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Needing his mothers

BY J. BRADY MCCOLLOUGH
Daily Sports Editor
Published January 26, 2004

This is not the story you’ve heard before about the
hard-working kid who made it out of a rough neighborhood. This is
the story of Michigan wide receiver Jason Avant, who did it without
the help of his birth mother and father.

CHICAGO — Just one day after coming
home from the hospital, battling diabetes and hypertension, Lillie
Avant should be in bed this November morning.

Sitting in her wheelchair wearing a turquoise, florid gown, she
tries to gather enough strength in her 81-year-old right arm to put
her coffee down on the table to her right. Her frail hand begins to
shake with the weight of the mug, and she gently says “thank
you” for help with what used to be an easy task.

A mother of eight and a “Granny” to nearly everyone
in the old neighborhood, Lillie has dealt with everything from
heart problems to uterine cancer over the past decade. She will
soon begin a tri-weekly dialysis treatment for diabetes.

There’s only one word that could have lifted her out of
bed that morning: Jason. A chance to talk about
Jason.

Her laugh was suddenly penetrating, as she and her daughter,
Shirley Kellom, reminisced about the time 10-year-old Jason grabbed
a pair of hedge clippers and tried to help his cousins, who were
busy roughhousing across the street. Jason called them the
“big scissors.”

When the laughs subsided, Lillie challenged her tired mind to
remember Jason’s youth. In 81 years, she’s gained a lot
of wisdom, but one phrase kept resurfacing as she talked about her
favorite grandson for those two hours.

Children need their mothers. Children need their
mothers
.

This wasn’t something Lillie had just figured out. She
knew its significance 20 years earlier when Jason’s birth
mother dropped him off, said she was going to the store and
didn’t come back.

She knew it when she tried to convince Jason to let his mother
back into his life as the years went by, even though Lillie had no
relation to her.

And when Jason let go of his bitterness and met his mother for
the first time the weekend of the Utah-Michigan game his freshman
year — before he’d become Michigan’s most
dependable third-down receiver as a sophomore — Lillie
rejoiced.

“We tried to tell him, as he got older, that he needed to
have a relationship with his mother,” Lillie said. “But
it was too late at that point.”

“Somebody’s going to get it”

It wasn’t too late, but it must have felt that way when
Jason was 4 years old and Christmas time rolled around.
Jason’s mother pulled up to Lillie’s house with a car
full of toys for Jason.

“Jason just didn’t want any of the gifts because
they were from her,” said Shirley, Jason’s aunt, with
whom he lived once Lillie’s health deteriorated. “It
was pretty much the fact it was somebody he didn’t know.

“I just didn’t understand him not wanting the gifts.
He just clung to my mother.”

Lillie hadn’t seen Jason’s mother since that fateful
day when, at the age of 61, Lillie suddenly became a mother
again.

“I didn’t mind keeping him, I didn’t mind at
all,” said Lillie, who at that point was finishing her
lifelong work as a clothing factory worker and crossing guard.

Jason’s mother and father, Jerry Avant, didn’t
marry. By the time Jason was born, his father was nowhere to be
found, as became the usual for him.

So Lillie gave Jason everything she could during his formative
years. Lillie lived in the Brainerd Park area of Chicago’s
south side for 32 years, welcoming anyone in the family into her
home. At any given time, a dozen family members could have been
living at 9141 S. Laflin St., near West 91st Street.

If a family were choosing the best place to raise its children,
Laflin likely wouldn’t have made the list. The name Laflin
brings up chilling memories for everyone who ever lived there.

Like the time that Jason was playing outside with his cousins,
and some guys came over and tried to shoot up the block.

Or when Jason, about 12 at the time, came home from school to
see his cousin, Franchon, lying on the floor with five gunshot
wounds.

“The blood messed up the whole house,” Jason
said.

But scenes like this didn’t mess Jason up. They drove him
to make it out of his neighborhood, to be a good guy in his
community and make his family — at least those who stuck
around — proud of him.