Like most families, holiday gatherings have always been an important event in the Vaughan household.
That’s particularly true on Mother’s Day where Jenny Vaughan can be celebrated for her contributions as the matriarch of the family.
Being a mom is an important enough responsibility, but it’s something that took on a new perspective more than 17 years ago when her 2-year-old son Jackson was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that started on his liver and spread to his lungs and lymph nodes around his heart.
Against all odds, the story has a happy ending. Jackson survived two liver transplants, numerous bouts with chemotherapy and 36-minutes of chest compressions after suffering a heart attack just a few months after his third birthday.
“I must have spent Mother’s Day in the hospital, but it’s funny, I can’t remember what we were doing then,” said Vaughan of the emotionally chaotic time in 2003. “I would imagine that Mother’s Day was when Jackson was still in the ICU, so there was not much we could do. But we just felt like we were the most lucky people at that point. After the second transplant, and when he started doing well, it was like hallelujah. We didn’t care how long we were in the hospital or how long it takes. We were just lucky.”
Lucky might be an understatement. Doctors had given Jackson a less than 50 percent chance for survival upon original diagnosis, and his chances were diminishing quickly when his heart stopped on spring day at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Pediatric Hospital in Palo Alto.
“His odds were so bad, and all the crazy stuff that happened, I don’t know how everything turned out so well,” Jenny recalled. “It’s kind of amazing. Just telling the story I get choked up. That doctor had the authority to say ‘stop,’ and he didn’t stop. He said he never gone that long (with compressions) before. I always think back about all the little things that came together. It was a miracle.”
Jenny’s husband, Jeff, was equally as amazed at how things played out.
“They finally decided to take him off the ventilator, just being a tough little kid, as they pulled the breathing tube out, he was yelling, ‘get that thing out of me,’” Jeff said. “And we’re like, ‘all right, he’s back.’ In any case, he’s been a fighter his whole life. Despite not remembering a lot from back then, he’s just like, I’m here for a purpose, so he enjoys pursuing life to the fullest.”
A fighting spirit has become synonymous with Jackson Vaughan, especially now as he continues to defy odds as a college baseball pitcher.
Despite his diminutive stature, that ranges between 5-foot-6 and 5-9 depending on who you talk to, Jackson earned a scholarship to pitch at the University of the Pacific next season.
Following a disappointing experience as preferred walk-on at UC Santa Barbara, he landed at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton this season, and Vaughan flourished.
In nine appearances as the team’s closer before his season was canceled due to concerns over COVID-19, he had a 1.50 ERA and a save, striking out 24 in 12 innings with just four walks.
All the while, he did it with a certain degree of flare.
“I’ve kind of transformed into a different kind of pitcher the last couple of years,” Jackson said. “I get a little angry when I pitch. With the closer role … it’s almost like pitching is a way for me to let out all the bad feelings I have about anything. I can be just who I want and just go insane.
“So that’s one of the things, I go up on the mound and I’m pissed off and I’m ready to take out anyone who steps up to the plate. I remember I used to think that I was mad that the other team showed up because they thought they could win. And I would just go berserk and just try to throw the crap out of everything. It ended up working out.”
He even has a signature warm-up song in the spirit of famous Hall of Fame closers Trevor Hoffman (“Hells Bells” by AC/DC) and Marano Rivera (“Enter Sandman” by Metallica).
Vaughan’s walk-up song is a little less known, “Waiting for the Thunder by southern rock band Blackberry Smoke, but it still has the desired effect — getting the crowd, his teammates, and most importantly, Jackson fired up.
“It’s not exactly an angry song, it’s almost like a rebellious song, but the song is supposed to be played loud and it’s about rebellion and that’s kind of the way I feel when I pitch,” Jackson said. “Rebelling against the norms, like no 5-foot-6 kid is supposed to be out there. But hell, I’m working for it.”
A work ethic that is off the charts
For as long as Jackson can remember, he’s been a tireless worker, a reputation that started a few short years after his life-saving surgery when he struggled to achieve success in the sport he loved and it has continued as he prepares to play at Pacific next season.
“I was not good at all,” said Jackson of when he first started playing baseball as as a 7-year-old. “I remember I’d attempt to play on a travel team, wouldn’t play very much, always batted like ninth in the order, never really an impact player. But it always felt like I had some friends to hang out with. And then I started doing lessons and it started as one day a week and it was so fun, I’m learning so much … and I ended up doing baseball everyday for a while.”
Little did he know then, but taking those lessons would set him a path that would continue to impact his life more than a decade later.
One of the people he met, Bob Maitia, who operates the Bakersfield Baseball Academy and coaches a local travel baseball team, the Bakersfield Braves Baseball Club.
“I give kids certain assignments to do, and some go through with it and some don’t, but you give a kid like him a responsibility like that … he’s unreal,” said Maitea, an Arvin graduate who played at Southern Idaho and UNLV before embarking on a minor-league baseball career. “It’s just his work ethic and he’s an unbelievable young man. It’s just his grit and the grind, and his fortitude to want to play baseball.”
With that in mind, Maitia and Vaughan decided he’d be the perfect guinea pig to attend a progressive pitching school that promised to increase pitchers velocity. Midway through his sophomore year at Bakersfield High, Vaughan attended a camp at the Texas Baseball Ranch near Houston.
“That throwing program … I wasn’t really sold on it, but I thought if anybody was going to do it correctly, it was going to be him because of his work ethic and the challenges he’s had in his life,” said Maitia of the throwing program which centers around building muscle mobility and throwing a weighted baseball.
The results were staggering. Vaughan went from throwing in the low 80s to the high 80s in less than a year.
“I was the perfect test dummy,” Vaughan said. “I was going to do whatever it is that they told me to do to the best of my ability, and Bob trusted me, which was pretty cool.”
Cool for Jackson, but not always to his parents. As part of his daily routine, he set up a large net in the living room of his parent’s house, throwing 60 to 80 times during a session.
“When I first started, I actually went a little too crazy with it,” Jackson said. “I would throw twice a day. I would go to baseball practice, warmup and do whatever I needed to do, and then I would go home and I would throw all these weighted balls. I don't think that's the way it should be done. I did it a little bit different than you’re probably supposed to, but it was the only way I could do it because a lot of high school coaches, and coaches in general, aren’t a big fan of it.
“It would make my parents mad at first, because it was loud because I’d throw the baseball and it sounded like small gunshots, and they would go to bed and I’d say I’m sorry, but I need to throw. So I’d throw and they were trying to sleep, and it was probably tough for them to sleep while I was throwing, but I was so dedicated that I was like ‘I need to do this no matter what.’”
While working with Maitia and playing with the Braves, Vaughan met another important person that would change his life in the years to come, Stockdale graduate Joey Skracic.
After being cut from the UC Santa Barbara baseball team as a preferred walk-on his freshman season, Vaughan’s confidence was reeling.
“Being cut hurt a lot because it was hard for me to process that I had put everything I had into being on that team, and I knew that I worked as hard or harder than a lot of people on there, and yet they were still on there and I wasn’t,” Vaughan recalled. “It was really, really depressing. I put in all the time getting there early and working out at home and it didn’t work. It didn’t make any sense. It was a little bit of a letdown, but a good learning experience to really know your coaches and almost not to trust anyone. It’s a pretty cynical look at it, but at the end of the day, the people that are fighting for you are basically your family and your friends and not the people trying to make a living off your talent, I guess.”
Enter Skracic, who had been a mentor to Vaughan at BBA even though he was only a few years older. A former star at Delta College, Skracic went on to pitch at Division I Campbell. When his career ended, he returned to Stockton where he was hired as Delta’s pitching coach. One of his first calls was to Jackson.
“Halfway through the summer, I realized I was going to go D-I, so I started looking at some junior colleges,” said Vaughan, who considered playing at San Barbara City College and Allan Hancock in Santa Maria. “The other schools were in amazing areas compared to Stockton. But what I valued the most was, I needed some friends. I needed some family that I knew would be there to help me out.”
“Joey, man that guy is smart,” Vaughan said. “He reads everything he can on coaching, on baseball, on mobility, on strength and conditioning. He does his research on everything he can to make his players better. I knew that going in. I had known him since I was probably 7 or 8. I knew he was going to fight for me. And I loved that. And a lot of my wishes came true as soon as I got to Delta.”
Despite the abbreviated season, Skracic was impressed with what Vaughan accomplished in a few short months, and feels he’s only scratching the surface on his potential.
“The guy is just a little firecracker,” Skracic said. “That’s the best way to describe the kid. He’s an absolute diligent worker. There hasn’t been too many guys that I’ve been around, and I’ve been around some good players, and Jackson’s work ethic is if not the best, it’s within the top couple of guys. With the circumstances that he’s been through in his life it’s pretty impressive to see the way he goes about his business.”
It’s all about how Vaughan looks at his situation. He doesn’t see the hurdles he’s overcome as a negative. They serve as inspiration.
“There’s so many people in the past that said, ‘ya, he’s pretty good, but if you were 5-11 you’d be awesome,” Jackson said. “It’s like I’m going to be 5-6, 5-5 or 5-whatever and I’m going to be awesome. My height will not limit me in any sort of way. And if anything it will benefit me because it’s something that a lot of people haven’t seen.
“I think it’s something that fuels me so much to the point where I want to prove everyone wrong. And I want to prove to them that anyone, of any height, can do what I do, or can do what any baseball player does.
The start of it all
Jeff and Jenny weren’t overly concerned when a small bump surfaced on Jackson’s stomach, especially after two visits to the family’s pediatrician where they were told to wait and see and not to worry about it.
But when Jackson became sick during a family visit to northern California for Thanksgiving, Jackson was taken to their extended families’ doctor. It didn’t take long for them to realize something wasn’t right, and after a battery of tests, the news continued to get worse.
The bump was being caused by a large tumor on Jackson’s liver and the cancer had already started to spread.
“That was like a piano got dropped on the whole family,” Jeff said. “Just boom! It went from nothing to worry about to cancer. “This is really advanced and we’re going to fight it with everything we’ve got, but this is a tough one”
After several bouts of chemotherapy and a few false alarms on possible kidney donors, the Vaughans finally received good news when a match was found in the beginning of April 2003.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s little body rejected the new organ, setting in motion a series of events that nearly ripped the family apart.
“We were all terrified,” Jeff said. “There’s an alarm that goes off when somebody is having a heart attack and it went off. We were like ‘oh God, it’s Jackson.’”
His worst refers were realized a few moments later when a nurse escorted them back to Jackson’s room where the staff was performing life-saving procedures.
“We went in and they were doing chest compressions, hitting him with the paddles, and Jenny just lost it and I was just a wreck, too,” Jeff said. “I was just yelling, ‘come on Jackson’ But all of a sudden they did something and his heart started back up. And it’s just nuts. “I’m like ‘yaaahh!’”
But Jackson was still in danger. Because his heart had stopped for so long, doctors feared he could have suffered damage to vital organs, his heart, and perhaps more importantly, his brain.
After several difficult days, including a pair of CT scans that doctors feared may be too much for Jackson to handle, it was determined that amazingly, there was no permanent damage.
“It just feels like, how can all of these things have come out positive,” said Jenny, who remembers the doctor being inspired to continue chest compressions because of a picture of Jackson she had placed on the head of his bed. “It’s like a miracle because it just made no sense. But it was all the right people, at the right time.”
That’s something Jackson continues to do. As he visits with his family on Mother’s Day, the conversation will likely return to that crazy set of circumstances 17 years ago when he defied the odds.
“It’s something that has made itself more apparent as I’ve grown up and gotten older and kind of understand all the odds that I had to beat in order to get through that,” said Jackson, who was class valedictorian at Bakersfield High in 2018. “One of the things I’ve said before is that I’ve never really worried about the next path because it can’t be as hard as beating cancer and surviving 36 minutes of cardiac arrest. Going D-I is not as hard as either one of those things. I don’t think going to professional baseball is harder than those things.
“So I kind of have a weird way of looking at it where I’ve already done a couple of things that most people never do, and I hope that they never have to, but it’s almost like a little destiny I have in my mind, like I’m able to do what I put my mind to. It’s pretty cool just to think that I have a fate to do something. And I think my fate is a little bit of baseball in it.”