TAMPA, Fla. — Mike Evans managed a smile when he held his new No. 13 jersey on a stage at One Buc Place. The well-traveled wide receiver had remained awake in his whirlwind 24 hours, a blur of a span that included a crack-of-dawn flight from New York City to Florida’s bay area. Still, he knew he would change nothing about the moment.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith stood to his left and general manager Jason Licht to his right. The day before, the men had made Evans the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft, bypassing Evans’ former roommate in hotels on nights before Texas A&M games, quarterback Johnny Manziel, in their attempt to give life to a unit that ranked 32nd in the league in passing offense last year (176.2 yards per game). They had secured their man.
The previous half hour had included typical lines of a meet-and-greet between a franchise’s first-round pick and the local media. Evans complimented Tampa as a place to live. He said his style of play — a former high school basketball star at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, he should be a jump-ball artist near the end zone — would fit well with the new culture Smith and Licht have introduced since their hires in the winter.
"It’s my dreams coming true," Evans said. "I’m going to work my hardest to be the best player I can be and the best teammate I can be."
As he said those words, Evans’ journey from the sticky fields of southeast Texas had reached a conclusion for him and his influences. No first-round pick lives his path alone. The rise from high school standout to college star to NFL rookie is a collection of choices with help from mentors along the way.
Especially early during a player’s formative years, before football becomes a high-stakes, high-demand lifestyle within the country’s most prominent college programs, those voices hold weight. Three people from Evans’ years at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas — his basketball coach, Jerald Temple; his football coach, David Suggs; and his mother, Heather Kilgore — lived a front-row perspective of Evans’ growth from an untamed basketball talent to a player Smith and Licht picture maturing into a dangerous downfield threat to complement three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
For Evans, as with all who reach the NFL, the past shapes the future. His time for transition has come.
"All my hard work is paying off" Evans said, "and I’m living out my dream."
Temple saw raw ability. He knew standout possibility was there. The traits were obvious to the coach as early as Evans’ freshman year: Soft hands, a smooth command with the ball, an ability to place a shot back in off a miss.
"He didn’t dribble the ball a whole bunch, but you could just tell that he was young, and he was going to grow a lot more and get a lot better," Temple said.
Temple had tracked Evans since Evans’ time in junior high. But only so much could be gained from Temple’s perch in the stands during those early years. Not everything that was seen when Evans was in seventh and eighth grades revealed his future heart.
There’s one fact that sums up Evans’ dedication as a competitor late in his time within Ball High School’s basketball program: He threw up on the court. This wasn’t a rare accident. This didn’t happen once or twice. This, after awhile, wasn’t even a shock.
Temple predicts that there were six or seven games when Evans was an upperclassman that a delay was necessary to mop up his star’s vomit. A trainer, always on standby, would approach Temple near the bench and say something like, "Just nerves, Coach. Just nerves. Mike plays at a high level."
That was Evans, high performance and high nerves, each part of his complete package. Sometimes he had to let it all go.
"He played with so much passion," said Temple, who saw Evans average 18.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game as a senior.
That passion continued. It didn’t take long for Temple to recognize that the traits from Evans’ windmill-dunking days at Ball High School had transferred to Texas A&M. Temple recalls barbecuing with coaches at his Galveston home on fall Saturdays watching Evans’ first games and saying, "No one can cover this guy."
Those six words became a familiar thought those two years as Temple watched Evans become a Biletnikoff Award finalist. The message was far from a surprise. Temple had observed that same drive on the basketball court: The speed, awareness and an athletic savvy to meet the ball at its highest point.
"He played that hard," Temple said. "We were better as a team because our leader played so hard."
What if Evans’ path had been different? What if he chose to accept a late offer from Texas to play basketball instead of lifting Texas A&M’s program past mediocrity on Saturdays to a surprise in the SEC? What if a detour into football after had never happened?
"No doubt, because Mikey has the size, he has the mental toughness, he has the dedication," he said. "You can just see how dedicated he is as a football player … That’s the kind of dedication he has toward basketball."
Suggs saw potential. Oh, he wanted it. He wanted Evans to join the varsity football team and make an immediate impact. Suggs made it a personal mission to sell the opportunity hard, like Evans was a nugget of gold waiting to be secured.
In spring 2009, near the end of Evans’ sophomore year, Suggs had been named the school’s new football coach. One day, he observed a number of students running around on a practice field. They threw passes to one another, and Evans was included in the group. He made enough of an impression that Suggs turned to a kid close by and asked, "Who is this guy?"
"We need to get him out to play football," Suggs thought then.
Suggs learned Evans was a standout basketball player. For much of the next year, he and his staff used a full-court press strategy to convince Evans to join the football team.
The dedication was understood. After all, there was much to like: Suggs saw toughness and a competitive fire on the basketball court that he knew would translate to football.
The profile was similar to another player from Suggs’ past. He had a success story to use in his pitches to Evans: offensive tackle Anthony Collins, a former Outland Trophy finalist.
Suggs coached Collins at Beaumont (Texas) Central High School before Collins produced a notable college career at Kansas. Collins became the Cincinnati Bengals’ fourth-round draft pick in 2008, and he played 59 games the next six seasons, earning a reputation as one of the NFL’s most dependable at his position. Collins, signed by the Bucs in March, also was a former basketball player whose skills translated to football his senior season of high school. Suggs thought Evans could draw prominent college scholarship offers in both sports because of his raw talent.
Something clicked. Evans chose to join the football team about midway through his junior basketball season, a decision that drew a large smile from Suggs when he received the word from an assistant coach.
When basketball season ended, Evans made a short walk from the gym to begin the football team’s offseason testing. He lined up and ran two 4.5 40-yard dash times.
"OK," Suggs thought then, "we’re in pretty good shape."
No transition is without challenges. Evans’ play as a receiver required small adjustments. Refined route running and comfort reading coverages took time, Suggs said, like it does for all new pass-catchers. Still, Evans grasped the demands enough to earn second-team District 24-4A honors during a year in which he had 25 receptions for 648 yards with seven touchdowns.
The promise had come to life.
"Just watching him in basketball, I knew he was very competitive, extremely competitive," Suggs said. "I knew that type of mentality and that effort would really translate into something on the football field."
Kilgore saw her baby boy grow up. His path almost seems destined. She recalls some of Evans’ first words to be "ball, ball." It didn’t matter whether he was watching them on TV or sweating on a court or field, sports became a way of life.
Evans played basketball and football since age 8. He swam and did karate. There were few limits to his interest.
"He could always just do everything," Kilgore said. "He was just gifted."
Sports also became a valued connection to the past. Evans was 9 years old when his father, Mickey, was murdered in an unknown dispute. An edge was formed for Evans after that moment, he said, because "I wanted him to be proud of me." Sports were a shared bond between Evans and his father. For Kilgore, sports became a constructive avenue for her son to discover the man he was growing to be.
She can count on a single hand the number of times she has seen her son cry in that development. One was at Radio City Music Hall during the NFL draft, after Licht told him on that life-changing phone call, "I can’t tell you how excited we are here, man. You were our guy." Another happened during his freshman year of high school, when she became so mad that his friends were making a mess of the house on their visits that she made arrangements for Evans to stay for a week with a grown cousin on his father’s side of the family. (She said she gave the cousin money to feed Evans for the time.)
"To this day, he says, ‘Well, it made me a man,’ " Kilgore said of Evans. "I got mad, and I was like, ‘Just get out of here.’ "
To Kilgore, the fact that her son has entered the NFL remains surreal. She heard the whispers about his high draft stock last year, but some fear remained involved.
She wanted Evans to stay in basketball. She was scared that he would sustain a serious injury in college. She remembers her son’s arm bleeding from the three IVs he needed to survive a seven-catch, 279-yard receiving day in a loss to Alabama last September, how drained he looked afterward in the walk from Kyle Field. She wonders what will come next.
"I was scared that he was going to get hurt," she said. "He’s big here in (Galveston), but he may not be so big compared to all those college D-I players. And then he still seemed big. And then I was like, ‘Oh, my God, now he’s going to be playing with these extra big guys in the NFL.’ It’s scary. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ But it’s scary too."
That’s the dichotomy Kilgore lives. Her son has entered a new and exciting life, one that was unfathomable before he took a leap of faith and said "Yes" to Suggs’ offer to join Ball High School’s football team. But Kilgore’s hesitation remains. It’s logical. Likely, it will never go away. That’s a mother’s care.
Despite the fact that Evans told reporters after he was drafted that "I get to take care of my family," which includes his 2-year-old daughter Mackenzie, the concern has carried over from one life to the next. There’s worry because there’s love.
"None of it seems real, I guess," Kilgore said. "It still doesn’t feel real what just happened. Everybody is like, ‘How does it feel?’ I don’t know. To me, right now, everything is the same."
Evans stood on the practice field under a blue sky last Friday at One Buc Place, the first rookie minicamp session behind him. This had a different feel than his introduction to the Tampa Bay region a week earlier. He had begun the transition from prospect to producer, a growth period that will require as much will as work.
The blizzard of activity at Radio City Music Hall was over. The news conferences were done. The opening questions were behind him.
He was now Mike Evans, half of the receiving tandem Licht dubbed the "Twin Towers," as a nod to an old Houston Rockets moniker that honored Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. He had grown from that sophomore fascination Suggs saw on the practice field near Ball High School, from that boy Kilgore saw hold his own on fields in Galveston, College Station and locations throughout the SEC. He understands he has more to show.
"It was good getting my feet back wet," Evans said. "But after conditioning, I was a little out of shape. I threw up after conditioning — the only person. But I am getting back in shape, so now I’m good."
When watching Evans, it’s easy to consider the alternate lives he could have lived. He made a leaping grab with his right hand before Friday’s two-hour session was complete, as if he were snatching a rebound near the rim for Coach Temple. What if basketball had remained his first love? Throughout the afternoon, he impressed Smith with the athleticism within his lanky frame, like when Evans made Coach Suggs dream about the future after those fast 40-yard times. What if Evans had never accepted Suggs’ invitation?
"Of course, he has great hands," Smith said, "and the physical ability, you can see that."
The great hands and physical ability are only tools that assisted in the travel to his destination. In Evans’ case, like all NFL rookies, the road required faith from mentors along the way.