The first thing Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant did after he fumbled the ball in last Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills was to find combustible head coach Andy Reid on the sideline.

"It won't happen again," Avant promised Reid.

A pack of rabid tacklers had ripped the ball away from Avant; he had not covered it up. Instead of slinking past Reid to the bench, instead of hiding from the television cameras intent on displaying his misery, Avant owned it. "He doesn't hide from anything," Reid said. "He doesn't fear things."

"I'm not a tail-tuck guy," Avant said.

Then he knelt, prayed and recited Scripture: "Lord, bring peace. Lord, bring peace."

The fumble was bad, but, considering Avant's formative years, it was nothing. His mother abandoned him before he was a year old. He watched his father go to prison three times. He dealt drugs on Chicago's streets as a 12-year-old. He often went to middle school drunk. He ran with a gang. Before he was 14, he was arrested twice, for breaking-and-entering and robbery. He was too young, he said, for the charges to stick.

Failure on the hot Buffalo turf hurt, yes. But Avant, 28, is the Eagles' iron man, hardened beyond his years, the lodestone that guides the team's players in times of trouble.

This iteration of the Eagles never has faced trouble like it faces now. Reid is being vilified. The front office is being criticized. The players are being . . . fortified?

On Wednesday, Michael Vick and Avant addressed the team during a players' meeting. The message, according to Avant: Tough times don't last. Tough people do. Just because everyone is down on you doesn't mean you have to internalize it and believe it is true. It's only true when you allow it and believe it.

It's hard not to believe it. Had Avant not fumbled, the play would have taken the Eagles from their 2 to the Bills' 37; would have continued the Birds' comeback in the third quarter; would have kept the Bills from turning it into a field goal. Avant later failed to snare another pass, in the fourth quarter, which was intercepted and ended the Eagles' chances.

Those were huge turnovers. They ensured a fourth straight loss by the disintegrating Dream Team. Four losses and two turnovers would be a large part of any other player's life. They are a small, almost insignificant corner of Jason Avant's tapestry.

He played the best of any Eagle; his nine catches are a career high, and his 139 receiving yards led the day. Yet after watching a lousy defense shatter again, after watching three other turnovers happen, Avant shouldered 100 percent of the blame. "He's a great leader. He's very religious, but he's not forcing that on people. He holds himself to standards he believes in," Reid said. "Guys respect him for that, and they listen to him. He's a player Michael Vick trusts at all times, in every situation."

Avant attracts all players from all backgrounds and supplies them with whatever they need: financial advice, veteran leadership, spiritual guidance. He asks for nothing in return. "Even though he's younger than me, he's like a big brother," said Vick, 31.

And a big security blanket. Time and again in Buffalo, with incendiary targets DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy smothered by the Bills' defense, with the pocket collapsing, Vick looked for Avant. Then he would see the receiver, plodding through precise routes, on time and willing to take a hit. "He's going to be where I think he's going to be. We're always on the same page. I see exactly what he sees and I know what he's going to do," Vick said. "I just try to make sure I find him."

Avant savors the chance to be the last resort. He figures any chance he gets, he does not deserve. Growing up, he seldom had a stable home. He was raised by his elderly grandmother, then by an aunt. Those women took him to church, but they could not shelter him. And, so, he ran wild. Somehow, he survived.

One day, as he sat in a church at the end of his sophomore year at Michigan, Avant said heard the voice of God, calling in markers. "I'm sitting there, remembering the times I should have been shot up. The times that my house was shot up, which was a lot," Avant said. "I saw family members doing drugs. I remember pulling family members into the house, shot up."

He recalled a night in Chicago when he stood across the street from a known thug, who pulled a gun out of a brown Carhartt barn coat. Avant stood 30 feet away, under a streetlight. Somehow, the hood never noticed Avant and instead fired down the darkened street. "He could have hit me, easy, if he'd seen me," Avant said. "I should be dead."

So, on May 4, 2003, in Michigan, Avant heard God say . . . Jason. After all I've done for you. You can't live your life for me?

Avant's answer: Yes.

Immediately, he turned evangelistic. "I got flack from everyone, especially teammates," at Michigan, he said. He was not deterred. On his first day in Philadelphia, after a minicamp, he took his Bible out onto Pattison Avenue to preach on the street corner; he found a church around the corner instead. For 2 years he went to that church every morning at 6 a.m.

In the past, he dropped Jesus' name like a Hollywood gadfly at a Malibu party . . . and found that he was being tuned out. He now is a less frequent, if still fervent, testifier. "I've learned how to fit it in where it makes sense," Avant said.

He strives to be humble and helpful. When pedigreed receivers Jackson and Maclin arrived in Philadelphia, Avant - aware that preening is often part of a receiver's DNA - took care to set an example. "He's played a huge role. He's done everything right. He's the type of guy you want to model yourself after," Maclin said.

Maclin also fumbled away a chance at an Eagles win, against the 49ers. Maclin issued no apologies. He did not speak with the press afterward, while Avant immediately accepted full responsibility for a loss. Consider it a teaching moment for Maclin. "People are different. I was hurting emotionally," Maclin said. "I handled it a different way. He accepted responsibility for it. That's the type of person he is."

Avant threw the key block on Jackson's game-winning punt return in last year's comeback win over the Giants. Then, in the following days, he helped Jackson deal with the fallout from his goal-line tease of dispirited Giants players. Avant also kept in touch as Jackson, perhaps the league's most underpaid superstar, held out of training camp this summer. "He did a great job keeping me levelheaded," Jackson said. "I talked to him during the holdout. He didn't say come back, but he did give me advice. He understands me, and my background. But he never lectures me."

"He's taken them under his wing and shown them what true professionalism is," Reid said, beaming. "He's been great for those two."

Avant does other, littler things that resonate just as much. The Eagles signed running back Ronnie Brown too late for Brown to ship his car to training camp, so Avant served as Brown's personal taxi at Lehigh. Avant texted cornerback Joselio Hanson encouragement the day Hanson was cut for salary purposes last month, then was the first to welcome Hanson back when the Birds re-signed him 4 days later for less money.

Big receiver Riley Cooper, a fourth-round pick in 2010 who would make a splendid slot target, was stunned last season when Avant spent hours helping him learn the offense. When Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was traded to the Eagles this summer, Avant spent extra time with him after practices.

Avant has also been a rare voice of support for backup quarterback and longtime friend Vince Young, who struggled through a discouraging training camp before being injured in the last preseason game. Avant even lets other players jump in front of him as he waits in line for the team masseuse. Sometimes he waits for an hour or more.

He tells young players to hold on to their money. "He tries to inform you that there's going to be a lot of people that you didn't talk to before coming out of the woodwork," Maclin said.

Defensive tackle Antonio Dixon spent part of his high- school career homeless. Avant warned Dixon, undrafted in 2009 and poorly paid since, to be extra careful with his meager earnings. Avant has been sure to speak to Dixon regularly since Dixon's season ended Oct. 2 with a torn left triceps.

"Jason?" Dixon asked. "A big brother? Shoot. He's like the dad of the team."

Avant has needed his faith this week, but this week is nothing compared what he's already dealt with. He buried his grandmother, Lillie, during his junior season at Michigan. She was 80 then, and she spent her 70s raising him. Lillie saw him go to college and get saved, but she never saw him make it to the NFL.

Lillie had lost a lower leg in her fight with diabetes. She battled cancer, hypertension and heart disease. Death was, for her, a reward. "If you'd come to her funeral," he said, "you'd have thought it was a wedding. We danced. Sang songs."

At least Jerry Avant got to see his son make it. Jerry is Jason Avant's father, who Jason led to Christ in 2006. He helped him kick the drugs and booze, finally. He got Jerry a place of his own. He planned to buy Jerry house with a pond on it, where Jerry one day would teach his granddaughter, Jala, how to fish.

Jason buried Jerry Avant in April. "He took my mother's death harder than he did his father's," said his Aunt Shirley. She is wrong. His grandmother's passing taught Avant truths about death: its inevitability, its gravity, its release. "My grandma was ready to go," Avant said.

But losing his grandmother did not teach him how to lose his father. Jerry Avant died suddenly, shockingly, unfairly. His old Chevy Blazer skidded off a wet road during an afternoon rainstorm in Pemberton, N.J., and crashed into a stand of trees.

Jason couldn't even receive telephone calls for 3 weeks. Stacy, his wife, had to organize memorial services in New Jersey and Chicago. It took Jason almost a month to reconcile . . . or, to rationalize. "Maybe it's better he died," said Avant. "If you're clean now, and God sees your future, and sees you'll have a relapse and go down a bad path, it's better for him to take you now."

He is left with a mother, Claudette Hughes, who didn't want him. "When I was younger, I was furious with my mother," he said. Avant saw his mother once during his childhood. She brought him a Nintendo for Christmas at age 5. He barely remembers.

He likely never would have seen here again but for a chance meeting at a nightclub between Jermaine, his closest cousin, and Edwon Simmons, Avant's older half-brother and Claudette Hughes' other child. Simmons convinced Avant to meet with Hughes. Avant agreed to host them at a Michigan game his freshman year. "Dealing with it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I was, like, 'What's the motive? Why not sooner?' " Avant said.

He held his tongue: "To this day, I haven't asked her why she left."

Avant believes that he should not throw stones. He was so overwrought with the memory of his crimes that, the day after he became a Christian, he nearly quit the Michigan football team to focus on good works. "Selling drugs, hurting people, so many things I did . . . it's a laundry list," Avant said. "And seeing how he spared me, so many times. Football didn't make me. God did."

His pastor convinced Avant that he could better serve his savior by playing football and acting right. "When I come to the football field, I have the mindset, 'I don't deserve to be out here. I don't deserve this kind of money,' " Avant said.

He might have dealt a little crack. He might have beaten up a few people as a banger with the Gangster Disciples. But everybody knew Avant was a punk of a crook. "When I was selling drugs, I was the worst drug dealer you ever saw. I had too much sense," he said, laughing at himself. "You've got to have some serious thug mental problem to continue to go out on a corner, where you know someone is going to come around and shoot you for your drug money."

He knows that sort of person, and well. "I have family members who are just bad dudes. They look bad, and they're used to doing bad," Avant said. "Me? I was a perpetrator."

When Jerry Avant went to jail the last time, Avant moved in with his grandmother in Chicago's Brainerd Park section. Her house was raided for drugs by the police twice; a third time and the city would take it. So she sold the house. Avant's aunt, Shirley Avant-Kellom, stepped in. She had a son, Jermaine, near Jason's age. "I told my mother it was time Jason came and lived with me," she said. He did. He moved to the Roseland neighborhood, where athletics trumped gang-banging. He quit the Disciples. He joined his high-school basketball team, played AAU ball and took up football.

Avant became a basketball standout at Carver High at a time when Air Jordan ruled Chicago's skies. Every kid wanted to play basketball.

After one hard football practice, Avant wanted to quit the game. The coach, Willie Simpson, also coached basketball at Carver. He saw more potential in Avant's football skills. Simpson told Avant he would kick him off the basketball team if he quit football. A year later, Avant was one of the hottest high-school receivers in the country.

He had always loved Michigan basketball, with its Fab Five, so, naturally, he chose the Wolverines' football program. That led to church, and on May 4, 2003, the Holy Spirit took hold, he said. He immediately began speaking in tongues. He occasionally still does, he said, sometimes for hours; speaking languages foreign to him, or dead languages.

Speaking in tongues is a phenomenon even the most devout Christians look upon with skepticism. Avant knows this, and he does not care: "It happens. People don't believe it, but it happens."

He has not consumed alcohol or drugs since his conversion, and he has known little of the pleasures of the flesh. He has not had sex with anyone except his wife. "No women. No sex. No nothing," Avant said.

Not even the last week of December in 2004, when Avant and the Wolverines went to Los Angeles to play USC in the Rose Bowl. He had never traveled like this. For a week and a half, Michigan stayed at the Beverly Wilshire off Rodeo Drive. Avant, his pockets heavy with his Rose Bowl stipend, toured the area on the first day. He was sorely tested. "I'd never seen so many pretty women in my life. I'm in L.A., playing ball, getting bowl money," Avant said. "I felt so weak."

Avant called his pastor, and he prayed, and he read his Bible, and he did not leave his room again. For 10 days. Except for practice and meals; even then, he didn't trust himself to hit the good restaurants: "Only fast food."

That willpower served Avant in good stead in the NFL. At his first training camp as an unheralded fourth-round pick, he floored Eagles coaches with his stamina and his toughness. As July turned to August and receivers began dropping passes, especially ones across the middle, Avant fearlessly threw his body into traffic, again and again.

With a ruthless commitment to fitness and a stratospheric tolerance for pain - both pinkie fingers are permanently disfigured, but neither has cost him a play - Avant, playing under a 5-year, $18 million contract, is still the best receiver every training camp. "You see him with those one-handed catches in the middle of training camp. He plays at that high level, no matter what time in camp it is, no matter how hot," marveled second-year tight end Clay Harbor. "Mentally, he's as tough as anybody, because of his faith."

Harbor means that literally. When Avant approaches the line of scrimmage, "Scriptures are going through my mind," he said. "I can see the Bible. When I know there's a hitter back there, I see, 'I can do all things through Christ.' Or, 'God hath not given [me] the spirit of fear.' " In effect, Philippians 4:13 and 2 Timothy 1:7 fortify him for the punishing licks safeties and linebackers deal him.

But no one touched him when he made his best catch of this season. It was a footnote on Vick's 416-yard passing day against the 49ers. Late in the second quarter, facing second-and-20, Vick snapped a laser over the middle. It sizzled past the left hand of linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who had darted in front of Avant, who was running full speed to his right. Avant left his feet, swiveled his hips and caught the pass, with both hands, behind his left shoulder. Bowman looked at Avant on the ground, bewildered.

That catch accounted for just 11 yards, yet it set up an easy field goal that gave the Eagles a 17-point halftime lead. It also cemented Avant as the go-to guy on the team. "The catch behind him was awesome. One of the best I've seen in a long time. The concentration, in traffic; but, he's been doing that his entire career," Vick said. "That's why I trust him."

Avant's 23 catches for 310 yards put him on pace for 73 catches and 992 yards, which would shatter his career bests of 51 catches in 2010 and 587 yards in 2009. They generally are quality catches, too. Of Avant's 61 career third-down catches, 51 have gone for first downs. But then, he has always been cool-headed in a crisis.

This was not his turf, but Avant was a teenager in a hurry. "Chicago's very segregated," he explains. "Mexicans and black people don't get along, because of women. The section of Roseland I lived in is predominantly black, but there is a Mexican part."

That is the part Avant cut through one day as a senior after a workout. He was in a rush to shower and change to be on time for a date, so he cut through that Mexican part of Roseland. "A car full of Hispanics comes out of nowhere and rams my car," Avant said, trying to run him off the road.

The cars drove side by side. Again and again, the other driver slammed into Avant. When they reached a stop sign, Avant stopped. So did the other car. His instinct was to open the door and run. That would have been a fatal instinct. Crippled with a fresh ACL injury, he would have been dead. Still, desperately, he tried to get out of the car; inexplicably, he could not.

Just then, a passenger emerged from the other car. A gun in his hand. Avant slammed his door shut, punched the accelerator, hopped the curb, sped through the intersection and fled to his side of the neighborhood.

Shortly after the car-crash incident, Avant's best friend, future Duke basketball star Sean Dockery, talked Avant into double-dating with a pair of girls Dockery knew. They picked them up in respectable Hyde Park - the Main Line of Chicago's South Side. Afterward, one of the girls asked to be dropped off in the Low End, north of Hyde Park and twice as dangerous. She then sent a text from the back seat. As Avant dropped her off, a van pulled up behind his car, slowly trolled past, the driver glaring at Avant. It then went up the one-way street, around a curve. When Avant came around the curve he saw the same van, its headlights glaring at him, facing the wrong way on the street. He stopped. Then, he saw a gang of 16 armed black men charging his own car. "Bats. Bricks. Knives. Guns."

He floored it, right at the attackers. They began to throw bricks and stones. He squeezed past the van, hopped onto a sidewalk, tore up a front lawn and was gone. "I could tell you a million stories like that," Avant said.

That life prepared him, but that life is eons removed. Avant now lives in placid South Jersey with Stacy and daughter Jala, 18 months old. He managed to move Aunt Shirley, now 56 and afflicted with cranial issues, to a nice house on the South Side of Chicago; she would not leave her city.

Four losses? Whatever.

Vick, like Avant, knows that things can always be worse. Vick infamously spent 18 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring. The Eagles signed him upon his release in 2009. The most welcoming Eagle: fellow reformed criminal Jason Avant.

They became close friends on Vick's first day at camp. Vick probably is the most popular player in America, but Avant does not care that Vick is a $100 million man. "He's always correcting me when I have foul things coming out of my mouth," Vick said.

Avant might have been a pathetic drug dealer, but he is no perpetrator when it comes to walking in Christ's footsteps, say teammates. "He came up real in the streets," Vick said. "That's Jason's story. To see guys make that a 180; it's a complete change. It's great to have a teammate like that, who's reliable with his hands, who can catch the ball, and is going to guide you, mentally and spiritually."

With his own tarnished past, Avant simply could not judge Vick. "Three years ago, anybody you'd talk to would crucify him," Avant said. "He's changing. He's not there yet, but he recognizes that he made a mistake. If people would've carried a camera to record me throughout my life, they never would have forgiven me of the things I've done. It doesn't matter what he's done. It matters what he does.

"Like me."