Wrapped snugly around each of his wrists was a subtle, meaningful reminder.
The tribute was born during Justin Jackson's youth football days, an idea the Glenbard North senior and his older brother, Phil Jackson II, came up with together.
Every October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Justin Jackson dons pink wristbands during games in honor of his mother, Denise Jackson, who died of the disease when Justin was 3 years old.
"Breast cancer is something I'm very conscious of and will be for the rest of my life, as it has touched my family as well many families," said Justin Jackson, who recently found out an aunt from his mother's side was diagnosed with the disease. "I try not to go overboard with it by wearing too much."
The gesture, Jackson's father, Phil Jackson Sr., said, is important to his son.
"Every year, when the time comes, Justin always makes sure to wear wristbands to show his love for his mother and support breast cancer awareness," Jackson Sr. said. "That's part of his drive as well.
"It was tough for him and his older brother and sister. It helped them be stronger."
Justin Jackson, who orally committed to play for Northwestern, began the month by rushing for 213 yards and four touchdowns against West Aurora. He followed with a DuPage Valley Conference single-game record 405 yards to go with five touchdowns the next week against Naperville Central. He added 349 yards and three scores against Wheaton South and finished the month with a 354-yard, four-touchdown showing against Wheaton North, which cemented the Panthers' second consecutive DVC title.
For his efforts, Jackson, who ran for 1,321 yards and 16 touchdowns, is the Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 Preps Plus Athlete of the Month for October.
"It was a tough month because we played some really tough teams in the DVC that are some of the best in the state," Jackson said. "The offensive line played well. We all really stepped up at the end of the regular season."
As a two-way player, Justin Jackson teamed up with his older brother to guide the Panthers to the Class 8A semifinals during his sophomore season.
"That experience brought us a lot closer as brothers," Justin Jackson said. "That was a great year for me. Through thick and thin, he's been there for me and taught me a lot of things."
With his brother playing football for Northwest Missouri State last season, Justin Jackson burst into the spotlight by rushing for 2,602 yards and 35 touchdowns. He led the Panthers to the Class 8A title game, which they lost 28-14 to Mount Carmel.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Jackson packed on "seven or eight pounds" to handle the rigors of playing both ways this season. He also added an element to his running style.
"I'm stronger and more explosive on my cuts," said Jackson, who recently was selected to play on the 2014 U.S. Under-19 National Team along with St. Rita's Tommy Mister.
"I'm cutting outside more. Last year I cut back inside more. Last year it would be a 5-yard gain, but this year I can get outside for longer runs."
Jackson finished the season with 348 carries for 3,168 yards and 38 touchdowns, falling just shy of the single-season state record of 3,325 yards, set by Lexington’s T.J. Stinde in 2009.
"Justin got little bit stronger and faster this year," Glenbard North coach Ryan Wilkens said. "His knowledge of the game is what sets him apart."
Jackson's physical talents mask his intellectual side.
He said his goal of raising his 5.0 grade-point average to 5.16 is just as important to him as scoring touchdowns. His demanding schedule forces him to employ odd measures, such as taking an ice bath while studying AP literature.
"It's tough, but you got to get it done," Jackson said.
His dad keeps him grounded by making him do dishes, mop the floor and take out the garbage. But Phil Sr. lets his youngest son slide during busy weeks.
"I feel bad he has to do chores with so much on his plate," Phil Sr. said. "He's so self-motivated. That's what amazes me. He's up early in the morning, and pressures himself to do well for grades and the football team. I see all the effort he puts in. I'll do the dishes for him, sometimes."
The 17-year-old Jackson calls his inner family — his dad, older sister Megan, brother and stepmother, Veronica — the glue that holds him together.
"My family means a lot to me," Jackson said. "We are a very close-knit family. They're very supportive of me and I do my best to be supportive of them, too."
Glenbard North's Justin Jackson will be featured during a segment on WGN-Ch. 9's "Instant Replay" at 9:40 p.m. Sunday. If you miss it, watch the video Monday at prepsplus.com.
2013-14 Athletes of the Month
September: Mike Ivlow, Joliet Catholic, football