Jerry Evans, 22, is walking across the University of Toledo campus on a day in early March, chewing gum and blowing bubbles. "The truth is," he says, "I came to college for one reason, to become eligible to play football. Personally, I just don't enjoy school. I know I should, but I don't. If they didn't have football here, I wouldn't have come. I'd say I've spent about 70 percent of my time on football, 30 percent on academics."
The Toledo athletic department's academic adviser, Shelley Appelbaum, chooses her words carefully when asked about Evans. "He invested a lot in football, and he has achieved to some extent in the classroom," she says, noting that he is taking a full course load this spring. Appelbaum says that Evans's grade point average is 2.3. He is completing his fifth year on campus, including one summer school session, and he is still some 15 hours, or one quarter, away from graduation.
Evans blows a particularly large bubble, pops it and says, "I'm far from being Einstein. I am also far from being dumb." He's twice right. Henry E. Moon Jr., assistant professor in the department of geography and planning ("a real friend of the athletic department," says Appelbaum), works closely with Evans. So, Professor, is Evans a student?
"He is very direct, hardworking and has a great attitude," says Moon.
But is he a student?
"There are givers and takers. He is a giver."
But is he a student?
"Well, he's a student-athlete. It's hard for the two to go together."
During the winter quarter, Evans took a four-hour independent-study course under Moon. It was the only course he took; a normal load is 12 to 16 hours. Evans was to read a 272-page book, Selected Readings in the Geography of Soils, and other articles, then discuss them with Moon. Moon says Evans should have spent about 12 hours a week in study; Evans confesses he might—might-have spent five hours. Moon gave Evans an incomplete for the course, with the understanding that Evans would complete his assignments this spring.
"People like Dr. Moon help me out," says Evans. "The athletic department helps you with professors. They get you with people who will give you some preferential treatment." Evans says he "sort of" read Geography of Soils.
"All of our student-athletes receive the same treatment as any other student," says Toledo athletic director Allen Bohl. But Moon admits, "I've let Jerry turn stuff in late when he couldn't get it done because of football. I like to think Pm a big part of the reason he's still in school."
What Evans—like thousands of other athletes—has done is go to college to major in football. He was highly successful in his chosen major as a tight end; he earned his degree in football (he was the Toledo MVP last fall); and he has shown such promise in his field that the NFL will make him a job offer on April 21, draft day. Dave-Tè Thomas, the draft guru who assembles information for the NFL on all potential draftees, says, "I told him to be happy if he goes in the second round and comfortable if he's early third." Evans expects his starting salary to be as much as $300,000 the first year, with a signing bonus perhaps equal to that. If he had graduated with a degree in geography and planning, he figures his starting salary would have been $22,000.
This is a classic example of how one athlete has used the system brilliantly. And who is to say he has done wrong? The system is there for the using and abusing. "I'd like to see a regular student do what we do," says Evans. "We're with football at least six hours a day. We finally get in and we're exhausted and all we want to do is hit the couch and watch Doogie Howser. It's at this point we are supposed to hit the books. I think the basic problem with football and academics is you have to do one or the other." He's dead right. Each, done properly, is a full-time job.
The choice is made all the more clear because Evans, very far from being a household name, will probably make more money in one year playing football than a lot of working stiffs will make in 10 years of labor.
Like thousands of little boys who grow up in America, Evans, who was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, dreamed of playing in the NFL. But such dreams usually die unfulfilled. This one won't. Here's how one player has spent a lifetime focusing on football. And how, in the waning moments of his formal education, he has tried to make himself irresistible to the pros. It has been a bumpy road.
"This is a jealous, cutthroat town," says Evans as he drives through Lorain's depressing, deserted downtown. "I'd say about half the people who live here hope I make it and about half hope I don't."
Truth be told, Evans gave himself every chance not to make it. On his 16th birthday he was given a black IROC Z-28 Chevrolet Camaro with gold pinstriping by his well-meaning parents, Jerry senior and Cheryl. Says Evans, "I ran absolutely wild. I dug a hole for myself, and I almost couldn't climb out." He started hanging out with older, dead-end boys.
For the most part, he ignored school his junior year at Admiral King High School. "What happened is, that car gave me freedom and I failed at it." As a junior, Evans got D's in English, U.S. history and computer science; F's in chemistry and trigonometry. He eventually graduated with a 1.91 grade point average. Evans's chemistry teacher told Jerry senior, on one of his visits to the high school, that he was giving young Jerry a D "because he's never here." Asked the old man, "Where is he?" Responded the teacher, "Probably lifting weights."
Correct. When Admiral King football coach Tom Ilcisko is asked about Evans's shortcomings, he responds, "His shortcomings were as a student."
When Evans took the ACT exam (like the SAT, a nationally standardized test for college admission) before his junior year, in June 1985, he scored a 9. Of all those taking the test, 94% did better. The NCAA minimum standard for an athlete was then 15. In October 1985, Evans took the test again and got virtually the same result. He had had a football game the night before and was "too whipped." Then, in February 1986, he just made the required 15.
Jerry senior, a vice-president of a Cleveland industrial-maintenance firm, says that he almost turned his son loose with the admonition, "O.K., kid, you're Columbus. Go discover America."
Still, several major universities were interested in young Evans. Among them, Duke. Recalls Duke defensive line coach Rod Broadway, "We wanted him. Then we saw his grades and test scores." Evans says that Broadway told him, "You're really screwing up. You have no idea what you are blowing."
Recruiters began knocking on other doors. In January of his senior year of high school, Evans took the ACT yet again and scored 19. In the end, only Toledo and a handful of other schools, none of them major powers, offered him a scholarship. "My entire football career was in jeopardy," he says. "The mistakes I made in high school caused me to be at a school like Toledo."
But would Toledo be able to satisfy his academic interests? "I had no academic interests," he says. "I went to Toledo to play football."
"Maybe," says Jerry senior, "the good Lord fixed it so Jerry would go to Toledo. If he had gone somewhere bigger and better, maybe he'd have gotten lost or hurt."
Because TV networks point their cameras in other directions, schools in the Mid-American Conference are condemned to anonymity. That doesn't mean, however, that some of the players can't play. Says former Toledo coach Dan Simrell, now an assistant at West Virginia, "When I think of Jerry, I think tough, speed, skill, physical, multitalented, exceptional hand-eye coordination, mean, ornery, nasty. They all apply to him."
Mostly, Evans became a devastating blocker. He had 114 career receptions, but blocking will be his ticket to the NFL. Most tight ends really want to be pass receivers, so the rules let them wear numbers in the 80s. But basically they are offensive linemen. How important is a tight end? No team can have an effective running game without a good one.
At Toledo, Evans was a man among boys. Says tight end coach Kirk Heidelberg, "He's a dominating specimen, isn't he?" Evans is 6'4", 263 pounds, has been clocked in 4.7 for the 40 and, says Heidelberg, "he flat out can play." The pro scouts started sniffing around. Followed immediately by a plague of locustlike agents.
Evans and his father fly to Texas on Dec. 21 at the behest of agent Lance Luchnick. Luchnick tries to put the best face on the fact that the NBA Players Association banned him from representing athletes for 18 months after he was accused of improperly giving money to players' high school and college coaches. Addressing his generally shadowy reputation, Luchnick explains to the Evanses, junior and senior, that "I got mixed up with the wrong person." Jerry junior is convinced. "I like Lance a lot," he says. "He seems like a very honest person. I think he'll probably be my agent." All three go to see the Spurs play the next night.
On Dec. 27, Evans flies to New York with his parents to meet a financial planner, Gary M. Goldberg. "He's a very busy man," says Jerry junior, "a very wealthy man. It was an honor for this guy to want to talk to me. I thought he was warm, honest, a great human being." Yeah, muses young Evans, maybe Goldberg is the one.
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.
Jerry senior assumes responsibility for screening his son's agent candidates. They have been driving the old man nuts. There are big, black circles under his eyes. He is increasingly confused. "What I am learning," he says, "is that they are crooks." The Evanses (along with younger sister Jennifer) are in Florida, where young Jerry will play in one of the myriad postseason all-star games, the All-America Classic. Says talent scout Thomas, "Players have four years in college to interest the pros, these bowls to impress them, and the scouting combine in Indianapolis to satisfy them." Thomas advised Evans to play in this game. Bad advice.
This pitiful little game, run by former Pittsburgh Steeler Dave Smith, is an organizational nightmare. Buses fail to show up. Once, the players were taken to a restaurant for dinner, and the restaurant was closed. No self-respecting kid's league would allow itself to be run so chaotically.
Practices are languid. Scouts are around, but, Evans says, "How can they tell anything from this?" They can't. Evans is concerned that amid all this chaos he will be unable to strut his stuff for the pros. Lots of teams want him to fill out questionnaires. A form from the New York Giants asks, "Have you often felt your life has no meaning?" Evans replies with a laugh, "Of course. I'm a football player." The Washington Redskins give him a puzzle that requires him to fit circles, squares and triangles into their proper places. Evans snorts, "Either you can play football or you can't. If you can, none of this stuff matters, and if you can't, it doesn't matter."
Two days before the game, Evans hears rumors that some players are leaving St. Pete and will not play in the All-America game. If that happens, Evans has been told, he will have to play a variety of positions, none of which he has played before. "If I do that," he says, "I'll look terrible, and that will be it for the NFL." He's also concerned about injury, having seen the sod on the concrete floor of the Florida Suncoast Dome. The sod gives and slides.
Evans decides to withdraw from the game. Another agent, Frank Murtha of Northbrook, Ill., tactfully suggests that Evans reconsider. Evans doesn't, and later Murtha will be eliminated from the agent derby.
Ultimately, five players, including Evans, refuse to play. The game is awful. Attendance is announced as 5,100. It's less than half that. At kickoff, Evans is eating at a Sizzler steak-house with his girlfriend, Jill Palazzo, 22, an intensive-care nurse at Ohio State University Hospital. Palazzo says that when she met Evans, "I thought he was a goofball." Coming all the way to Florida and deciding not to play in the All-America game may be proof that she was right.
With a sigh Evans says, "Life is a journey." Do you miss school, Jerry? "I haven't even thought about it," he says. Geography of Soils did not make this trip. The black circles under Jerry senior's eyes have deepened.
"Maybe I'll just be his agent," he says. "This is a nightmare."
PALO ALTO, CALIF.
The Evans family arrives here on Jan. 22 for the East-West Shrine game. Evans's performance in this game will be crucial. After all, there is plenty of skepticism about his skills because he played for lightly regarded Toledo. And when he had a chance to play against some better players in St. Pete, he excused himself. Evans's football life, which is to say his life, is hanging in the balance.
"Look," says one scout as he watches Evans at a practice at Stanford, "he walks with a waddle." Thomas springs to Evans's defense. "If he walks, you better find another tight end," Thomas tells the scout. "Watch him when he runs."
Over coffee, another agent, George O. Kalafatis of Cleveland, puts on the charm for the Evanses. Asked by Jerry senior if the agent notices any shortcomings in his son, Kalafatis says, not really, maybe "stiffness." Whoops. Jerry senior flares and says, "What do you mean? He was a great baseball player, and you know the flexibility that takes." Kalafatis starts backing and filling, and Cheryl, who is the director of human resources at a Lorain bank, says to her spouse, "Don't be so thin-skinned." Kalafatis will not be Jerry junior's agent.
Murtha is hovering nearby, trying to make a comeback from his St. Pete debacle by saying he thinks Jerry junior will be a second-rounder. Luchnick is there, too, and he also knows his lines. "If I was drafting, I'd take Jerry first," he says to the family. Jerry senior beams. That's more like it. Except, of course, that while young Jerry may be a lot of things, a first-rounder is not one of them.
At 1:14 p.m. on Jan. 26, Evans trots onto the Stanford field for the Shrine game as the East's starting tight end. On the first play he misses his block. Midway through the first quarter, a pass comes his way. Easy. He drops it. From then on, Evans errs no more. He catches four of five balls thrown to him, not a bad record because the East quarterbacks complete only 16 passes. He blocks as if there is no tomorrow—which, given his situation, there may not be. At the end of the game, he walks off the field wearing a big grin. "What do you think?" he asks. "Can I play with the big boys?"
One of the coaches of the East team, Kentucky head man and former NFL center Bill Curry, thinks he can. "What I watch," says Curry, "is what a guy does after a bad play. The way he came back from those early disappointments speaks very well. A champion isn't affected by a bad play. A lesser person gets defeated. You might beat Merlin Olsen or Deacon Jones or Dick Butkus one time, but watch out the next time."
East head coach Don Nehlen, the West Virginia boss, is similarly impressed by Evans. "It's obvious to me he can play with anybody," says Nehlen.
Heading for the bus, Evans says, "I really helped myself." Then he is besieged by kids who want his chin strap, gloves, jersey, anything. He promises one youngster his chin strap. But he inadvertently hands it to another. The first youngster is upset, and Evans sets about making things right. He digs in his bag as Steve Chon, 12, of Santa Clara waits, saying softly, "Nice guy, nice guy, nice guy." Evans gives him a Toledo T-shirt.
It has been a very good day, the first day of the rest of Evans's life. Not bad considering that it could have turned out to be the last day. Geography of Soils did not make this trip, either. "It's hard not to be preoccupied with football," says Evans. "Can you imagine studying at a time like this?"
It's put-up-or-shut-up time. This is the National Football League Scouting Combine, where potential pros are pushed, poked, X-rayed, questioned, explored, criticized, measured, weighed, timed, evaluated, stretched, rubbed, ogled. And a bunch of other stuff. "This," Evans says, "is the ultimate meat market." It is completely dehumanizing. Hyperbole doesn't cut it here. Performance does. Evans stays at the Holiday Inn for his three-day session, Feb. 8-10. They are three momentous days. These are the days of his life.
That he botched high school no longer matters. That he went to non-football power Toledo no longer matters. That he quit in St. Pete no longer matters. That he was surprisingly good in Palo Alto no longer mailers. The scouts' opinions no longer matter. Agents, for the moment, don't matter.
What matters are numbers. All numbers. Perform. Record the numbers. "Imagine all these grown men sitting around looking at me in my shorts getting weighed," says Evans.
He proceeds to shoot out the lights. His numbers are magnificent. He bench-presses 225 pounds a whopping 30 times, best among the 22 tight ends. The average for the tight ends is 19. (Mark Bavaro of Notre Dame and the Giants, who was a serious weightlifter, did 27 in 1985.) Evans receives a score of 89% in receiving drills, not only the best among all the tight ends but best among the 82 receivers in all positions. About 50 balls are thrown to him. He doesn't drop one. Times on the spongy surface are slow. Average for the tight ends is 4.95 seconds; Evans is 4.8, fourth-fastest.
Before the combine began, BYU's Chris Smith was generally considered to be the premier tight end. Smith says his shoulder is too sore to lift. He runs a 5.11. His receiving grade is 81%. "He's effeminate," says Evans. "He can't block."
Thomas joins in the Smith-bashing, saying, "I think Chris will look good in a business suit." Oklahoma's Adrian Cooper, who had been regarded as the second-best tight end, benches 225 pounds 19 times, runs a 4.99 and earns a receiving rating of only 64%. Says Evans, "I'm the strongest tight end, no question. I did everything." No hyperbole there.
Another agent, Joe Guba, lures Evans to dinner. Guba says that he'll give Evans a free trip to California during the spring. Says Evans later, "I would love to go to California, but he's not going to be my agent, so that wouldn't be right."
Thomas goes completely around the bend over Evans's performance. "He was awesome. Everybody fell in love with him," he says. "A 60-minute game is too short for Jerry. It would be great for him if they played doubleheaders. Man, he looked like a scoutmaster with all the little Boy Scouts. He's the most complete tight end since John Mackey."
Thomas talks about history's great tight ends—Mackey, Mike Ditka, Joe Walton. "What everybody wants is somebody with the toughness of Bavaro, the quickness of Kellen Winslow and the hands of Keith Jackson," he says. That player, Thomas adds with a smile, is Jerry Evans. We'll see. Second comings happen less often than predicted. Again, Evans did not bring along Geography of Soils. School? "I haven't been thinking about it, so how could I miss it?" he says.
Seattle Seahawk tight end coach Russ Purnell is in town for a private workout with Evans. Seattle knows everything there is to know about Evans, but Purnell wants to see it again. The workout, which takes place in the Glass Bowl, lasts an hour. Fifty-four balls are thrown to Evans. He drops four. Purnell watches his footwork. "Nod him inside, then swim outside," he instructs.
Afterward, Purnell says, "I was pleased. He has a lot of ability. I think he can play in the league." Tight ends are usually underappreciated. They often have to block outside linebackers, who are often the best players on the field. "Lawrence Taylor is not a player who cannot be blocked," says Evans with the confidence of youth. Tight ends have to block like tackles and catch like wide receivers. And they often are an afterthought. Teams don't like to use high draft choices on them. Bavaro, a hero of the Giants' '86 Super Bowl season, was a fourth-rounder in 1985, the 100th player drafted.
"The real problem," says Purnell, "is you can't get inside their heads and their hearts and figure out how well they'll do on Sunday afternoon."
Evans feels the workout was fine, albeit unnecessary. "I did well," he says. Then, assessing himself from a distance, he adds, "One of the questions is, 'Can the kid catch the ball?' He did." Toledo strength coach Ken Mannie has watched the workout. He says, "I can already see him running over those snot-nosed, 190-pound defensive backs in the NFL." Geography of Soils is not in evidence.
Draft day approaches. The agent question won't go away. Evans has met New York agents Alan Herman and Steve Rosner. "I was impressed," he says. He has met Texas agent Steve Weinberg, who suggests that Evans is "a middle-rounder." Jerry senior is ticked off by that. Dallas agent Christopher A. Kalis tries, but doesn't make the first cut. Kansas City-based Tom Condon is a late starter. All of the Evanses like Condon. "If 95 percent is 100 percent," says young Jerry, "then I'm certain Tom will be my agent."
Says Condon of Evans's potential, "He has that look in his eye." Jerry senior guesses he has talked with 35 agents, maybe more. He looks awful. Thomas says, "Jerry's father looks like he's going through labor. In a way he is. He's giving birth to Jerry Evans as a football player."
Evans works out. And waits. The Giants drop by. So do the Redskins. Evans reflects, "The days of living off my parents and my scholarship are over. I'm going in there to take somebody's job. What I think will happen is I'll get drafted, I'll make the team, I'll contribute. But I also think money can't buy happiness. I don't need $1 million. If I sign for $150,000, I'll consider it the greatest contract in the world. I don't need $1,000 suits, $10,000 gold chains, $80,000 cars, $3 million mansions. I need jeans and sweatshirts."
Thomas grows increasingly elated. "I predict he'll be a repeat Pro Bowler in a career that lasts at least 10 years," he says. "America doesn't know this right now. But it will. He's the star before the shine."
Says Jerry senior, "It's a wild world out there." In mid-March the Evanses select Condon as the agent, essentially on gut instinct, plus the fact that Condon played in the league (for the Kansas City Chiefs) and was president of the players' union. The black circles under Jerry senior's eyes retreat. Condon will get 3½% of Jerry junior's contract. Sadly, such marriages routinely end up in divorce court, no matter how deep the professed love. The disputed point is always money.
Students watch Evans as he strolls across the campus. He does not have Geography of Soils under his arm.