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 power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

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USA Today

Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

WASHINGTON -- Daniel Murphy's two-run single drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning and the Washington Nationals rallied past the Philadelphia Phillies 8-6 on Sunday night to salvage the finale of the three-game series.

Anthony Rendon homered and doubled, Bryce Harper tied a career high with three doubles and Michael A. Taylor and Murphy each had three singles in a game that was delayed 38 minutes by rain in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams homered for the Phillies, who had won three straight.

Pinch hitter Brian Goodwin led off the eighth with a walk against Victor Arano. With one out, right-hander Seranthony Dominguez (1-2) came on to face Harper, who doubled to right, with Goodwin stopping at third.

After Rendon grounded out, Juan Soto was intentionally walked and Murphy lined a 1-2 pitch to shallow right. Taylor's single made it 8-6.

Ryan Madson (2-3) pitched the eighth inning, and Sean Doolittle finished it for his 21st save.

The Phillies took a 6-2 lead in the fifth on a two-run triple by Odubel Herrera and a two-run homer by Williams.

Washington pulled within a run at 6-5 in the sixth with four two-out hits, including an RBI triple by Trea Turner and RBI doubles by Harper and Rendon.

Nick Pivetta went five innings and allowed two runs on eight hits for the Phillies.

Washington starter Jefry Rodriguez was charged with four runs and five hits in four-plus innings.

The Phillies broke on top on Hoskins's two-run homer in the third.

Rendon made it 2-1 with a solo homer in the fourth. The next three hitters singled, tying the game, but with the rain intensifying, out came the tarp. When play resumed, Pivetta struck out three straight to end the inning.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Phillies: C Andrew Knapp left in the seventh with a right knee contusion. ... 3B Maikel Franco slipped on first base and fell hard in the eighth. He stayed in to run, but left after the half-inning. ... INF Jesmuel Valent?n was placed on the paternity leave list and OF Dylan Cozens (left quadriceps strain) was reinstated from the 10-day DL.

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson (right hamstring strain) allowed 11 runs in 4 2/3 innings of a rehab start at Class A Potomac on Sunday. "I'm more concerned with the way he feels," manager Dave Martinez said, downplaying the results. "We'll go from there." ... RH reliever Brandon Kintzler (right forearm flexor strain) threw a scoreless inning at Potomac. ... RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) played catch on the field again. "We'll keep doing his throwing progression and figure out when he can actually throw from the mound," Martinez said.

UP NEXT

Phillies: RHP Vince Velasquez (5-7, 4.82) starts the opener of a series against the Yankees on Monday. He is 0-0 with a 3.24 ERA in two games vs. New York.

Nationals: RHP Gio Gonzalez (6-4, 3.08) opens a series at Tampa Bay on Monday. He is 2-2 with a 5.54 ERA in six games against the Rays.

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Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

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USA TODAY Sports

Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

As June minicamp concluded, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden pulled no punches when asked about expectations for new quarterback Alex Smith. 

"He has got to get it down by the first game," Gruden said of Smith. 

While that might not sound overly demanding, remember this is Smith's first season in Washington. The QB will be playing with new teammates and implementing new terminology. 

Still, Smith is a veteran with a lot of experience, and frankly, it seems like Gruden isn't worried about a transition period. 

"We are not in here to build the team around him, the team is built and he has to lead it like right now," the coach said. "This isn’t a two- or three-year process. This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away."

Gruden made things quite clear. He expects the best from Smith, yesterday. 

Those comments created headlines, but there was something else the coach said about his passer that also stood out. Asked about Smith's veteran presence, Gruden talked about what the quarterback might mean for his teammates. 

"The whole job a quarterback has is obviously getting the most out of the people around you. That’s what I think he does as good as anybody," Gruden said. "He’ll get the most out of the tight ends. He’ll get the most out of the backs."

The coach continued, and things got a bit more interesting.

"He’ll get the most out of the receivers and offensive line because they’re going to want to play for him and they’re going to feel confident that he’s going to make something happen in a positive way or at least give it everything he’s got and take responsibility if something doesn’t work out."

Redskins fans are often a weirdly divided bunch. Many liked former QB Kirk Cousins but plenty did not think he was worth the type of money he was paid the last two seasons. Along the way, some fans will read Gruden's comments about making something happen and taking responsibility as a jab at Cousins. That's probably wrong. 

Remember, Trent Williams played through a serious knee injury last season. Asked why, Williams said he wanted to be out there to protect Cousins. Guys played for Cousins. 

The responsibility comment might mean something else, though. Their was a rather hostile back-and-forth last season between Gruden and Cousins last season, when the QB and coach disagreed about taking more risks with the football. A quick reminder of the scene: Cousins told a reporter that he would throw 20 interceptions if he played like Gruden wanted. The coach responded that while the interceptions might pile up, the QB would also throw 60 touchdowns. (Relive it here)

Throughout his career, Smith has thrown less interceptions than Cousins. But that doesn't mean Smith doesn't take risks or put his receivers in position to make plays. 

It's entirely possible Gruden simply expects Smith, a veteran, to be a responsible player and leader. And it's likely that comment had nothing to do with the Redskins previous quarterbacks. 

The bottom line is that Smith better be ready to go Week 1, and his coach made that clear. And if Smith isn't, Gruden expects his quarterback to take responsibility. 

MORE REDSKINS NEWS:

— Contract years: Redskins face 5 tough decisions 

— Dead Money: Trades, misses and mistakes hurt Redskins salary cap

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