Nationals

Avant rose from gang life to a man of Christ

Avant rose from gang life to a man of Christ

PHILADELPHIA (AP) 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.''

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Nationals fall after Mets score 9 runs in 8th inning

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Nationals fall after Mets score 9 runs in 8th inning

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes launched a grand slam during a nine-run outburst in the eighth inning that rallied the New York Mets past the Washington Nationals 11-5 on Wednesday night, preventing a three-game sweep.

Todd Frazier tied it at 4 with a two-run single and pinch-hitter Juan Lagares put New York ahead for the first time with a two-run double off ineffective setup man Ryan Madson (0-2).

Shut down by Tanner Roark for seven innings, the first-place Mets broke loose in the eighth and improved to 13-4 with a stirring victory against their NL East rivals.

Ryan Zimmerman homered twice, tripled and drove in four runs for the Nationals, who pulled off their own big comeback in the eighth inning of the series opener.

Two nights later, New York returned the favor.

Roark limited the Mets to two hits and left leading 4-2. Michael Conforto, Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera singled off Madson to load the bases with nobody out in the eighth. Jay Bruce fouled out before Frazier smacked a two-run single up the middle and advanced to second on the throw home.

After an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez loaded the bases again, pinch-hitter Wilmer Flores struck out. Lagares then lined a two-run double the other way, just inside the right-field line at the outer edge of the infield grass, to put the Mets up 6-4.

Sammy Solis walked Amed Rosario and Conforto to force in a run. Cespedes connected for his sixth career slam -- the third by the Mets already this season -- off A.J. Cole, sending fans into a frenzy.

Both of Cespedes' hits in the inning came on 0-2 pitches.

AJ Ramos (1-1) worked a perfect inning for his first win with the Mets since being acquired from Miami last July.

Howie Kendrick reached on an infield single for Washington in the first and Bryce Harper drew his 24th walk, most in the majors. Zimmerman, batting .121 at that point and struggling to make opponents pay for bypassing Harper, came through with a drive to left-center off Steven Matz for his second home run of the season.

Matz steadied himself after a 33-pitch first inning and retired his final 10 batters. He was pulled for a pinch hitter in the fourth after throwing 74 pitches.

Cabrera doubled to open the fourth and scored on Gonzalez's single. Zimmerman had a chance to start an inning-ending double play, but his throwing error from first base allowed another run to score on Jose Lobaton's RBI grounder as the Mets cut it to 3-2.

After Mets pitchers retired 16 in a row, Zimmerman's leadoff triple in the seventh got past a diving Bruce in right field, and Moises Sierra followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-2.

Zimmerman also hit a solo homer in the ninth.

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Orioles fall in Detroit after wild 8th and 9th innings

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Orioles fall in Detroit after wild 8th and 9th innings

DETROIT -- Dixon Machado came to the plate with only one big league homer to his name, but the way this game was going, anything seemed possible.

"Walking to the plate I was thinking, `What if I hit a homer right here?'" the Detroit infielder said. "He threw me a fastball away but when he came in with a pitch I was ready for it and I just hit it hard."

Machado led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run , capping a wild final two innings and lifting the Tigers over the Baltimore Orioles 6-5 on Wednesday. Detroit led 2-1 before each team scored three runs in the eighth and one in the ninth.

Baltimore's Luis Sardinas tied it with a solo shot off Shane Greene (1-0) in the top of the ninth, but then the 26-year-old Machado hit a line drive off Pedro Araujo (1-2) that cleared the fence in left field. It was his second homer in 299 big league at-bats.

The game was moved from 6:40 p.m. to 1:10 p.m. in anticipation of bad weather. Although it was a sparse crowd, to say the least , the sun did come out, and those fans in attendance were treated to quite a few homers.

Miguel Cabrera went deep on his 35th birthday, and Jeimer Candelario and John Hicks also homered for Detroit. Hicks hit a three-run shot in the eighth that put the Tigers up 5-4.

Danny Valencia hit a solo homer for the Orioles, who have lost five straight.

Detroit's Matthew Boyd allowed a run, two hits and three walks in 6 1/3 innings, striking out six. Baltimore's Kevin Gausman allowed two runs and nine hits in six-plus innings.

Cabrera's solo homer put the Tigers up 2-1 in the sixth, but Manny Machado and Chris Davis hit RBI singles as part of a three-run rally by Baltimore in the eighth. The drive by Davis was nearly a home run, but it hit the wall and stayed in play.

"There were obviously a couple bad breaks -- our ball hits the top of the fence and comes back and their ball goes over -- but there were four or five breaks we got during the game on bounces or pitch calls," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "If you lose focus and start feeling sorry for yourselves, every team you play is going to take advantage and step on your throat."