Both men know fame. One plays in front of millions and watched the story of the NFL season happen right next to him. The other has been on magazine covers and in the New York Times; and his status as an American hero is only growing.
Both men know fear. One grew up with it, dodging violence as a drug-selling sixth-grader and saying he "should have died many times." The other confronted it as an Army corporal in Iraq, when an IED nearly killed him.
Both men know faith. One believes his grandmother’s prayer changed his life. The other says Jesus guided him home from war and into life as a father of two.
Both men know friendship. That’s the one thing that has stayed constant through the adult lives of Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant and Purple Heart recipient Jerrod Fields: the fondness they have for each other.
Both men grew up on the South Side of Chicago without the steady hand of involved parents. Avant says although both his mom and dad are back in his life now, they weren’t around much during his childhood. Fields lost his mom to lung cancer at 5 and his dad to gun violence when he was 11. Both marvel at how they navigated the drug wars going on all around them. Avant sold drugs; Fields joined a gang. But there was a greater love for each of them, and it was sports. That’s how they found each other at Carver High School. That’s how they became friends.
"He was one of the biggest freshmen I’d ever seen,” Fields says. “I was a junior when he came in as a freshman, and he immediately went to all the varsity sports. He was a big, big guy.”
Sports came so easily to Avant that he only played football – his eventual career choice – because his basketball coach insisted on it. Avant even took Fields’ starting third-base spot on the baseball team. But Fields gave his younger, taller friend all he could handle on the basketball court, and that forged a bond that remained even after Fields left for Tennessee State in 2000 and Avant got a football scholarship two years later to Michigan. There was no text messaging or Facebook back then, so the two didn’t correspond as often. But that changed in 2005.
Soon after enlisting in the Army and being sent to Iraq, Fields led his platoon to investigate a report of a dead dog in a Baghdad street. When he got to the scene, Fields heard a small explosion and then a bigger one. He looked down and his left leg was in tatters. “Things started to go real slow,” he says. “I started to pray.”
Fields gathered himself and drove his platoon out of harm’s way – blood gushing all over the driver’s seat of his Humvee – and he earned a Bronze Star even as he nearly lost his life. Days later, he found himself at Walter Reed, getting a Purple Heart but wishing he had some idea how to put his life back together. He had lost his left leg, and the shock had only started to settle in.
He reached out to Jason.
Avant had reached his own turning point. He always went to church as a child with his grandmother, who would lay her hands on him as he slept and pray, “Lord, let him be different.” But Jason often gave into temptation, he says, “looking at guys with rims and cars.” Then, late in his freshman year at Michigan, he went to a church in Detroit with his roommate, who was a pastor’s son. He found himself overcome. “It was so pure,” he says. “I began to call Jesus’ name. I began to speak in tongues.” Avant says he never took another sip of alcohol after that day, and never went to another party.
Fields heard about his friend’s transformation and called him from his hospital bed. Avant gave him some scriptures, including Job, and Fields started to read. “It was really good in propelling me to accept what happened,” he says. “We talked every day after that.”
Fields got fitted with a prosthetic leg, and eventually went to Ann Arbor for a football game. “He gave me a hug,” Jerrod says. “We went out to eat and talked. I was amazed to go through that cafeteria and see all these ferocious linemen praying.” Fields was delighted to be back in a sports setting, and it helped inspire him to restart his own athletic career. The next year, in 2006, Avant stood up at Fields’ wedding. He met the maid of honor at the ceremony, and now they are married.
Their athletic careers took off. Avant was drafted by the Eagles that year in the fourth round, while Fields started training to become a Paralympian. Four years later, Avant is a leader in the Eagles’ locker room, giving Bible passages to teammates including starting quarterback, Michael Vick. “I believe Jason tried to get Vick before it became about him,” says Fields. “I believe he’s doing the same thing with Vick as he did with me. It may be harder, but Jason’s not going to let up. He was in his ear from the beginning.” Avant plays it down, saying he just wants to be a “friend” to Vick. He sees his NFL career as a chance to stand for something other than fame and fortune. “In our culture, everyting is money-driven,” Avant says. “So what’s the best thing to use my influence for?”
The two of them talk every week, about marriage, the Bible, their kids and sometimes sports. “He lives through me a little bit,” Avant says. “It’s humbling. It gives me strength to go out and play harder. Every time I see Jerrod, it inspires me.”
Fields says he has 400 Facebook friends who are either amputees or burn patients. He feels like there is a wonderful reason he got hurt. He’s now training for 2012, having come so far as a sprinter that he has a chance to challenge South African phenom Oscar Pistorius. But there’s someone Jerrod wants to beat almost as much: Jason.
Avant is an NFL starter, and Fields is a track guy now, but both men love basketball as much as ever. And their friendship has not gotten in the way of their rivalry.
"I got ‘em,” says Jerrod. “He’s just a little big. But I got him. We played maybe four or five one-on-ones, and he beat me in all of ‘em. But we weren’t in a gym. He had home court, and I didn’t want to go hard. I got him. I got him.”
To see them play, Fields says, you’d think they were bitter enemies.
Both men know the truth.