PHILADELPHIA (AP) Jason Avant lasted far longer in Philadelphia than the No. 81 he replaced and no player received higher praise on his way out the door.
Avant returns to Lincoln Financial Field on Monday night when the struggling Carolina Panthers (3-5-1) visit the Eagles (6-2). His return to Philadelphia doesn’t attract headlines the way DeSean Jackson’s first game against the Eagles did earlier this season.
But Avant didn’t have to be a Pro Bowl wide receiver such as Jackson or an All-Pro such as Terrell Owens – who wore 81 the year before Avant arrived in 2006 – to earn respect and admiration from fans, teammates, coaches and the entire organization.
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When the Eagles released Avant on March 4, they issued a statement with quotes from owner Jeffrey Lurie, general manager Howie Roseman and coach Chip Kelly.
”There have not been any players who have represented the Philadelphia Eagles with more class and dignity than Jason Avant,” Lurie. ”Whether it was in the locker room, on the playing field or in the community, he has always been a true professional, a role model and a winner every step of the way.”
When the team cut Jackson later that month, they issued a two-sentence statement saying they parted ways.
T.O.’s departure was under tumultuous circumstances. He was kicked off the team midway through the 2005 season after helping the Eagles reach the Super Bowl nine months earlier.
”You won’t find a classier organization or nicer people than Mr. Lurie and Mrs. Lurie,” Avant said. ”My thing is being a good Christian, being a good teammate and treating people the way you want to be treated whether it’s the janitor, the guy helping me on the JUGS machine, whoever it is.
”Everyone has a voice, everyone has an opinion and everyone deserves to be respected as men and women. That’s what I try to do. So many times we are so enamored with people’s athletic ability we kind of give them passes when it comes to character and I never wanted to be that person. I wanted to be a great guy and good player, too, rather than a great player and a jerk.”
Avant had 297 receptions for 3,646 yards and 12 touchdowns in his career with the Eagles. He made memorable, one-handed, highlight-reel catches and was an outstanding blocker on run plays.
But he’s best known for what he did in the locker room. Avant was a team leader, a mentor for young players and often a go-between for players and coaches.
”Not the most talented guy, not the biggest or the strongest or the fastest, just played with a lot of intensity, played as hard as I could and I worked at it every day,” Avant said. ”Being known for those things on the field, but also being known as the same person that you see in the locker room and off the field, being a good guy. That’s what you want.
”That leaves more of an effect on people than any amount of touchdowns ever will. They may remember your stats, but the people in the building I’m around every day, they’ll remember what kind of person you were.”
Kelly said he told Avant the day he cut him that he appreciated how he helped make the transition for the new coaching staff last year ”fantastic.”
”I think Jason is a special guy both on and off the field, and I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for Jason,” Kelly said. ”He’s a real selfless guy, will do whatever is for the good of the team.”
Avant understood why the Eagles let him go. He made too much money to be the slot receiver when the team could replace him on the field with a rookie who makes less and has more talent.
The Eagles drafted Jordan Matthews in the second round to fill the role and gave the former Vanderbilt star Avant’s job and No. 81 jersey. Matthews has filled in nicely, making 32 catches for 313 yards and three TDs.
”I saw my role and what they had me doing, it just didn’t make sense for them financially to keep me to do some of the things that I was doing,” Avant said.
Avant only has 20 catches for 193 yards and one TD for Carolina. He has more value than just his numbers, however.
The Panthers are desperate to end a three-game losing streak and get back in the playoff mix. The defending NFC South champions only trail New Orleans (4-4) in the division.
Cam Newton looks to get back on track for Carolina while Mark Sanchez makes his first start since Dec. 30, 2012. He’s filling in for Nick Foles, who broke his collarbone last week.
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