Gavin Jackson isn’t as big as his teammates on the Tumwater High School football team.
He’s not as old as they are.
And not quite as quick.
But the most efficient running back to ever step foot on the field at Tumwater District Stadium? He’s a candidate.
Gavin, an 8-year-old who is undergoing treatment for a benign brain tumor, has scored a touchdown every time he’s carried the ball — more often than not from 50 yards out.
“I like it,” Gavin said. “It’s a good sport.”
About once a week at practice, the entire T-Birds roster will line up alongside Gavin at midfield. He’ll call a play, cradle the handoff and scamper into the end zone with about 85 cheering players barreling in behind him.
“I get to run some plays, then I get to high-five them,” Gavin said.
And, as he crosses the goal line, the T-Birds start chanting his name.
“To have the whole team there excited for you, screaming when you’re in the end zone, when you score, and everyone’s going crazy — it just means the world to us to see how excited he gets,” Tumwater quarterback Spencer Dowers said.
Gavin said it’s “extremely cool” to get to run around with the big guys.
“He looks up to all of them because they’re playing the game he wants to play,” said Andy Jackson, Gavin’s father and a Tumwater graduate.
Because of his treatment, Gavin cannot play contact sports. Tumwater’s program started inviting him to practice in September. He often joins the T-Birds in the locker room on game nights, and walks the sidelines in awe.
“He keeps coming out; it wasn’t a one-time deal,” Dowers said. “That’s the coolest part. We know what he’s going through is tough — especially at his age. To just not give up is the coolest thing to see.”
A life-changing phone call
Tiffany Jackson was at work when she got the phone call.
It was June 17, 2014, less than a week before she, Andy, Gavin, and Gavin’s older brother, Logan, were supposed to leave for a family trip to Hawaii.
“We had to rearrange our travel plans because we were going to be gone two weeks,” Tiffany said.
Gavin’s doctors only wanted him gone for one.
His mother and father didn’t tell him immediately, but when the three of them flew back early while Logan stayed on with relatives, Gavin started asking questions.
“We said, ‘You know, they found something in your brain, they’re not quite sure, they want to do some more tests,’ ” Tiffany said.
The tumor in Gavin’s brain is a low-grade glioma. It is not operable, and cannot be biopsied, though the doctors do not believe it to be cancerous, Tiffany said.
It is located on his brain stem between the thalamus (which relays sensory and motor signals, and regulates consciousness, sleep and alertness) and hypothalamus (which links the endocrine system and nervous system).
“He was having vision problems,” Tiffany said. “His eyes were changing, they were going out, and he was having trouble reading. He was having little absent seizures where he would space out, so they decided to do an MRI. That’s when they found it.”
During the next 14 months, Gavin had periodic checkups.
“They didn’t think it was going to grow,” Andy said. “If it’s not growing, there’s no point in putting someone through chemo, or radiation, or what have you.
“We were just in a waiting pattern, and if it starts to grow, then, of course, we do something about it.”
Gavin went in for a six-month MRI on Aug. 21. The tumor was growing, so his doctors decided to proceed with chemotherapy.
“Hopefully we can stop it; that’s the main thing,” Andy said. “It would be nice if we could shrink it, but, as long as we stop the growth, that’s all that matters. That’s the No. 1 priority.”
Tiffany said the family dynamic changed rapidly — doctor appointments all the time and a drastic change in diet for Gavin.
Because of the chemotherapy drugs in his system, he has a low tyramine diet. He can’t have aged foods — no cheeses, sausage or smoked meat — and is limited to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a lot of information all at once,” Andy said. “By the end of the year, I’ll have all this stuff figured out.”
The news also meant no more football.
Gavin played in the Thurston County Youth Football League before he started treatment. Tumwater center Tommy Brassfield and safety Trayten Rodriguez helped coach his team. They were somewhat aware of Gavin’s situation.
“We were kind of keeping them in the loop — OK, this is probably going to be his last week playing,” Andy said.
“My Big T-Bird”
A wall separates the bedrooms between Rodriguez and his 9-year-old brother, Mathias.
One night near the beginning of the school year, Mathias, who attends East Olympia Elementary with Gavin, started to pray.
“I started praying that Gavin would get through his chemotherapy without being sick,” Mathias said. “And then my brother is in the room right next to me and he overheard through the doors.”
Said Trayten: “He was crying about it, and right when I was listening in, trying to hear about it, I texted Tommy and just (said), ‘Hey, we should definitely do something for Gavin.’ ”
Mathias said he and Gavin have been best friends since they met as kindergarteners.
“Same hair, same personalities” bonded them, Gavin said.
Which propelled Gavin’s relationship with Trayten.
“He’s my Big T-Bird,” Gavin said.
Trayten acts as a sort of football mentor to Gavin as part of a program Tumwater runs that pairs up players with TCYFL athletes.
“He was pretty upset that he couldn’t finish off this year (in TCYFL), so we wanted to make it as fun as possible for him, and we want to make him a part of the team because he deserves it,” Trayten said.
Trayten got the green light from Tumwater coach Sid Otton to invite Gavin to his first practice on Sept. 24.
“It was just an awesome experience — one of the best experiences I’ve had with Tumwater football in my life,” Brassfield said. “It was just a touching moment.”
And not just for Gavin.
“I know it’s been really good for him, and it’s been really good for (the high school) kids to be selfless rather than selfish,” Otton said.
Said Brassfield: “It makes your problems seem a little less … definitely less.”
Lots of hospital time
Two neighboring chairs line a corridor in the Cancer and Blood Disorders wing of Seattle Children’s Hospital.
And in them, two brothers sit side-by-side. Logan, 10, on the left, and Gavin on the right.
They look similar, though Gavin’s feet don’t touch the floor. Both wear sweatshirts — Logan a Seahawks sweatshirt, Gavin a T-Birds one — and both don gray sweats and tennis shoes.
But the brother on the right also sports a hospital bracelet.
“Time to tear it off,” Gavin says at one point. “I just don’t like it.”
But he needs it, and the five barcoded stickers he was given at check-in, for lab testing.
Gavin’s treatment plan calls for six eight-week cycles. At the beginning of each cycle, he takes oral chemotherapy for four days. Two weeks later, he visits Children’s for an injection. Two weeks after that, another injection.
And the cycle starts over.
Treatment is now eight weeks in, another 40 to go.
“Not that I’m counting,” Tiffany said.
She paused to consider.
“I might be counting.”
Following Gavin’s blood draw, he and Logan both suck on lollipops — Gavin likes the root beer-flavored kind — while waiting for Gavin’s appointment with his oncologist.
Each brother happily plays on his iPad while their father sits on the floor across the hallway and lets out a yawn.
Hospital visits average anywhere from three hours to all day.
“It’s like my second house,” Andy said.
Gavin was in and out of the hospital with a fever for five days at the beginning of November. There are days he misses school for treatment, and because of his scattered eyesight, his doctors and parents are working with his school to teach him Braille.
“Sometimes he sees double, has trouble reading, his eyes don’t track right,” Andy said. “But the school’s been really accommodating helping him get that fixed up for what he needs.”
Gavin will have an MRI in December to measure the progress of his treatment.
Though the tumor is not cancerous as far as the doctors can tell, Tiffany isn’t sure if it’s any consolation.
“I want to say yes. … I go back and forth,” she said. “Benign brain tumors, they can still grow, they can still be deadly. It’s scary.”
The unknown, Tiffany said, is what causes the most unrest.
“It’s still the unknown; we don’t know,” she said. “We hope for the best.”
With a second lollipop in his mouth, Gavin briefly discusses how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But the conversation quickly turns back to football.
“I know a lot about football,” he said.
Added Andy: “It’s his favorite sport.”
And something he looks forward to.
“He wants to be with the boys on Fridays; that’s a big deal to him,” Andy said. “I know it’s very frustrating to him when he can’t.”
There have been a few of those days, but Gavin usually finds a way to the field.
About three hours after he arrives at Children’s for the beginning of his treatment cycle, he sprints out of the hospital toward the parking lot.
“He’s always upbeat,” Andy said. “He gets down once in a while, but it’s few and far between when he does. He’s more or less just a happy little boy.”
Two yellow Tumwater football window stickers — one for each brother — line the back window of the SUV, which the family plans to drive to Crab Pot on the Seattle waterfront before heading home.
“Trying to lead a normal life for him is what we can do,” Andy said.
A jersey for Gavin
It was just an extra practice jersey to Dowers.
“We were doing the national anthem (at practice), and we line up by number,” he said. “Coach (Pat) Alexander asked me if (Gavin) could line up with me.”
Dowers asked what number Gavin was — No. 13, just like the quarterback.
“I don’t really use the jersey,” Dowers said, preferring his gold practice jersey to the green and gray one. “I just decided, ‘Hey, man, here you go. Keep representing No. 13, you’re doing great.’ ”
Which elated Gavin.
“He thought it was really cool,” Dowers said. “He asked me, ‘Are you serious?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, dude!’ ”
It was an early gesture, and one of many the T-Birds have made to include Gavin as part of the team.
They send him daily video messages — usually three players per day — for encouragement. He and Logan also have been given personal jerseys that say Jackson across the back — Gavin is No. 13 and Logan is No. 31.
“It’s amazing, it’s like a family,” Tiffany said. “Gavin is now on their team, he’s one of them. It’s pretty awesome the things that they’ve done.”
Gavin also strolled to midfield surrounded by Brassfield, Cade Otton, Devon Shedd-Kirkland and Griffin Shea as an honorary captain when Tumwater played Black Hills in the Pioneer Bowl on Oct. 23.
A week earlier, he called out the first play — a cross block — when the T-Birds hosted West Valley of Yakima. Dominic Jones rushed for 26 yards on the call.
“When they ran through the paper, Gavin was so fired up,” Tiffany said. “He took off across the field and was high-fiving all of the players. It’s so cool.”
And Tumwater pledges to continue the relationship.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Trayten said. “I’m astounded that we got this together and got to do this for Gavin. It really helps everybody and really impacts the whole team.”