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.”