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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“The blood messed up the whole house,” Jason
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.
“I’m not proud of coming from a neighborhood like
that,” Jason said. “Parents didn’t teach their
kids how to act in public, how to respect grown-ups.”
Lillie, equipped with her infamous belt and an oft-used Bible,
pushed Jason along. She was a stern disciplinarian.
“Everybody on the block knew,” Shirley said of her
mother. “Here comes Granny. Somebody’s going to get
“If they had the same standards then that they do now,
where everything is, ‘Oh, it’s child abuse,’
she’d be in jail.”
“Yes, I would,” Lillie said, laughing.
But it wasn’t always easy, even with Jason. As Lillie put
it, there was “always somebody running him up the
street.” The pressure to do the wrong thing was around every
corner of the south side. Have a drink. Take a hit. The temptations
“When you’re a young guy, it’s tough to say no
to that girl over there with the big whatever,” Jason said.
“That’s something I was taught. I just wanted to be
Without hesitation, Jason credits everything he’s achieved
as one of the Big Ten’s top wide receivers to Lillie.
“He always wanted to be somebody,” Lillie said.
“I just pushed him on.”
Lillie put more of herself into Jason than any of her other
grandchildren; basically, she was raising her fourth son.
“(Jason’s mother) gave him to me,” Lillie
explained. “The others, they were there with their mothers.
She just moved away. His mother wasn’t there.”
“His friends were his family”
Children also need their fathers. Lillie and Shirley
couldn’t fill that role.
Jerry Avant, Jason’s father, is currently in a
Hillsborough, Ill., jail cell, serving his fourth jail term —
two years for retail theft and a year and a half for theft of
Convicted of theft-related offenses each time, one could argue
he helped rob his son of a normal childhood.
Jason does not try to talk to Jerry, and the last time they
spent significant time together was Jason’s freshman year of
high school, when he moved in with his dad in Decatur, Ill. Since
Jerry was out of jail, Shirley felt it was time for her brother to
take some responsibility with Jason. It was an experience that
Shirley would like to forget.
“I thought he could take (Jason during) high
school,” Shirley said.
But Jerry didn’t force Jason to attend school while he was
under his roof. Within three months, the second half of
Jason’s dynamic mother duo had heard enough.
“I went down there and said, ‘Give me my
child,’ ” Shirley said. “He wouldn’t do
anything, just hang out. He didn’t have any type of parental
anything. We’re not going to have him get through grade
school and become a dropout in high school.
“I don’t think that Jason ever developed any respect
That goes for the rest of the family as well. Lillie never had
any control over Jerry, her youngest son. Jerry joined the Marines
and went to Vietnam, where he sustained an injury that rendered
half of his body useless for quite some time.
When he returned, he was into “partying and having himself
a good time,” Shirley said.
Lillie, his own mother, would rather Jerry be in jail than
“I want him to stay there,” Lillie said. “At
least nothing would happen to him (if he’s in
Without his father and mother in his life, Jason “took
most of the burden on himself,” said Jason’s best
friend, Tony Scales.
Scales moved to Chicago a few years after Jason had moved in
with Shirley’s family, which happened when Jason was in fifth
grade. Jason was Tony’s first friend, and Jason let him know
early on about his family situation.
“I thought it was kind of rough, being without your mother
and your father, but that just showed me how strong he was as a
person,” Scales said. “He didn’t have much
“His friends were his family.”
They were his family when he needed to escape for an evening of
joyriding around Chicago. They were his family on the nights when
there wasn’t any food to eat at home.
“There wasn’t always a meal at his house,”
Scales said. “He bounced around. Whether it be asking
friends’ parents for money, or eating at coaches’
houses or eating at my house. He was going to eat.”
There were times when Jason and Tony wanted to go out, but had
to pool their limited funds in order to do so. They looked out for
“If he had 50 dollars, and I had nothing, he’d split
it twenty-five/twenty-five,” Scales said. “Whoever had
the money paid the way.”
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