WOODLAWN, Md. -- Fifteen years ago, Jason Avant was selling drugs as a 12-year-old in the South Side of Chicago, surrounded by gang violence, dodging bullets regularly. Today, Avant has not only established himself as one of the premier third-down receivers in the NFL, but he's looked up to as one of the leaders in the Eagles' locker room, and as a leader in the community. For Avant, being rewarded by his teammates as the team's recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award is an indication not only of how far he's come, but that his message in the locker room isn't falling on deaf ears.
"That's the most important thing to me," Avant said. "To earn the respect of your teammates for overcoming some things, it means a lot, especially when you have guys before me who won it like Mike Vick and (Jon) Dorenbos, who experienced a lot of growing pains in their relationships with people, but also with God. It means the world to me that my teammates did this. Sometimes you get kind of weary, not thinking that you're being an influence, but them voting for me lets me know that I need to go on proclaiming Jesus Christ and encouraging my teammates to be better people."
The Ed Block Courage Award is awarded to one player on each NFL team who, in the eyes of his teammates, exemplifies a commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage. Avant has earned the respect and admiration of his teammates with his tireless efforts in the community and his role as the team's leader in bible study, not to mention his trademark catches in traffic over the middle of the field. As the team's recipient, Avant, along with the rest of the Ed Block Courage Award winners across the league, has spent the past few days visiting children's hospitals and Courage houses, which was an eye-opening experience.
"When you think of courage, you think of, as a football player, going over the middle, fighting through injuries, those types of things. But when you go to the St. Vincent's house or you go to one of these Courage houses we've been a part of this week, you realize that these kids are really courageous," Avant said. "To show our stories to them, it's really uplifting for us. We thought we were going to teach them something, but they ended up teaching us."
Avant, however, does have a relevant story to tell. The wide receiver spent his childhood bouncing between gang-riddled Brainerd Park in Chicago, Morgan Park, and Decatur, Ill., where he would live with his father, when the elder Avant wasn't in jail. With his mother out of the picture, Avant credits his late grandmother Lillie and Aunt Shirley with instilling a faith in God in him, though the message didn't really take until after his Freshman year at Michigan. Then, after a life-changing church service, Avant dedicated his life to spreading the word of God and turning himself into a positive influence.
"It's a very humbling experience being here. Gratitude is the word," Avant said. "I know I was going down a terrible path when I was growing up, and when I look at those kids, I'm thankful to God that I made it out. But I also want to let them know that it's possible to overcome the hardest situations."
Meanwhile, Avant isn't forgetting his obligations on the field for the Eagles. After posting a career-high 51 catches in 2010, Avant isn't resting on his laurels, even with an uncertain offseason ahead.
"I've been working hard, just staying prepared," he said. "We don't know what's going to happen with the CBA, but you always have to stay ready to keep from getting ready. You don't know when a deal's going to get done and you want to be in shape when that time comes. So I'm working on some things that I don't like about my game, so I have tapes and have those films and I'm working on them."
If there's anyone Eagles fans can count on to take care of the job at hand, it's Avant.
-- Posted by Bo Wulf, 7:35 p.m., March 8