Avant giving back to the community

Originally Published: November 24, 2004
By Teddy Greenstein | Special to ESPN.com

It was the summer after his 12th birthday, and Jason Avant was a young man thirsting for discipline.

He was a magnet for trouble during the previous year in school, and Avant's grandmother and aunt were tired of seeing him break windows and get into fights. So for an entire summer they prohibited him from leaving the house.

"It was torture," Avant said.

Longing for entertainment, Avant spent much of the summer staring out his window.

Jason Avant
Michigan's Jason Avant -- whose family kept him from joining gangs -- repays them by being a role model in the community.
"My friends would come down and play games so I could watch," he said. "Girls would come and jump rope."

Now, Avant looks back and knows how much he has to be thankful for.

"I'm so blessed," he said.

Blessed to have a grandmother, the recently deceased Lillie Avant, who simply would not let him fall victim to the streets on Chicago's rugged South Side. Blessed to have cousins who shielded him from gangs. Blessed to have survived the shootings he witnessed. Blessed to have a high school basketball coach who saw through his basketball skills and focused on his football potential.

And now blessed to be an all-conference wide receiver at Michigan, where he has a 3.2 grade-point average and has evolved into a model citizen who sings tenor in his church choir, counsels young kids in school and represents his school at NCAA leadership conferences.

"I think it was divine intervention," Avant said. "When I was younger, I thought gangs were cool. But my cousins didn't let me in. They were in too deep to get out, but they had so much love for me to turn me away."

Once Avant (pronounced uh-VANT) focused his energies into sports, he became a standout basketball player, a 6-foot-1 guard who could soar to the rim.

But when Avant reported to Carver High School for his sophomore year, coach Willie Simpson made a life-altering suggestion. As Avant's basketball coach, Simpson took note of his sure hands, quick feet and superior hand-eye coordination.

Simpson, also the school's football coach, suggested that Avant find some cleats and shoulder pads.

"His reaction was, 'Coach, I'm averaging 16 points, five assists and three steals -- why are you asking me to play football?'" Simpson said. "This was a kid who dreamed of becoming the next Michael Jordan or Tayshaun Prince."

By his junior year, Avant was playing quarterback, running back and wide receiver at Carver.

"He never came off the field," Simpson said.

And people noticed. The Chicago Tribune named him to its all-state team and recruiting analyst Tom Lemming rated him the nation's 49th best player. When Michigan offered a scholarship, Avant jumped at it.

As a sophomore, he caught 47 passes for 772 yards, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. His numbers (38 passes for 447 yards) are down slightly this season, but the conference coaches again selected him All-Big Ten second team.

But it's not only about football for Avant.

During his frequent trips to schools in the Wayne-Westland District, kids ask Avant what type of student he was.

"I give it to them straight," he said. "I was not always a good student. I was worrying about what people in the classroom were thinking about me. If you do that, you'll never be anything."

Avant also visited a camp in Ann Arbor for homeless children.

"I hated to leave," he said. "Some of them were crying; no one takes an interest in them."

Avant is expected to graduate from Michigan next December with a degree in general studies and concentrations in sociology and psychology. He hopes to attend Michigan's School of Social Work to pursue a master's degree in counseling.

"A lot of kids have no one they can relate to," Avant said.

Until now.

Teddy Greenstein covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Tribune.