METAIRIE, La. -- It all started with a helmet poke.
If he had held back his temper, perhaps things would've gone a lot differently. Maybe Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore would've walked away and never considered each other more than competitors that face off twice a year.
But Winston couldn't help himself on Nov. 5, 2017.
Winston, then with the Buccaneers, had just injured his shoulder in the third quarter of an eventual loss to the Saints. He was frustrated, irritated and really didn't want to deal with Lattimore, then a rookie cornerback for the Saints, who was walking near the Bucs sideline.
So Winston poked Lattimore in the helmet and told him to go away. Lattimore shoved Winston, Evans rushed in to defend his quarterback, blindsiding Lattimore and sending him to the ground. Other players joined the fray, and while Evans wasn't thrown out that day, he was eventually suspended for a game.
One of the most heated player rivalries in the NFL was born.
"I was not in a good place because I had just gotten took out of the game," Winston recalled. "There was a benching that I was not comfortable with. I just remember Marshon being on our sideline, being competitive. And Mike came in and hit him. I don't necessarily think that was fair, but Mike was my teammate, my receiver. So I've got to understand the risks that [it] had, what that could've been for Marshon. ... Mike was a competitor, he was like, 'That was my quarterback.' And that's how he was over there."
When asked about Winston feeling a sense of responsibility for starting the rift, Evans simply said, "It is what it is," and said he maintains a close relationship with Winston.
The rivalry shows no signs of letting up five years later, and it could actually be getting more intense. The two players have met 11 times, including playoffs, with a 12th meeting looming Monday if Lattimore can return from an abdomen injury, which has kept him sidelined since leaving the game against the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 9. Lattimore is officially being listed as questionable on the injury report heading into game day.
"We're two competitors," Evans said. "Two competitors, two of the best in the business and we go at it. We get physical, and it's a good matchup."
Said Winston: "They're the best at their craft, right? It's been that way for the past five years and that's on the page for everyone to see. Do I think it's personal? Yeah. I think it's personal. ... I hate that I interfered with initiating the rivalry when I was with Tampa. I apologize to Marshon every single day. No, for real. But at the end of the day Marshon is my teammate, and I love Mike. So that's between them."
In their first meeting this season on Sept. 18, Evans and Bucs running back Leonard Fournette initiated a bench-clearing brawl after Evans came to the defense of Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, who appeared to have words with Lattimore. Both Lattimore and Evans were thrown out of the game, and Evans received another suspension.
Brady called Evans' suspension "ridiculous" on his "Let's Go!" podcast the day after the Bucs' 20-10 win over the Saints. He said it meant the world to him that Evans wanted to defend him and didn't think he deserved a suspension.
"I think it's an emotional game, and I think it's a very hard-nosed team that we're playing," Brady said Friday. "These guys have been together for a long time. They play well together.
"I think Mike obviously doesn't want to get kicked out of a game. I'm sure Marshon doesn't want to get kicked out of the game. Everyone wants to compete and play hard, but you play to the letter of the law. When it goes beyond that, things happen unfortunately, but you learn from it and try to move on."
Winston said he did not talk to Evans about the fight following that game, keeping his conversations with him to things outside of football.
There was a time when Evans said he intended to apologize to Lattimore for the first incident, a move he has called "childish" and has taken responsibility for starting.
But as the years have gone on, the time for making up has passed.
"That's real-life beef," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "I talked to Mike about it, and it went from 'Ah, it's nothing,' to 'They don't like each other.' It is what it is. It's a very apparent situation."
As to why the emotions never died down, Jordan doesn't know.
"It clearly has to be something because it just keeps happening right?" Jordan said.
The feud is so well known by this point that Bucs tackle Tristan Wirfs was warned as a rookie to keep an eye on Evans when he went up against Lattimore.
"[Former Bucs tight end] Ryan Griffin told me, whenever we play these guys, just to keep an eye on Mike," he said after their first meeting this season.
Blue Oak BBQ, a local restaurant in New Orleans, posted a sign outside their restaurant banning Evans for life after their fight this season.
"This is a no Mike Evans establishment," the sign read under a picture of Evans.
There have been other modern feuds between cornerbacks and opposing wide receivers. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman called out San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree. Odell Beckham Jr. (then with the New York Giants) and Josh Norman (then with the Carolina Panthers) earned fines and suspensions for their battles. Wide receiver A.J. Green and cornerback Jalen Ramsey got into a one-time fight when Green was with the Cincinnati Bengals and Ramsey with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But no recent matchups have provided the year-after-year entertainment like Evans and Lattimore.
"It's not about all the extracurricular stuff. Because that stuff's personal. Everyone's got their own opinion on that," Winston said. "But the matchup between the two, it's literally the best vs. the best, and we get to see it two, sometimes three times here."
There was a time when Lattimore had the upper hand in the matchup, and he happily pointed out in a Tweet on Nov. 9, 2020, that he held Evans to no catches for three straight games.
"Better luck next year," Lattimore wrote.
Better luck next year https://t.co/Dox6xiDwpN— Shon (@shonrp2) November 9, 2020
But both players have had a hard time getting on track after they went their separate ways.
Frustration has been brewing for Evans and the Bucs' offense, who are averaging just 17.55 offensive points per game -- 26th in the league -- after averaging 30.36 offensive points per game through 12 games last season. Evans hasn't scored a touchdown since his two-touchdown performance in the Bucs' Week 4 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and he only has three all season, compared to the 10 he had through Week 12 last season and the 11 he had through Week 12 in 2020.
In fact, the three touchdowns Evans has is the second lowest total through 12 games he's had since his rookie season in 2014.
With Lattimore's injury issue, he will finish the season with his fewest games played in his six-year career, while the Saints are struggling to finish the season with a winning record -- but so is the entire NFC South.
Evans said he knows he has to keep his cool if Lattimore makes it back to the field Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), especially with two suspensions under his belt.
When asked how he'll keep himself in check to avoid an ejection, Evans said, "I just play my game. I just can't shove somebody you know, like out the air. I've just gotta like, keep my emotions in check and just play hard like I always do."
Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said the team talked to Evans about keeping his cool after the fight earlier in the season, but he's not worried about a repeat issue.
"The most important part for Mike is, Mike gotta understand how important he is for us and what he means to us," Leftwich said. "Losing whoever they'd lose on defense, and we're losing Mike -- that's advantage them, the way that I see it. I think he's that important for us as an offense. He understands that. There was a lot of communication after that first game on how important he is to us."
Their teammates will be ready just in case.
"That's a Shon [vs.] Mike Evans situation," Jordan said. "I've got people with 300 pounds on them that I've got to worry about. If it comes to it, we'll get in the thick of things. We'll definitely ride for our guy. I think Marshon has proven he's not afraid of anything. He doesn't back down for anybody. And it takes two or three guys to push him in the back to get him under control I guess.
"That's perfectly fine. That's part of the game. You're not supposed to like everyone you go against."