NEW ORLEANS -- Out in the middle of nowhere, which officially starts just a few miles from downtown Bloomsburg, Pa., a cell phone was ringing in the woods.
The caller ID said “Jahri." The caller’s first word was “congratulations."
“For what?’’ was the response by Brian McBryan, the long-time assistant football coach at Bloomsburg University, who was cutting wood when the call came.
“I made it,’’ Jahri Evans said. “I made All-Pro.’’
This was a January day a couple of weeks ago and cell phones were ringing all over the middle of nowhere, including inner-city Philadelphia, as just about every coach who ever worked with Evans got the same call.
Evans, who hadn’t even played football as a high school senior and somehow had caught the attention of the NFL playing in a rural mountaintop stadium in central Pennsylvania, wasn’t running up and down Bourbon Street telling the world he had just made All-Pro as a guard for the New Orleans Saints. Although scouts and coaches have been whispering for months now that Evans might be the best guard in the NFL, he was calling around to congratulate -- and to thank -- everyone who had put him at the top of the mountain.
“That just personifies Jahri,’’ McBryan said. “He remembers where he came from.’’
Evans remembers all that very well because he’s only 26 and four years ago he was fighting the dreaded “Division II" label. Four years before that, he showed up for the first day of high school summer practice on crutches with his leg in a cast that would stay on for all of what would have been his senior season.
To fully understand Evans’ rise, you first have to hear about his fall. It happened on a summer day on a Philadelphia playground.
“I was playing pick-up basketball and I came down wrong,’’ Evans said. “I fractured my knee, fractured it about as bad as you can.’’
Imagine the look on coach Tom Mullineaux’s face when the best offensive lineman on a team destined for a city championship showed up on crutches on that August day.
“I just looked at him and said, 'What’s a big idiot like you doing playing basketball?'" said Mullineaux, who retired from coaching a couple years later. “It was a real shame."
To fully understand Evans’ rise, you need to realize that he wasn’t exactly falling off the top shelf to start with. There’s a legend out there that Pennsylvania is a high school football hotbed. It’s true, but it’s not a categorical statement. It’s that way in much of Western Pennsylvania, and certain other parts of the state -- places such as Harrisburg, Berwick, Allentown, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre -- turn out some occasional jewels.
But Philadelphia, the state’s largest city, forever has been known as a basketball town. For his half century or so at Penn State, Joe Paterno has generally avoided recruiting from inner-city Philadelphia. He’ll dip into the suburbs and, once in a great while, a Philadelphia kid has come along who was too good to resist. But Evans never came close to fitting that category.
To fully understand Evans’ rise, you need to watch “Rocky" (the original) one more time, if it already isn’t ingrained in your memory.
“The end of the EL [elevated train] stop in Rocky . . . that’s where Frankford is,’’ Mike Capriotti said.
Frankford High School is one of the oldest high schools in a blue-collar city full of old high schools. Capriotti is Frankford’s head football coach now. He was an assistant to Mullineaux when Evans was there.
"Even before the injury, Jahri wasn’t being recruited like crazy," Capriotti said. "When he broke his leg, that could have been the end of it. You’ve got to understand where Frankford is. A lot of kids with promise just disappear, even if they don’t get hurt. I’ve got a note from at least one teacher in my mailbox every day of the year about one of my players having some sort of problem. I guarantee you that when Tom was here, he never got a single note about Jahri and that’s rare around here."
Blame it on Katrina Evans. She’s the single mom who raised Evans and three older sisters while working as a receptionist.
“With my mom, I just always knew I couldn’t step out of line,’’ Evans said. “She was working so hard to raise us, there was no way I was going to disappoint her.’’
Evans was already a good student before the injury and that didn’t change. He finished in the top 10 of his graduating class. He kept showing up for football practice everyday -- on crutches.
"I’d just help carry footballs or equipment out to the field or whatever," Evans said.
"I used to call him the biggest manager ever," Mullineaux said with a laugh.
But Mullineaux and Evans weren’t laughing as the recruiters started to stop into Frankford. They’d ask about certain healthy players and Mullineaux would talk them up. At the end, he’d throw in a pitch "about a huge kid, who could move, was in the top 10 of his class, had an SAT score well over 1,000, but was hurt."
They wouldn’t listen, except for Bloomsburg.
"We were recruiting another kid from Frankford and he kept telling us we needed to take a look at his buddy," Bloomsburg head coach Danny Hale said. "At the time, it was within the rules, now it’s not, to bring him along on the visit. And [Mullineaux] was talking him up too. Sometimes, you have to take a chance. We brought him up on the visit and he passed the eyeball test as soon as he showed up at my door. He interviewed very well and the academics were there."
The academics actually were what got Evans a scholarship. He qualified for enough academic scholarship money that Hale only had to kick in $2,000 from the football budget, which works with only the equivalent of nine full scholarships.
It would turn out to be one of the biggest bargains in the history of recruiting, but Hale and the Bloomsburg staff really didn’t know what they had right away. They redshirted Evans for a year to let his leg heal fully and put him on a weightlifting program. They then used him as a utility lineman in his first active season and the kid from inner-city Philadelphia fit right into a town of 12,000, where the mall features a JC Penney anchor that is about the size of a typical Old Navy store. The town is about a 90-minute drive and three worlds away from Philadelphia. Evans got so comfortable that he spent all his college summers in Bloomsburg.
"We have kids that size, but they’re not that athletic," said McBryan, who coaches the offensive line and serves as assistant offensive coordinator. "Jahri’s athleticism was obvious right away. I guess the first time I thought we might have something special was on a hot summer day that first year that he played. I remember running a drill and Jahri was running behind me. As he came up, you couldn’t hear him. You could just feel and, then, see him go by."
Kind of appropriate because Evans snuck up on the NFL world in an age when every team spends millions on scouting college players. The next season, McBryan and Hale moved Evans to left tackle. For two straight years, Evans was a finalist for the Division II Gene Upshaw Offensive Player of the Year award and, all of the sudden, he was on the NFL’s radar.
“The scouts were coming in and they all were giving me that stuff about us being 'just Division II,'" Hale said. “I just looked at them and said, 'He’s throwing 300-pound guys around. I don’t care if it’s Division I or Division II, 300 pounds is 300 pounds.'"
The New Orleans Saints listened. They took Evans in the fourth round of the 2006 draft and moved him to guard. Partly because of injuries, he ended up being an instant starter.
You know the story from there because it’s no longer hanging out in the middle of nowhere. Evans has started every game since he’s been with the Saints. He has become a dominant force and scouts and coaches around the league will tell you he’s on the verge of claiming the title as the league’s best guard from Minnesota Vikings veteran Steve Hutchinson. The two teams will play in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
Evans has been selected to the Pro Bowl and, as McBryan and the rest of his former coaches found out from their private phone calls, he made the All-Pro first team along with Hutchinson. While Evans is out of the woods and out of a tough inner city, he often returns to his home and alma mater.
He still goes back to Bloomsburg and runs a camp for high school offensive linemen every summer and, during his bye week, attended a Bloomsburg game and led the Huskies’ chapel service. Evans also goes back to Philadelphia to visit his mother, who he insisted retire as soon as he signed his first NFL contract, and to stop by Frankford.
“He’s talked to our students and he’s an inspiration for all of them," said Frankford athletic director Jack Creighton, who was an assistant football coach when Evans played. “When the Frankford Chargers were going to the Pop Warner national championship, they were short on money. Jahri found out about it and he kicked in the money so they could go. He’s just a neighborhood kid."
But Evans’ neighborhood and playground have grown beyond anything he or anyone else ever could have imagined.
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny the way it all has worked out," Evans said. “They say things happen for a reason and I guess this is one of those stories. Breaking my leg, having to go to a smaller school . . . it all makes sense now. It hurt and it wasn't always fun, but it was all perfect for me."