biopsy?"

Such is the physical battle Jackson and his single mom have waged since their arrival in Tampa from Chicago just as Jackson was entering kindergarten. When the aches and fevers grew in frequency, Lewis found herself driving her son to Shands Hospital in Gainesville — four hours round-trip — twice a week.

"The doctors told me I could never be in competitive sports again," Jackson said.

Yet he's embarking on his second season with the CDS football team following another lacrosse season. He also has swam on the Junior Olympic level (specializing in the freestyle sprint races), and has won national awards for his writing.

His community-service initiatives include providing thousands of Pajama Buddies to kids at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa, and donating socks to Joshua House.

If he can master the bugle well enough to perform Taps and a couple of other military-style renditions, he will have earned virtually every merit badge known to man. An Eagle Scout, Jackson has earned more than 130 of them, for endeavors ranging from hiking to cycling to archery.

Defiance was lodged in his quiver; the archery badge was earned only two months after the surgery on his elbow.

"For a kid, when you go to the doctor and you hear, 'You won't be this, you won't do this, but keep up your writing and keep up your reading in school,'…it was almost like a challenge," said Lewis, adding her son hasn't required any chemo or immunotherapy in three years.

"So I think for him, proving that he could do what they said he would never do or would never shine at, I think that (boosted) his confidence."

Jones, cognizant of Jackson's condition, says he closely monitors his feisty edge rusher for any physical red flag, though few have surfaced so far. Depending on the offensive package, he might even start Jackson on offense Saturday, at tight end or running back.

"I just know that, for the most part, he wants to be on the field," Jones said. "He's gonna go out there and compete, and if he can do it he's gonna do it. If he can't do it, he can't do it."

Just you watch, Jackson probably will go both ways Saturday, if only to keep obliterating the can'ts and cancers from his stratosphere.

Dickie V's last dollar's riding on it.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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