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Wearing the Blue collar: Jason Avant's story of faith and Michigan football

File Photo/Daily
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BY BRIAN MECHANICK
Daily Sports Writer
Published September 12, 2010

Jason Avant is pissed off. He’s an All-American, so why is he sitting on the bench he thinks? No. 9 Washington is on the opposite sideline, and he should be taking apart their secondary. Sure, he ran out and touched the banner in front of the 111,000-plus crowd, but if he’s not playing, it doesn’t matter.

He spends the first quarter glued to the bench, grumbling to himself about the injustice that has been done to him. He looks around for fellow freshman receiver Steve Breaston, who knows what Avant’s going through. But Breaston’s not sitting on the bench, he’s up on the sideline, yelling and cheering. This freshman is being redshirted — he can’t play this entire year — and he’s the one excited?

Avant’s not going to be the one complaining while his friend is fired up, so he rises and joins Breaston. It all begins to soak in: the crowd, the tradition and his teammates laying it all on the line. He begins to cheer, pulling for his teammates in a tight game. When Phillip Brabbs hits a 44-yard field goal as time expires, Avant runs on the field in jubilation with the rest of his teammates.

“I understood what being a Michigan Man was all about,” Avant said in an interview with the Daily. “It wasn’t about my talent anymore, it wasn’t about me being the best football player, but me encouraging my university, me encouraging my teammates, and that was the change in my career.“

****

It’s a Sunday, so Avant is going with his Granny to church. Not that he has much of a choice, lest he face the wrath of her bible and belt. Lillie Avant, known as Granny to the rest of the neighborhood, raised Avant his entire life. His mother dropped him as a baby and never came back. His father, Jerry Avant, was in and out of prison. A stern woman with a strong faith, Granny raised her grandson as if he were her son.

Their neighborhood was the Altgeld Gardens Projects on the South Side of Chicago, a place most famous for its asbestos. There were drugs and opportunities to go down the wrong path, but Granny’s faith kept Avant on the right side of the tracks, praying for him every time he went out.

Like most kids growing up in the Windy City in the era of Jordan’s Bulls, Avant’s game was basketball. And a baller he was, beating older guys on the playground, taking their money and pride in the process. It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Carver High School that he became a football player.

Carver was short on athletes and funds, so Avant’s basketball coach — who held the same position with the football team — made an ultimatum: if you want to play basketball, you’re going to have to play football.

Avant’s football career got off to an inauspicious start. After one day of the fullback repeatedly popping him, he quit. He didn’t want to get hit. But Granny wasn’t about to let Avant give up after one day. She convinced him to go back out with the squad. With his position switched to running back, Avant started to like the game a little bit more.

In his junior year, Avant switched positions again, this time to wide receiver. And quite the receiver he was, setting school records in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. Within two years of first playing football, Avant was an High School All-American.

New to the game of football, Avant wasn’t exactly well-versed in the recruiting and rah-rah tradition of college football. But he knew of this program with history, Michigan, and he remembered Charles Woodson smiling with a rose in his mouth. His interest was piqued, so he began to look into the program. Its winning ways and high academic profile only furthered his admiration. When Lloyd Carr came calling, Avant couldn’t resist signing with the national championship-winning coach.

“I thought Coach Carr was genuine,” Avant said. “I thought he was tough and I thought he went out of his way to come out to the projects, where most of the coaches were scared to come and visit me.”

****

After a freshman year dedicated to getting stronger and faster, Avant entered his sophomore year looking to emerge a star after having only two catches in his Michigan career. But that stardom wasn’t going to come any time soon, as Braylon Edwards had emerged as the leading man of the receiving crew after a 1,035-yard, ten-touchdown season. Anyone who had known Avant as a hot-headed All-American a year before would have expected sullen response to the thought of playing second fiddle.


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