Shaka's son Li'l Jay makes a huge difference in Shaka's life. Actually, scratch that: he makes a couple of huge differences.
For one, his birth while Shaka is in prison is one of the huge motivators for Shaka to change:
I had given up on myself, my parents, and my brothers and sisters—but I would be damned if I'd give up on my children. I was determined to fight against the side of me that didn't think I could be anything more than a thuggish criminal or a predator to my community […] No matter how many times I got knocked to the ground, I would get up over and over again, until I could stand strong as a proud African man and father. (10.56)
Being a parent is one of the things that works a slow transformation in Shaka's life over the long haul. Shaka gets to see Li'l Jay from time to time when Shaka's dad brings him on a visit. Sometimes this is terribly painful, because it reminds Shaka of everything he's lost by going to prison (14.58-14.65). Shaka is saddened by realizations like this one:
[…] my son would become a teenager and a young man without ever getting a chance to throw a football with me. (16.3)
Shaka also experiences a lot of anger about not being able to be there for L'il Jay. He worries that his son will become
[…] caught up in the cycle of violence, drugs, and crime that had claimed so many from my generation— including me. I didn't want him to join the long line of young Black males who became statistics, and the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. (10.53)
Shaka is able to write letters back and forth with L'il Jay, and one of those letters is a huge moment in Shaka's life, a huge moment that really helps him to continue on a healthy path of change.
When L'il Jay is ten years old, he writes and tells Shaka that he knows why Shaka is in prison. It's a really tough moment for Shaka, as he confronts the knowledge that his son knows he's a murderer. (19.51-19.56) But it also becomes a moment of great change for the better. Shaka describes it this way:
I had acknowledged my guilt years before, but there was a difference between that and accepting responsibility for my actions. My son's words made me take that final step on my road to redemption. (19.61)
Shaka writes back, and he also promises his son he will never kill again. (19.62)
When Shaka tells this story in the book, he adds something that may be the best summary of how being L'il Jay's parent has changed him:
For all of those years, I was consumed by anger. I worried about what would happen if I wasn't around to save my son from going down the same path I had trod. I never would've thought he'd be the one to save me. (19.64)
Hopefully, Shaka's able to throw the ol' pigskin around with L'il Jay from time to time…even though L'il Jay is past his teenaged years.