PHILADELPHIA — Jason Avant raises his hands to the sky after every reception in celebration for much more than catching a ball.
Playing football for the Philadelphia Eagles doesn’t define Avant. After everything he’s endured, the 29-year-old wide receiver is not your ordinary professional athlete.
Avant was 12 when he started selling drugs. He went to elementary school drunk and high. As a teenager, he belonged to one of Chicago’s notorious gangs called the “Gangsters Disciples.” Dodging bullets and running from the police were common for him.
Yet somehow Avant escaped that life and avoided ending up dead or in jail like some of his friends. Now he’s one of the most respected players in the NFL.
“When I lift my hands up, it’s me saying `Lord, I know where I could be and I thank you for where I am,“’ Avant recalled last week. “There were times when I was growing up when I didn’t have enough to scrounge up a quarter to get an ICEE. I remember the times our house was shot up. I remember when I didn’t have any avenues, when I sold drugs. So I lift my hands up and thank the Lord for all He has done for me.”
Avant grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a neighborhood riddled with gangs, drugs and violence. He was abandoned by his mother as a kid and was raised by his grandmother because his father was in and out of jail.
It’s no wonder Avant got caught up with the wrong crowd. He lived in the same house with 12 to 14 relatives and was influenced by his cousins.
But his grandmother Lillie wanted a better life for young Jason and she refused to give up on him. She used the power of prayer to steer him in the right direction.
“She was a great woman, a saved woman,” Avant said with a big smile as he talked about “Granny.”
“She would pray for me every night. `Lord, let him be different. Let his life change.’ I was her favorite and everybody knew it. We didn’t have much money, so I would sleep in the same room as my grandmother. She would lay her hands on me for an hour at night and just pray for me.”
Avant would go to church with his grandmother on Sundays and return to the streets to sell drugs with his gang friends. However, words from the service would be ringing in his ears the whole time.
“I was the worst drug dealer in the world,” he said. “I had too much of a conscience from going to church, and sitting there hearing the songs would always make me cry because I knew I was selling drugs. But God had a different plan for me.”
Avant’s grandmother eventually sold her house after it was raided twice by police. A third raid would’ve meant the state would seize the house and evict the family. So the cousins scattered and Avant ended up moving in with his Aunt Shirley. Like Granny, she encouraged Avant to go to church and stay in school.
“I quit selling drugs because I was away from my cousins and I got into basketball,” Avant said. “Wherever I was going, my grandmother’s prayers stayed with me.”
Avant’s dad, Jerry, took him in whenever he was released from prison, only to have to send him back after getting arrested again. Three times, Avant moved to Decatur, Ill., with his father, then went back to Chicago. He had no stability in his life and struggled terribly with his grades.
Avant had a tough time finding a high school to start his sophomore year. He ended up at Carver, which was in the middle of the projects.
“There were dead bodies, metal detectors, drugs in lockers, all that type of stuff,” Avant said. “A teacher got killed and her body was found in a dumpster all cut up. A guy I played basketball with got shot.”
Sports and prayer helped Avant stay free from harm. Avant was a talented basketball player. His coach, Willie Simpson, also coached the football team and told him he had to play both sports or neither.
Avant’s first day at football practice didn’t go so well. They put him at linebacker and ran a fullback straight at him. Avant, only 175 pounds at the time, got flattened.
“He wanted to see if I was tough enough, so I quit,” Avant said. “But my grandma and dad talked me into going back.”
Avant was switched to fullback, where he got more carries than the starting running back. He moved to wide receiver his junior year and quickly became the top-ranked prep player in Illinois and one of the highest-rated players in the country.
Scholarships poured in from several high-profile universities. Avant chose Michigan.
Still, there were obstacles. The NCAA questioned his eligibility because of his grades. Some of his school records got lost in all the shuffling. Avant feared he’d lose his scholarship. He prayed with his grandmother for a solution, and it was resolved with him only having to sit out one game.
When Avant got to Ann Arbor, his roommate, running back Alijah Bradley, was a pastor’s son. Avant and Bradley were typical college freshmen on a big campus, living it up and having fun.
But when Bradley got hurt during the spring before sophomore year, he decided he needed to go to church. Avant went with him. For two months, they would go each week.
On May 4, 2003, Avant’s life changed forever. He was listening to Pastor Lovell Cannon’s sermon at True Worship Church in Detroit when images from his life started flashing in his mind.
“The Lord began to replay all the times my was house was shot up when I was selling drugs. The bullet hole right where my grandmother sits and she wasn’t in the chair. All the times the bullets just missed me or the shooters didn’t see me,” Avant said. “I was in places where I had 15 guys running after my car with bats, weapons and all this stuff. God is replaying this through my mind and the last thing he says:
`I made a way for you to go to school. After all I have done for you, Jason, you can’t surrender your life to me?’ It was a miracle for me to go to school. I needed everything to go right. So I surrendered my life to him.”
Avant stopped drinking, partying, and even waited to get married before having sex again. Avant began studying the Bible as if it were his playbook.
Nowadays, he walks around the locker room singing gospel music and always carries the Bible. He leads teammates in Bible study on Thursdays and mentors young players and veterans. He quotes scripture the way movie buffs recite lines to their favorite film.
“The enemy can place thoughts in your mind through television, commercials and other forms of temptations,” Avant said, “so you have to have something to combat him, and studying scriptures and learning the word can combat him. The word gives you something to fight him.”
In an era of self-promotion and diva receivers, Avant is perhaps the most humble player in pro sports. He’s in his seventh season with the Eagles and the third year of a five-year, $15 million contract extension signed in 2010. But Avant and his wife and two daughters live a modest lifestyle.
“God has blessed me with so much,” he said. “I think a Bentley looks fine. But what’s that going to lead to? It’s not necessary. What that is going to lead to is more distractions. …
“You are a steward over what you have and if you let it get to your head, it can get stripped away.”