My story began in Brainerd Park on the south side of Chicago. My mother left when I was a baby, and my dad was in and out of jail, so it was up to my grandmother Lillie to raise me.
My grandmother was a very spiritual woman who loved Jesus and made us go to church on Sundays. I would always go with her, but that’s where it stopped. The other six days of the week, I was running with a gang. By sixth grade, I was selling drugs, and, by seventh grade, I was going to school drunk.
Because my cousins and I were selling drugs out of her house, the police raided it more than once. Before it could be raided again my grandmother decided to sell it, which meant I would be moving in with my aunt Shirley on the other side of town. I stayed there until the end of my eighth grade year when my dad got out of jail and I went to live with him in Decatur, Ill.
I was doing well in school there and had started playing basketball, but, around Christmas, my dad got locked up again. Once the basketball season was over, I just stopped going to school and flunked out.
After being shuffled around so many places, I moved back in with my grandmother and started going to George Washington Carver High School in the middle of the Chicago projects. It was a really bad area, and I was surrounded by drug trafficking and violence. But amid all the negatives, I found success on the hardwood.
Entering my sophomore year, the basketball coach, who was also the football coach, told me I couldn’t play basketball unless I played football. Because I loved basketball, I decided to give it a shot.
In the first practice, he put me at middle linebacker and ran the fullback at me over and over to see how tough I was. Rather than taking it, I just quit.
That night, I told my grandmother and my father, who called me from jail, that I’d quit the team. They didn’t agree with my decision and took the opportunity to exercise their authority. I was on the field the next day. This time, though, the coach put me in at cornerback and running back.
I played running back as a sophomore, but when I went back out as a junior, they changed me to receiver to start the season, and that’s when I began to thrive. By the end of that season, I was the No. 1-rated high school recruit in all of Illinois.
I went to college at the University of Michigan, and my first roommate was a pastor’s son. The first day we were there, his dad prayed that God would save us and empower us with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Ironically, instead of thinking about God, we went clubbing. In fact, we did anything we thought we were big and bad enough to do after that.
That spring, though, things changed when my roommate got hurt. One day, out of the blue, he told me that the partying wasn’t for him anymore and that he was going to start going to church. I decided to go with him.
May 4, 2003—I remember the day. I remember sitting on the right side of the church and the preacher preaching one lesson while God was giving me another. God began to replay in my mind all of the times He’d protected me—the gunshots at our house, the time the police nearly caught me with drugs in my shoes. The Lord began to remind me of how He’d allowed me to go safely through the projects even when there were gang wars going on. His Holy Spirit spoke to my heart saying, “Jason, after all I have done for you, you still can’t live your life for Me?”
With tears in my eyes, I went up to the altar and called on Jesus. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, but as sure as I am standing here today, I was calling on Him in different tongues. I met Christ that day and was baptized.
From that point on, my mind was renewed and my life was changed. Focusing on Him became so much more important than anything else. I was even going to quit football, but my pastor explained to me that God had given me football as an opportunity to witness. Now, based on the platform I have through the NFL, I can see that he was right.
God has always given me the strength to overcome. I ask Him every day to give me grace, mercy and power. I pray for the strength and the anointing to play this game. By His hand, I have seen teammates saved and watched as He has shown up in so many different ways. For this, I give Him all the credit. I wasn’t looking for Him, but He was looking for me. Thankfully, I have been found.
“But when the completion of the time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” – Galatians 4:4-5