Larger than life

— Jahri Evans, NFL star and Frank­ford alum, re­turned to his alma ma­ter on Sat­urday for his fourth an­nu­al free foot­ball camp.

Jahri Evans of the New Or­leans Saints sits with par­ti­cipants at a foot­ball camp for loc­al youth at Frank­ford Sta­di­um, Sat­urday, May 5, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Brad Lar­ris­on)


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.” ••


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