PHILADELPHIA -- Tarron Jackson's older brother, Daron, was dying, and it was up to their father, Alphonso, to deliver the message to his 9-year-old son.
The words he chose helped shape the path Tarron has spent the past 13 years blazing, leading him from Aiken, South Carolina, to the Philadelphia Eagles, where a shared dream between the two brothers is now being realized.
It was Christmas 2007. Daron, 12, had been fighting leukemia since about 2004, his mom, Darlene, said.
Tarron, a defensive end out of Coastal Carolina whom the Eagles selected in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL draft, became so accustomed to his brother beating the cancer back, he came to believe Daron was going to eventually beat it for good.
As the prognosis worsened, Alphonso realized he had to shoot straight with Tarron. When that moment arrived, he stepped out of the hospital room where Daron was staying to have the talk.
Football was the boys' shared passion. When they weren't playing, they were watching on television and talking about how they would one day make it to the NFL. What if football was the way for Tarron to keep Daron's spirit alive?
"Perhaps one of the hardest things I've had to do, and it still is hard, was to tell my son that his brother was dying," Alphonso said. "When I finally got a chance to tell him that, I could see the hurt, the tears coming out of his eyes, because he realized he's not going to have his brother no more. After I got done telling him, I said, 'Tarron, since your brother is not gonna be here long,' I told him, 'when you're playing football, do it as a tribute to him. Honor him with it.'
"I didn't think he understood, possibly, what I was saying. But he did. And I see he took it from that point to where he's at now."
Tarron was given 40 days off from school so he could spend it with Daron, who died in April 2008. About midway through that time, Tarron made a promise to Daron he would become a professional football player on his behalf.
"It was me and him in the room and my Uncle Ronnie was also in the room, and I was just talking to him, just reminiscing on some of the stuff that we used to do, man -- playing football, basketball. Football was always our thing," Tarron said. "So I made that promise to him that I was gonna make it to the NFL. You know, I told him, 'Whatever it takes, I'm gonna do it.'"
Tarron held a draft party in the Aiken municipal building, filled with friends and family. The first thing he did after receiving the phone call from Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon was make a beeline to Darlene and wrap her in a hug. The second thing he did as the celebration raged around him was look up to the sky to acknowledge Daron, uttering three words that were more than a decade in the making:
"I did it."
'A higher purpose'
There is close, and then there is sharing-the-same-bed-for-most-of-your-childhood close.
After her divorce from Alphonso in 2000, Darlene and the boys moved in with Darlene's mother, Ida Mae Bryant. They slept in the same room Darlene grew up in and shared a single bed, with Tarron and Daron laying side by side and Darlene settling for whatever bit of mattress was left over.
Daron was the protector. Darlene saw that firsthand on the nights she would come home late from working at Mr. Payroll, a check-cashing and money-wiring facility in Aiken, situated along the Savannah River near the Georgia border.
"I would come in there with my work clothes and get on the edge of the bed somehow, and I'm thinking Daron would be asleep. And when I finally lay my head down on the pillow, on the edge, he would hold himself up and say, 'Hey, Ma!'" she said with a laugh. "I don't care if I got in that door at 9:30, 10 o'clock, Tarron would be sleeping, but he'd be awake.
"If Tarron had a cold and it made him breathe funny, Tarron would be sleeping and Daron would be watching him and he'd say, 'Mom, Tarron is breathing funny!' He was very protective of Tarron."
Football was at the center of the brothers' relationship. They played it constantly and went at it hard.
"We'd get outside playing football with no shoes on and everything," Tarron said. "We're doing whatever we can to make sure that whatever team we are on wins. I feel that competition is how we showed our love."
Tarron drifted away from football in the years following Daron's death. He stopped playing when he was 10 years old, as basketball became his sport of choice.
One thing brought him back to the gridiron.
"That promise," Tarron said. "I knew that at some point I would have to get back into football. My sophomore year [of high school], I felt like it was time. I couldn't waste any time. I wanted to make sure that I had had enough time to get my body and my mind where it needed to be to make sure that I made it to the NFL."
Tarron helped Silver Bluff High School reach the state championship in two of his three seasons there, and he posted 79 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five sacks as a senior. Still, he was lightly recruited coming out of high school and received one scholarship offer, from Coastal Carolina.
He went on to become the Chanticleers' all-time leader in sacks (26.5), tackles for loss (44) and quarterback hurries (34). Tarron was named Sun Belt defensive player of the year in 2020 with 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 12 games, and he graduated in May with a degree in mathematics. He said he applies that knowledge on the field, calculating the probability of certain plays being run pre-snap to help determine what's coming.
Two moments convinced Coastal Carolina defensive line coach Skylor Magee that Tarron could go pro.
The first came in the 2019 season finale against Texas State when he exploded for three sacks, breaking the school's single-season and career sack record in one game.
The second was over the summer heading into the 2020 season. Tarron contracted the coronavirus. While he didn't get very sick from it, his sense of taste was affected, and he wasn't lifting as much in quarantine, resulting in him losing about 10 to 15 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Jackson had played the 2019 season at 273 pounds. He was now down to about 260.
"He looked like he was 10 times faster. I was like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. What?'" Magee said.
"It was an extreme difference: the quickness, the twitch. His ability to chase down people. He got faster. That was the second moment you realize that OK, he's about to do something special."
The thing that really separated Tarron, Magee said, was the way he attacked his craft. Everything was strictly regimented. He would be at the facility from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, working out, watching film, getting treatment. For a quick break, he'd take a nap on the couch in Magee's office, and when the alarm sounded, he sprang up and went right back at it. Magee remembers having to drop something off at Tarron's place at about 9 or 10 o'clock at night one time, and there was Tarron doing yoga.
"Like, the average college kid just doesn't do that," Magee said. "The average football player doesn't do that."
Every season at Coastal Carolina, players are asked to choose a word that represents their "why" for playing the sport then place it on their locker as a constant reminder. Tarron always chose something related to Daron or his family, Magee said.
"It was huge. It has always been in the back of his mind in everything he does," Magee said. "And you could sense it, that there was always a higher purpose to why he was doing what he was doing."
'Angels around me'
There are times when Tarron is on the field, in the midst of the action, he said, when he feels a tingle shoot down his spine -- a sign Daron is with him.
"When I'm running, conditioning during the summer, if I'm lifting and I get to the point where I feel I can't go, that memory just flashes in my head of him going through that struggle, and it really pushes me over the edge. I feel like that's his way of, you know, propelling me," Tarron explained.
"One thing about my brother: He never complained about anything. Even when he was going through this process, man, through the pain, through the chemo, through all of the needles and everything like that, he still had a smile on his face. So I just try to embody that in my life right now. ... Just see the joy in life, even when it gets hard, and just try to embody his personality."
At Coastal Carolina, Tarron wore No. 9 because that was the age he was when Daron died. Tarron wanted to get a jersey number with a nine in it when he arrived in Philadelphia; but with none available, he chose No. 75, because seven plus five equals 12, the age Daron was when he died.
Tarron has experienced loss beyond Daron, including his grandmother Emma Jackson and uncle Charles Bryant. Before the start of the 2020 season, another uncle, James Dean Bryant, an Eagles fanatic, died of a heart attack.
"[James Dean] always told me, 'You're going to come to the Eagles, man, you're going to be an Eagle. I can just feel it.'" Tarron didn't piece it together in the immediate aftermath of the draft until Bryant's wife, Eleanor, looked at him with a big smile and said, "That's Dean's team."
"I've had a lot of deaths in the family. And I kind of carry all of those with me, man, and I feel like all of them are angels around me that protect me and keep me propelling forward," Tarron said.
Tarron has a decent chance of making the Eagles. With Brandon Graham in the twilight of his career and Derek Barnett in the final year of his rookie deal, developing their young defensive ends is critical. Tarron will try to carve out a role in a rotation that features Graham, Barnett, Josh Sweat and the newly signed Ryan Kerrigan.
Now that he has made it to the NFL, one of Tarron's first orders of business is to buy his mother a house once his finances are in order. A Walter V. Campbell Trophy semifinalist for his work with numerous charities during his time at Coastal Carolina, Tarron plans to continue working with nonprofits focused on helping ill kids and their families. At the top of his list is the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted Daron's wish by sending him and the family to Disney World.
And while he has fulfilled the promise he made to his brother by reaching the NFL, Tarron said, the motivation remains the same.
"Just because I made it to the NFL, I still want to embody who he was. I'm still gonna honor him through playing football," Tarron said. "I'm still going to try and be the best that I can be."