Nestled in the hills of the Santa Monica Mountains, just outside Malibu, near vineyards and multi-million dollar homes, sits Camp Kilpatrick. This is no summer camp, however. Instead, the dorms and offices, built in the ’60s, look and remind some of a state park. But the boys who attend Camp Kilpatrick aren’t there on vacation.
Kilpatrick’s campers are inmates, medium to high-risk juvenile offenders, serving sentences for criminal convictions.
It’s where “Gridiron Gang” was filmed and the place UK defensive end DeQuin Evans learned to play football.
“I got my football swagger there,” Evans said.
Evans’ story is both frightening and enlightening. It’s one in which Evans has risen above his troubled past and found success on and off the football field.
A two-year starter for the Cats, Evans will play his last regular season game on Saturday in Knoxville.
How he arrived at UK and a starring role on Steve Brown’s defense is fascinating, if nothing short of amazing, really.
Evans grew up in Compton, Calif., a city of nearly 100,000 people and with an even bigger reputation. The son of Penina Maefau, Evans found himself the man of the house at a very young age.
“I thought it was regular,” he said. “I grew up in the projects. Kids running around everywhere, playing, doing anything we could do to have fun.”
By the time he was 13, Evans was helping take care of his family. His dad was in and out of jail, his uncle had fallen on hard times and his grandfather had died.
“I was forced at a young age to do a man’s job.”
To help his mother put food on the table, Evans took on odd-jobs, like mowing lawns.
“We did what we had to do to get what we needed,” he said.
Helping out around the family home meant Evans missed school. It also meant Evans was falling prey to peer pressure around the neighborhood.
Evans says the area he grew up in was heavily infested by gangs.
“Crips running around everywhere,” he said. “There was always something bad going on when the lights went down. Gunshots. Fights…”
By the time he was 14 or 15, Evans found himself being influenced by friends who ran with the gangs. To his credit, Evans says he never was IN a gang. But he found himself doing some of the same things.
“When you’re a typical kid growing up in the neighborhood, it was always the kids in the gangs that had nicer things. That was the peer pressure that got me and the other kids growing up over there. You knew in the back of your mind that everything they were doing was illegal to get things they were getting.”
“I felt myself drifting that direction,” Evans said. “All my friends were doing it. I knew I was doing wrong at the time, but I didn’t know how wrong. I would see it every day.”
He stayed clear of the gangs because of his deep Samoan roots.
“My mom raised me better than that. She gave me more morals and confidence in myself that I don’t have to be a part of something to be somebody.”
But Evans found trouble when he was stopped in a stolen car that police linked to gang activity. Coupled with truancy issues and curfew violations, Evans soon found himself in the California juvenile justice system. He was sent to Camp Kilpatrick. It’s here Evans began to turn his life around.
Evans spent 16 months at Camp Kilpatrick. During his time there, he decided to play for the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs, the team featured in “Gridiron Gang.” It was the first time Evans had played organized football.
“I loved playing in the game. I hated practicing and I hated preparing,” he admitted. “But I loved going out there and playing, even though I wasn’t that good.”
Still, something about gameday piqued his interest.
“I’d suit up and boot up and then the national anthem would come on and those chills that I got and those butterflies that I got in my stomach… I knew that there was nothing in this world that made me feel like that,” Evans said. “That was the first time that I was a part of an organization that was positive. It felt amazing.”
Evans credits his coaches at Kilpatrick for teaching him the game and for having an incredible sense of purpose.
“You’re forming a team with a group of guys who’ve never played football in their life, who’ve been caught up in trouble all their life, who’ve been gang banging all their life. You’ve got a guy, standing right next to another guy, who’s got to block for him. And he hates this guy’s guts, because one of their friends probably killed one of his friends. Or a friend from a rival gang probably killed this guy’s brother.”
Consequently, Evans said, fights broke out during practice between rival teammates.
While he was incarcerated, Evans said he vowed never again to put his mother through the pain of seeing her son sent away.
“It hurt me so bad knowing that I was hurting my mother worse,” he said. “I felt like less of a man. I questioned myself. ‘How could I do this to my mother? How could I give my mother all these gray hairs?’ That just tore me up inside. I promised myself that I would never put my mother through that again.”
And he hasn’t.
Evans found a school in Long Beach that would accept him and eventually graduated from Cabrillo High School. Evans wanted to play football, but didn’t arrive on campus until the season was over. Instead, he joined the Cabrillo track team.
Not knowing what next to do, Evans found a job at a local grocery store to help his mother pay bills. He didn’t think it would be possible to continue his education after high school.
"My education was low. I had never written an essay,” he said.
It was a chance conversation with a cousin that rekindled the football fire within. Herschel Dennis, who played at Southern Cal, alongside Reggie Bush, suggested that Evans continue his football career in college.
Dennis showed his cousin around the USC campus, took Evans to class and team meetings and introduced Evans to some of the USC players. Evans was sold.
He enrolled at Harbor College, in Los Angeles, as a student, before seeking out the football coach. Evans would be allowed to play junior college football, the coach said, if Evans could maintain the grades and stay in school.
“He made me work hard,” Evans said of the Harbor coach, “to be part of something so positive.”
Evans made an immediate impact. He called it the best season of his life.
Evans said his all-out style impressed his coaches and a few scouts, as well. He was rewarded by being named all-conference.
“My head was in the clouds, now,” Evans said. “Nobody had to tell me what to do and I was doing it the right way. I was doing everything by the book.”
He was going to class, making good grades and was staying out of trouble.
And Evans was working harder than ever to succeed. He found a hill not far from his neighborhood, and with visions of Walter Payton running through his mind, Evans forced himself to run the hill time and again to stay in shape.
“I really dedicated my life to working out and becoming a football player, not just to make everybody happy, but to do something successful in my life.”
Soon, the scouts began to offer scholarships. Arizona State, USC, Oregon and Kansas came calling.
“Coach said I was going to be a division one player, but I didn’t believe him. I wasn’t sure I was ready to play D-1.”
Former Wildcat coach Steve Ortmeyer recruited Harbor’s star defensive end. Evans said Ortmeyer and Rich Brooks were the most consistant of the recruiters and talked frequently to Evans’ mother.
“They said they’d be a father figure away from home. My mom bought into that.”
“I knew they needed me,” he added.
Evans sat down with ex-defensive line coach Rick Petri and looked over the roster. Jeremy Jarmon and Corey Peters soon would be gone. That meant immediate playing time for Evans.
Asked why he chose to move across the country, to attend UK and be so far removed from his family, Evans said it was time for another challenge.
“I just knew that it was a time for me to get out on my own two feet and make decisions as a grown man. I felt like this was the time that I had to come out here and sink my feet in the grass and see how it is away from home.”
Evans loves Lexington and its fans. And he regularly reflects on how far he’s come in such a short period.
“When I first got here, I sat down in my locker and I was talking to myself. I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m here right now. I can t believe I finally made it.' It was so hard doing what I had to do with no consequences, no repercussions.”
After his first season at UK, Evans was named All-SEC, leading the Cats in tackles-for-loss and sacks.
This season, he was named team captain.
“That’s huge for me,” he said. "Everybody had faith in me, believed in me. That was probably the proudest moment since I’ve been up here.”
“I think it speaks volumes about what he means to this football team and to this football program,” Joker Phillips said.
He’s just as proud of the two-story likeness that hangs outside Commonwealth Stadium.
“I wake up every day and I can’t believe it. Is this really happening? My mom, she can’t stop bragging about me.”
“I realized that I wouldn’t take none of that stuff back that I did, because it made me who I am today. I feel like if you don’t make mistakes in life, then you’re never going to learn from them.”
With just a couple of weeks left in his college career, Evans says he feels like “a blessed young man.”
“I’m doing something successful with my life every day. Whenever I see some of my old associates back home, they’re doing the same old thing: they’re getting older, probably getting a little chubbier and they probably have another kid on the way.”
“I know what I’d be doing if I was back there.”
“I’m proud of myself because I think I’m doing an excellent job at it. I’m proud of myself because I make my momma proud. People aren’t coming up to my mom asking, ‘Is DeQuin out of jail? Is DeQuin still messin’ up?’”
“Now, my mom’s hearing from family that she hasn’t heard from in 20 years, asking about me. I think that’s what keeps her going every day. When she has hard times in her life and she’s having a down day, it’s little stuff like that, that keeps her going. Looking at my picture and see where I came from and where I’m at now.”
And where he’s at now, is helping lead the Wildcats to possibly their fifth straight bowl game.
“The great thing about DeQuin is that he’s smart,” Brooks said. “He understood the problems that he had as a youth and wanted a better life, and was intent on getting it the right way, educationally and on the football field.”
For this, we say, well done, DeQuin.
Those are the highlights… stay tuned.