In most cases, hearing a professional athlete preach to kids the importance of staying in school would almost seem condescending … but not in the case of Jahri Evans.
After all, he’s living proof of how vital a college diploma can be in opening doors to unimaginable success.
Last Saturday, Evans, an All-Pro offensive lineman and Super Bowl champion for the New Orleans Saints, returned to Frankford High School for his annual free football camp. For the fourth straight year, the 2001 Frankford graduate came back to where his advent as a future NFL star all began.
For about six hours, Evans worked with about 300 area kids, from youngsters picking up a football for the first time to high-schoolers hoping to strike gold the same way their hero did. Over the course of two sessions (younger kids in the morning, high school students in the afternoon), Evans helped the camp participants improve their football skills.
But once the pigskins were dropped, he had a simple message for all of the kids: Stay in school and keep those grades up.
“I tell them that hard work does pay off, and I’m living proof of that,” Evans said after a lengthy autograph-signing session for dozens of wide-eyed kids. “It starts with discipline, and it starts in the classroom. Nowadays you can’t even play this game if you don’t have the grades, and scholarships are there for guys to achieve if they’re willing to put their best foot forward with their school work. So if you’re in school playing football, you may as well get that degree when all is said and done.
“The bottom line is that anything is possible if you work hard on the field and in the classroom,” he continued. “Every goal is reachable, you just have to put your mind to it. When you do that, you can achieve anything you want to, but it starts and ends with you.”
To hear most professional athletes deliver a message like this would normally seem like a bag of wind, especially considering they’ll often decide to forgo a college degree to prematurely jump to the pros. But Jahri Evans’ message is sincere, because he lived it.
Evans had never played organized football before he got to Frankford, but then-coach Tom Mullineaux saw the potential in Evans’ hulking frame and turned him into an All-Public League offensive line selection as a junior. His senior year was just as memorable, but for the wrong reason — Evans tore up his knee playing a game of pickup basketball before a church event and missed the entire season, seemingly ending the career of a promising college prospect.
He stayed focused on his studies and graduated 10th in his class. With Mullineaux’s help, Evans secured an academic scholarship to Division II Bloomsburg University and joined the football team as a walk-on. After red-shirting his first year and serving as a reserve in his freshman season, Evans filled an open spot on Bloomsburg’s offensive line for the next three seasons and became a fourth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in the 2006 NFL draft.
A starter for the Saints ever since, Evans is a three-time All-Pro selection and earned a Super Bowl ring when New Orleans beat the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. Three months later, he signed a seven-year, $56.7-million contract that made him the highest paid guard in NFL history.
Had he not stayed in school and vigorously pursued his degree, none of this would have been possible for Evans. That’s the message he wanted to emphasize to the kids at his football camp last weekend.
ldquo;This is where it all started for me,” he said. “This is the first place I put on the shoulder pads and the helmet and got on the football field and did my thing. This school and this field will always hold a special place in my heart. You can’t build a building without a foundation, and I keep that foundation close to my heart. Everybody starts somewhere, building from the ground up, and how you conduct yourself as a person and as a student … those are things that you take with you throughout life. I always try to remember where it started, and when I do that, it makes it that much easier to come back and watch these kids start building their own stories.”
Evans, with the help of teammates Sedrick Ellis, Jermon Bushrod and Roman Harper, former Eagles and Saints defensive lineman Hollis Thomas and Baltimore Ravens linebacker (and George Washington High alum) Jameel McClain, worked all day with the ecstatic kids, giving them a day they won’t soon forget.
“I’m amazed, just because I see these guys on ESPN all the time and today they’re right here coaching us,” said Frankford sophomore Unique Davis. “We get to learn from a guy that went to school here that now is a star NFL player. You can’t get much better instruction than that.”
Davis especially cherished his day with Evans and his NFL brethren. A 6-foot-2, 275-pound sophomore offensive tackle for the Pioneers, Davis endearingly has been referred to as “mini-Jahri” by Frankford athletic director Jack Creighton and former coach Mike Capriotti. Just halfway through his high school career, he is a guy with a ton of promise and raw skill, and the events of Saturday allowed him to ask himself, “Why can’t I be the next Jahri Evans?”
“All of the teachers and coaches talk about him, so I’ve learned all about him,” Davis said. “But what they really talked about was how good a student he was when he went to school here. Him getting good grades led him to the NFL, so you hear about his hard work in the classroom and on the field, and it drives you to do that yourself.”
The approach is working wonders for Davis, an honor-roll student and a football player with a very high ceiling.
In the end, Saturday was a day full of smiles for Evans and for the hundreds of kids and alumni who took part in the camp, which started with just 60 participants in its inaugural year.
Evans may be a multimillionaire whose career keeps him in Louisiana most of the year, but that hasn’t stopped him from staying humble and returning to his hometown whenever he gets the chance.
“Honestly, I just wanted to show them where I came from on the field where it all started for me,” Evans said. “We’re out here working out, but most importantly we’re all just having a good time. I want them to know that whatever their dreams are, they can be attained by working hard, putting your best foot forward and always listening to your elders. I’m blessed to play this game, but more importantly I’m blessed to be in a position to have an impact on these kids. That’s really what it’s all about.” ••EndFragment