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Grateful giant: Evans feels blessed to represent UK, play for family

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FB 09_10 UK_ULM 103.jpgOn Wednesday, DeQuin Evans will hop on a private jet in a business suit and fly with head coach Joker Phillips, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke for Southeastern Conference Football  Media Days.

When Evans arrives, he will be engrossed by the largest media contingent he has ever seen. Flashbulbs from photographers will pop. Recorders will constantly roll. Reporters will try to pry Evans' thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For some it will be a hindrance.

In today's world of athletes, modern media and need-to-know-now society, the relationship between player, media and fan can be like walking a tightrope. With everything a student-athlete has to balance - from class to 6 a.m. position meetings, practice, tutors and more - it's understandable for some to look at a simple media opportunity or interview as nothing but an annoyance.

But when it comes to Evans and where he's been, what he had and where he wants to go, an event like Wednesday's is an opportunity. When other athletes ask, "Do I really have to do this?" Evans says, "What do I need to do to be able to do this?"

"It's truly a blessing," Evans said. "It's a great feeling knowing the coaches and the players are counting on me to tell them about the program. The fans, more than anything, to let them know what's going on, how hard we're working and everything we're putting in to win games and climb the Southeastern Conference ladder."

Evans is grateful and appreciative for days like Wednesday. Sure, SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., is a three-day spectacle, a hyped-up, all-you-can-eat buffet for the league and national scribes. Is it really that big of a deal for a player to block out his day for a couple of hours of interviews? Probably not.

But the notion that a player desires to be at a place that most hesitate to be because of what it represents, or that a 23-year-old want to give back to the community because he wants them to experience the joys he's had, pinpoints the character and honor beneath Evans' brown mane and 6-foot-3 frame.

"I feel honored to be in this kind of position, to be in a leadership role," Evans said. "It's a beautiful thing."

From a rundown neighborhood to bagging groceries, junior-college ball and now playing the SEC - the transformation of Evans has been a beautiful thing.

Surely you've heard a similar story before. Tough upbringing. No father in the picture. Not a lot of chance to escape a dire situation.

Evans appeared to be destined for failure.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Compton, Calif., Evans didn't have a lot of choices. The ones he did have, he readily admits he made the wrong ones.

"Everything that people see on TV that happens in Compton or thinks happens in the projects there, it probably does happen," Evans told the Danville Advocate Messenger. "I've got friends in wheelchairs now and friends who've been shot. ... You can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get shot."

Evans wasn't immersed in football when he was growing up, but he was in love with it. At about 7 or 8 years old, Evans began playing flag football. The biggest kid on the field and with a fondness for trying to tackle instead of grabbing the flag, people in the league didn't believe Evans' age and requested his mother, Penina Maefau, to bring a birth certificate.

As Evans grew up, he began to follow San Diego Charger great Junior Seau, but his favor for the sport faded when his inspiration, his grandfather, Tavita Maefau, passed away when he was 12 years old. Evans said his grandfather pushed him when he was a kid and served as one of his main motivators to go to practice.

Had his grandfather not died, Evans said he probably would have played in high school. Instead, Evans fell through the cracks and drifted by without ever giving much thought to playing football again.

Instead of the game, Evans had to help his mother keep the family afloat. With his grandfather and grandmother gone, it was up to Evans' mother to raise him and his three sisters.

"That's hard for a woman, to raise a man on top of having other siblings," Evans said. "It was hard for her. I made a lot of mistakes in my life. I would never in a million years blame it on her because she was a single parent."

Evans credited his mother for getting him through a rough childhood and for today's success.

"I have a great mother," Evans said. "She taught me to be grateful for everything. I didn't have much growing up, so every little thing I did get, I took good care of it. I cherished it. When I got a new pair of shoes, I'd wash them when I got home from school, put them up and put on my old shoes to play. That came from not having too much and not having too much follows over to being grateful for the little things I did have, because I wouldn't be able to replace the good things I had if I lost them or something did happen to them.

"That follows over to being grateful for what I have today, as far as my own house, my own room to live in and getting paid to go to school to do what I love - just being able to play football in front of thousands and thousands of fans. I never thought I'd be doing this in a million years."

For the majority of Evans' youth, though, it looked like he never would.

Evans barely played football in high school and graduated without so much as a whiff of a scholarship offer. In his very brief stint with the Cabrillo High School team, he was just another guy on a subpar high school football team.

His love for the game still rooted in the back of his brain, but there were still much more important things to take care of, like his mother, his sisters, his family and the finances.

To keep the family going, Evans took a year off and worked at Albertsons bagging groceries. He made next to nothing at a less-than-glamorous job, but it was his time there that started to fuel the fire to Evans' current success.

"Something that got me here was being more hungry than everybody," Evans said. "When I wasn't playing football, I was helping my mother out. Anyway I could get some money to keep food on the table, that's what I was doing. That's what kept me from football. That's what took me so long to get into football, that and the type of people I hung around with. They weren't doing that with their life. They weren't playing football. I didn't have anyone pushing me to play football.  I didn't have anyone telling me not to play football at the same time."

Finally, someone came along to tell him he belonged on the gridiron. Hershel Dennis, a former Southern California running back and Evans' cousin, told Evans to come stay with him at USC to get him back on his feet, out of trouble and introduce him to college life.

While he was on campus, Evans was continually approached by Dennis' friends, both football (LenDale White, Dominique Byrd) and non-football friends, that asked Evans if he played football. He told them no, but it was there Evans started to believe he should give it a shot.

Evans worked out with Dennis for about six months until he got a call out of the blue from a buddy at Los Angeles Harbor College that said he should try out for the team.

FB 09_10 UK_TN WEB 27.jpgEvans decided to move back with his mother because it was closer to the junior college. With the help of his uncle and Pell grants, Evans was able to continue to help his family while pursuing a dream to play football.

There was one stipulation by the Harbor College coach, however: Evans had to work hard and get in shape, something he had never really experienced as a football outsider.

Fortunately for Evans, the way he explains it, he just happened to be out with his mother when he turned the corner and saw a gigantic hill just outside of Los Angeles. The locals called it Signal Hill. In recent years, Evans had started to fall in love with watching old football footage on ESPN Classic and saw NFL legend Walter Payton run hills to get fit.

That was all the motivation Evans needed to make the roster.

For three months, Monday through Friday, Evans ran the hill as hard as he could, lifted weights in his backyard, and did pushups and sit-ups in the hot California sun. His legs were numb, he frequently threw up on the side of the road and he lost weight, slimming down from 270-plus pounds to about 235 for the beginning of his junior-college career.

"It took me like 15 minutes after I was done working out just to be able to walk," Evans said. "That's how bad I wanted football. That's how bad I wanted just to be able to put on some football gear."

By the time team workouts came around, Evans was in the best shape of his life.

"I was killing them," Evans said.

He was a novice when it came to the actual technique of being a defensive end, but the coaching staff at Harbor worked with Evans because they saw he had the work ethic, desire and talent to be a big-time star.

"They said, 'Dang, Evans, you got a motor on you.' I didn't know what they were talking about. What's a motor?" Evans said. "They were just like, 'You never take a play off, you're always going. Sometimes we feel like we've got to slow you down in practice. It's a good thing. It's a great thing. If you keep this up, we're going to get you a Division I scholarship. You're a great football player.' They would always tell me stuff like that but I didn't believe them."

It didn't take long for Evans to understand his potential. In his first full season of organized football, Evans led his team in sacks and tackles for loss en route to being named all-conference.

Scouts and school representatives flocked to Harbor College to see the promising young defensive end play. Evans received about a dozen letters from Division I schools that were showing interest in him. Evans remembers going home to his mother and laughing with her while she cooked dinner about their change in fortune.

For the first time in Evans' life, he had a bona fide future. For the first time in his life, he was genuinely happy.

"That was huge for me," Evans said. "That gave me the confidence that nothing could stop me, that I could reach my dreams if I wanted to. My mother was in the stands with my jersey on screaming at the top of her lungs. I felt like I was playing for her and my family. That's what helped me out a lot. I played with so much emotion that it showed through my game."

Evans continued to progress in his second season at Harbor College and finished with 63 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and one fumble recovery in his 15-game junior-college career. By the end of his tenure at Harbor College, Evans was ranked the nation's No. 15 junior-college prospect by Rivals.com.

But California to Kentucky? Yet another unlikelihood in Evans' journey.

"I was going to go to Oregon," Evans said. "I liked Louisville because I liked the D-line coach. I thought he was a real good coach. But more than anything, my mom liked the coaching staff at Kentucky. ... A lot of it was my mom and what she thought. She always tells me, 'Whenever you don't listen to me, you know something bad happens. I know what I'm talking about.' It's been the truth. I listened to her and it's probably been the smartest decision in my life."

Despite some pretty steep odds, Evans blossomed in his first season at UK. In addition to the adjustments to the speed of the game, the overloaded playbooks and playing in front of 70,000-plus fans on a weekly basis, Evans had to help anchor a line that was void of its best lineman, current NFL player Jeremy Jarmon.

Evans finished the year with a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks while garnering fourth-team All-SEC honors. But more importantly, and maybe a bit surprisingly given the circumstances, Evans grew to be a leader on the defense, and now one of the faces of the team.

Just this summer, Evans displayed the type of character new head coach Joker Phillips hopes will spread over the entire team under Operation Win. While most student-athletes were out enjoying the summer weather, Evans strolled in the Joe Craft Center looking for opportunities.

Not for himself. He was looking for opportunities for others.

Evans hunted down UK football sports information director Tony Neely and didn't just ask for community service opportunities - he practically begged for them.

"One person can change somebody's life," Evans said. "It is crazy and it's the truth.' I think that when people are in a position like mine, it is a great way to give back to a young kid or a little girl that may be lost at the time. They may need just a little guidance on what they want to do in life. Whether it is playing football or braiding hair."

Evans' willingness to give back stems from the chances people gave him in his life - his mother, his grandfather, his cousin at USC, his uncle, the coaches at Harbor College and the UK coaching staff.

"I do it because I want a kid to feel as good as I feel right now," Evans said. "I want to help a kid who grew up in a rough neighborhood and without a father. I feel like if I can put myself in any type of way to help somebody out who has been through something similar to what I have gone through, then I think they will listen to me because I have been in their shoes. They are going to feel that because it is real and that I have been in their shoes. I have probably done everything that they have done two times and worse. Everyone can turn their life around and turn a negative into a positive, and I feel that I am living proof."

Tuesday was all the more evidence. Evans, a senior, was named preseason second-team All SEC by the league's coaches, and he will carry the banner for UK football Wednesday at SEC Media Days as one of three player representatives.

"A lot of guys get to a place where they are good and get comfortable to that level," Evans said. "That is when their game just stops. I don't want that. I want to be great. God gave me the talent to be great and if he didn't then I wouldn't be here right now. I don't want to go back where I came from."

The road from Compton, to bagging groceries at grocery store, to Kentucky and now a team leader has been a dream come true for Evans, one he's not willing to settle for. Evans believes this year could be a major stepping stone for not only himself but the program as well. The now-257-pound lineman even has dreams of playing in the NFL now.

"Some people in the NFL say that they are living their dream but I feel that I am living my dream right now," Evans said. "If my career doesn't go anywhere else in football, which I am hoping and praying that it does because I love playing the game, I would be happy with my life."

Even if it's only SEC Media Days, Evans will be living the life of a college superstar on Wednesday. He's never been more grateful for the opportunity.

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OUTSTANDING young Man. That's two great PEOPLE from Compton CA to land at UK. Keep 'em coming coaches. GO BIG BLUE!!!!

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  • ukfan197tone: OUTSTANDING young Man. That's two great PEOPLE from Compton CA to land at UK. Keep 'em coming coaches. GO BIG read more