September, 2006. DeQuin Evans, then a grocery bagger in Compton, California, went to the movies. The film? “The Gridiron Gang,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a probation officer at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention center in Malibu. Johnson’s character, Sean Porter, forms a football team as a way of forcing inmates to connect, put their hatred aside and learn the skills they’ll need to function in society when they’re released.
Much of the movie was shot on location. Evans liked it. “I saw my bed,” he said.
DeQuin Evans has lived that movie.
When Evans arrived on the UK campus, media types took immediate note of the fact that he had made the trek from the greater Los Angeles area to Lexington. Before long, we learned he had left his grocery store job and gone back to school, eventually becoming one of the top 15 juco prospects in the country. But we had no idea just how far he had come to play college football, until the day he decided to tell his story - the whole story.
“I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do,” he said recently. “You’ve come this far, overcome all this stuff, why not let everybody know what you’ve been through? Why not show how far you’ve come, and how hard you’ve worked to become the man you are?”
As much as anything, the DeQuin Evans story is a love letter to the most important person in his life. “This is a way of giving back to my mom,” he said. “That’s huge for me. I feel like it’s in my heart to tell you guys what I’ve been through in my life.”
Evans grew up in the projects in Compton, a downtrodden part of greater Los Angeles. He shared a home with his grandfather, uncle, mother and three sisters. His father was rarely around, spending much of DeQuin's childhood in prison. But Evans said his early years felt normal to him.
“Kids running around everywhere,” is how he described his neighborhood, “playing, doing anything we could do to have fun - water balloon fights.
“But there was always something bad going on when the lights went out.”
And it usually involved gangs. Evans says he was never a member, but like most kids his age, he eventually gravitated to the bangers.
“What football is to the south, gangs are to Compton,” he said. “You have little kids growing up, knee-high, wanting to play for UK, wanting to play for Florida, Alabama. There’s none of that in Compton. You might be an Oakland Raider fan, an L.A. Lakers fan. But you grow up wanting to be like the guys around you.”
Evans was no different than most of the other youngsters. They were mesmerized by the ill-gotten trappings of gang success.
“It’s always the kids in the gangs who had nicer things,” he said, “chains on, new clothes… it was the peer pressure that got me and all the other kids growing up there.”
And while he might not have been a gang member, Evans says he soon began hanging out with the bangers, which meant ditching school.
He wouldn’t be more specific about illegal activities, except to say that one night he was pulled over in a stolen car, which police said had been used in gang activity. At age 15, DeQuin Evans was going to jail.
“It hurt me so bad, knowing that I was hurting my mother worse,” he said. Evans’ father is black; his mother is Samoan and, like many members of the Samoan culture, he embraces a particularly strong family bond. His mother was the center of his universe, and Evans had let her down. It tortured him.
“I couldn’t do nothing for her when I was in there,” he said. “I couldn’t do nothing for my family while I was in there. 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 while I’m in here? That just tore me up inside.”
Evans knew he'd be sent to juvenile detention - and that's where he caught a break. He ended up in Camp Kilpatrick, the same facility depicted in the movie. It had a reputation as a place where team sports played a major role in the rehabilitative process. It was there that Evans found his way to organized football, something he had never known. And he watched as mortal enemies became teammates.
“Forming a team with a group of guys who have never played football in their life, who have been gang-banging all their life,” he said, “you got a guy standing right next to another guy who has to block for him and this guy hates this guy’s guts, because one of their friends probably killed one of their good friends. Or one of their friends from their rival gangs probably killed this guy’s brother. You had fights going on, on the field, all the time.”
But, he said, he could see it working. “Just trying to bring all that together makes them better people,” he said, “and better football players.”
Even though he had no background in organized football, Evans took to the sport. He played tight end, a position he didn’t particularly enjoy. Evans said he’d rather dole out the punishment than take it as a blocker or receiver. But he worked hard, and was named a team captain, which meant his teammates answered to him not only on the field, but in the dormitory.
Like most players, he hated practice - but couldn't wait for game day.
“I don’t know what it was about it,” he said. “Every time I would suit up and boot up, and the national anthem would come on, those chills that I got, the butterflies I got in my stomach – I knew there was nothing else that made me feel like that.”
After 16 months, Evans was sent home. He had done his time. He finished his last semester of high school, still longing to play, but too late to be part of his high school team.
There might have been other immediate opportunities, but Evans felt the need to help his uncle support the family, so he took a job bagging groceries. Customers noticed the guy at the end of the counter with the athletic frame.
“A lot of people would come up to me and say, ‘You don’t play football? You look like a big tight end.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t play football.’ “
He smiles when he recounts the story now but, he said back then, it hurt him. He would share with his mother the frustrations he felt at not being able to play the game he had discovered behind bars.
That's when fate intervened again. Evans got a call from his cousin, Herschel Dennis, a tailback at Southern Cal, who was playing alongside LenDale White and Reggie Bush. He and Dennis hadn’t seen each other since they were kids, and agreed to meet. Evans said each marveled at how “buff” the other had become, thanks to football.
Dennis took Evans on a tour of the USC campus. He even had him sit in on a class. “It was a real good experience for me, something I needed,” Evans said. “Almost like a wake-up call – like, ‘Man, this is what you need to be doing.’ I think that planted the seed, right there.”
Evans was determined to find his way back to football. His uncle had received a promotion, so the family had more money coming in. And then the phone rang again – a call from a childhood buddy who was playing football at Los Angeles Harbor Junior College. Before long, Evans was, too.
“From that day on, I worked like I’d never worked before,” he said. “I really dedicated my life to working out, and becoming a football player – not just to make everybody happy, but to do something successful with my life, and have the recognition of a football player.”
The gang-style life was gone for good. Instead, Evans hit the books, helped around the house, picked up his sisters at school, and trained.
One day, as he was walking his mother to the grocery store, Evans noticed a huge hill nearby. “I was like, ‘Dang, Mom, I’m going to start coming over here and running that hill,’ “ he said. Evans had watched a special on Walter Payton and noticed how the late Hall of Famer had trained by running hills. Soon thereafter, Evans was, too.
“I would run that hill until it felt like my legs were gonna fall off,” he said. “I’d be on the side of that hill, throwing up. My legs would feel numb. It was only five minutes away, but I would have to stop so many times on the way home from being exhausted, it would take me 30 minutes to get home.”
One of his teammates suggested Evans try the defensive line. He found a home at defensive end, and was named all-conference after his first year.
“One thing a coach said was, ‘Boy, you got a motor on you.’ I didn’t know what that meant,” he said. “I’d never heard a football term like that. He told me to just keep going on and good things are going to happen.”
Evans knew he’d had a good season, but he had no idea just how good.
“My coach came up to me and told me I’d be a division one football player somewhere,” he said. Evans didn’t fully believe him but he never slowed down. The following spring is when the scouts showed up.
Word of Evans’ exploits had spread among recruiters working the California junior college circuit. They fell in love with his size and speed, and his ability to get to the quarterback.
“Oregon, Kansas, Nevada, USC – it went on,” he said. “Kentucky came in late, but they were the most consistent.”
Evans said he constantly heard from the UK coaching staff – and so did his mother. “My mom had a real good feeling for them. Coach (Rich) Brooks and Coach (Steve) Ortmayer (the assistant under Brooks who recruited California junior colleges) told me they’d be a father away from home for me, mentoring me. My mom believed in everything they told me.”
“The great thing about DeQuin is, he’s smart,” Brooks said. “He understood the problems 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.”
Evans also knew there was playing time available, after the premature departure of All-SEC defensive end Jeremy Jarmon. Like most junior college transfers, Evans had to find a place to play right away. That place was a long way from Compton.
“I just knew it was time for me to get out on my own two feet and make decisions as a grown man,” he said. “I felt like this was the time to stick my feet in the grass and see how it is. That’s part of being a man.”
It helped that another childhood friend and Harbor College teammate, receiver Chris Matthews, had chosen UK as well. Lexington, Kentucky, was Evans’ new home.
“When I first got here, I sat down in my locker. I was talking to myself. I said, I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I finally made it.”
Evans made an immediate impact on the Wildcats, and the conference. As a junior he led UK in sacks, and tackles for loss. He was named 4th-team All-SEC. That motor his juco coach described? His new teammates raved about it from the moment Evans arrived. His work ethic never wavered.
“I know I gotta do it,” he said. “Not just for me, but for my family, and all my brothers here – and I’m sure they feel the same way about me.”
They do. Evans’ teammates named him defensive team captain prior to this season.
“The amazing thing about DeQuin Evans,” said UK’s first-year head coach, Joker Phillips, “in one year, his peers nominated him as a captain. That speaks volumes to me. Not the coaches – his peers. That speaks volumes to what he means to this team and this program.”
Evans remembers the day last spring when Phillips announced the results of the voting.
“I was all suited and booted,” he said, “and Coach Phillips said, ‘The captains are Randall Cobb and DeQuin Evans.’ That was a highlight time in my life. All those guys believed in me. They knew I was doing it for them. I was doing it for us – UK. One heartbeat…”
This summer, SEC coaches named him 2nd team pre-season all-conference. He became one of the faces of UK football, accompanying Phillips, Cobb and tailback Derrick Locke to SEC Football Media Days in Birmingham, where he spoke with football writers and broadcasters from across the south. And his is one of the images captured on a huge banner that hangs on a corner of Commonwealth Stadium.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I’d wake up every day and say, ‘Is this really going on?’ “
Unfortunately, Evans’ senior season didn’t come close to matching his junior year. He was hobbled by injuries and illness throughout spring practice, summer camp and nearly half the 2010 schedule. “Like any leader and captain, it hit me harder than it would a normal player,” he said. “I knew so many people were relying on me. So many times after games, guys would give me looks that said, ‘Man, we could have used you out there this week.’ That’s what kills me more than anything.”
Evans played more to form during the last two games of the regular season, and he’ll enter the bowl game at full strength.
Whenever football is over, Evans will pursue a job in social work, interacting with kids. Already, he speaks to youth groups whenever he can.
“You know, they listen to me better than a person who they feel like was born with a silver spoon in their mouth, who may have studied psychology or sociology, or social work,” he said. “They feel more where I’m coming from. They can embrace some of their dreams. The same way I looked up to my cousin (USC tailback Herschel Dennis), those little kids can look up to me like that.”
Phillips said Evans will be an instant success at whatever he does.
“What he wants to do is to work with kids, and maybe working with kids will be coaching,” he said. “I would like for him to be because I think he would be a great ambassador to this sport. Him being able to tell his story to troubled kids, seeing his success and how he turned out could mean a lot to some young kid struggling, trying to find his direction.”
Evans says he wouldn't change anything about his life because it made him who he is today. He calls himself a blessed young man.
“I’m proud of myself because I think I’m doing an excellent job at it. I say that not to sound cocky, I say that because of what I do on a daily basis.”
Evans says he doesn’t care if he never goes back to Compton. And he won’t have to go back when it’s time to visit his mother. He recently used a portion of his Pell Grant money (funding available to needy college students) to move her, and his sisters, to a new home in Tacoma, Washington, near relatives.
“I’m proud of myself because I know that I make my mama proud,” he said. “People don’t come up to her and say, ‘Is DeQuin out of jail now? Is DeQuin still messing up?’ Now, my mom is hearing from family she hasn’t heard from in 20 years, asking about me, wanting to be back around now.
“I think that’s what keeps her going every day. When she has hard times in her life, when she’s having a down day, I think (of her)… looking at my picture, seeing where I come from, looking at where I am now.”
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)