HICAGO - 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 neigh-
borhood, Lillie has dealt with every-
thing 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 morn-
ing: Jason. A chance to talk about
Her laugh was suddenly penetrat-
ing, 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 roughhous-
ing 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 grand-
son for those two hours.
Children need their mothers.
Children need their mothers.
This wasn't something Lillie had
just figured out. She knew its signif-
icance 20 years earlier when Jason's
birth mother dropped him off, said
she was going to the store and didn't
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 rela-
tion to her.
And when Jason let go of his bit-
terness 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 rela-
tionship 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 Christ-
mas 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."
9141S. Lafln St. still stands.
ABOVE: Jason Avant's former football practice field at Carver High School Is barren In midNovember.
LEFT: Lillie Avant, Jason's grandmother, is pushed in her wheelchair by Shirley Kellom, Jason's aunt.
BELOW: Shirley's grandson, Jalen Kellom, tries to entertain his great-grandmother, Lillie.
least nothing would happen to him (if he's
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 with-
out your mother and your father, but that just
showed me how strong he was as a person,"
Scales said. "He didn't have much family.
"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 eat-
ing 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."
"A matter of choice"
It seemed like it was just yesterday that
Bruce Thomas, 30, and Jermaine Kellom, 25,
would bring seventh-grade Jason to this very
basketball court. They would convince older
guys to play against Jason for money.
"He'd kill them," Jermaine said, grinning.
Lillie hadn't seen Jason's mother since that
fateful day when, at the age of 61, Lillie sud-
denly became a mother again.
"I didn't mind keeping him, I didn't mind
at all," said Lillie, who at that point was fin-
ishing her lifelong work as a clothing factory
worker and crossing guard.
Jason's mother and father, Jerry Avant, did-
n'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
Like the time that Jason was playing out-
side 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,"
But scenes like
this didn't mess
Jason up. They
drove him to make
it out of his neigh-
borhood, to be a
good guy in his
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
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 were unavoidable.
"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 different."
Without hesitation, Jason credits every-
thing 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 leased property.
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 respon-
sibility 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 any-
thing, 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
a crowd with them, get mixed up in what
they're doing. He never did though."
Never joined a gang. Never drank. Never
smoked a thing.
As Shirley said of the difference between
Jason and Jermaine, "it's a matter of choice."
"I just saw the wrong my cousins were
doing, and I didn't want to be like them," Jason
said. "I'm one of the only grandsons (Lillie)
has that has done something really positive."
Jermaine and Bruce look after Jason now.
When Jason visits Chicago, they go where he
is, instead of risking any trouble by him com-
ing where they are.
Jermaine and Bruce look at Jason, and they
see what could have been.
"We all come from the same element; we're
all striving to be successful adults" Bruce said
forcefully. "Nobody had a silver spoon in their
mouth, but everybody is trying. That's why it's
so impressive to see this guy (Jason) doing the
right thing - what each and every one of us
felt that we could be doing."
"We're living out our dreams through him,"
"Couldn't have said it better" Bruce agreed.
"The bigger person"
The foundation of Jason's life is his faith in
God. Before games, you won't find him lis-
tening to the latest hip-hop beat, but a mix of
Away from his family and the south side
for the first time during his first semester at
Michigan, Jason admitted he "was doing
some things he wasn't supposed to." He had
to find God again.
Jason started attending church regularly with
his roommate, running back Elijah Bradley,
whose father is a pastor at a local church.
"God had really come back into my life,"
With this spiritual renewal, Jason found the
inner strength to forgive. Three-and-a-half
hours west of Ann Arbor, back on the south
side, fate was in the process of giving him
Throughout Jason's childhood, his mother
stayed on the south side with her other son,
Edwon, who is older than Jason and has a dif-
While Jason wanted nothing to do with his
mother, he and Edwon developed a friendship.
Edwon worked at a local sporting-goods store
and always made sure Jason had gym shoes.
Eventually, Jason lost touch with Edwon, cut-
ting off all possible ties with his mother.
But at the beginning of Jason's freshman
year at Michigan, Jermaine, the loyal cousin,
ran into Edwon and gave him Jason's cell-
phone number. Edwon called Jason in Ann
Arbor, and for the first time in his life, Jason
warmed up his heart to his mother.
Edwon and Jason's mother, Claudette,
came to see the Utah-Michigan game in Sep-
tember of Jason's freshman year, and they all
went out for dinner.
"I think it was just kind of fate, and then a
little bit of going to church and opening up,
because he was really resentful to the fact she
had abandoned him," Scales said. "He had
Years later, on the same court, Bruce - a
lifetime friend of the family - wears a
Michigan No. 8 jersey and calls himself
Jason's "biggest fan."
Jermaine is Shirley's son, and due to the
family's unconventional make up, could be
considered Jason's brother as much as his
cousin. He becomes wide-eyed talking about
the Big House and the Michigan football expe-
rience. He's never lived outside the south side.