By DOUG ZALESKI
Yorktown football coach Mike Wilhelm experienced some anxious feelings a couple of summers ago when he wasn’t sure whether one of his top prospects was going to continue to play football.
Jamarius “J.J.” Evans had been a football player ever since he was 4 years old, but basketball captured his attention in 8th grade. He became so serious about the sport that Wilhelm wasn’t sure Evans was going to be at Yorktown’s season-opening football practice as a freshman in 2017.
Evans did appear at that first practice and earned some playing time on the varsity that season. He made an impact right away by blocking a punt against Muncie Central in the opening game, picking it up, and running it back for a touchdown.
But during the summer before Evans’ sophomore season, Wilhelm found himself wondering again whether Evans was committed to playing football. So the veteran coach wrote a letter to Evans pointing out why he could be so valuable to the Tigers football team and hand-delivered it to the Evans home on a Friday, three days before the start of fall practice.
“I actually went to his home with a letter saying, ‘I think you’re going to be a great player, and we need you on this team,’ ” Wilhelm said. “I laid out why he was going to be a great football player.”
Evans wasn’t home when Wilhelm showed up that day, but the coach left the letter with Evans’ siblings and asked them to make sure to get it in their brother’s hands.
“I got a phone call from his dad (Roderick Evans) within a few hours and he said, ‘He’s playing football,’ ” Wilhelm said. “I think (J.J.) needed to hear how special he was, not only as an athlete but as a person. We needed him around us.”
Evans, now a senior, has had an incredible impact on the Yorktown program, both on and off the field.
On the field, Evans has been a statistical and emotional leader on offense and defense.
The running back has more than half of the Tigers’ rushing attempts this season, and his 628 yards (along with nine touchdowns) represents 59 percent of their rushing yardage. He also has caught five passes for 146 yards.
On defense, Evans has impacted games from his end position. He’s first on the team in tackles for loss (5) and sacks (3.5), and third in tackles with 36.
Evans’ actions off the field are just as important to the culture that Wilhelm has instilled in his program.
It isn’t uncommon to see Evans contribute in ways that most people don’t know about. If he sees trash or other clutter lying around in the locker room, he’s likely to pick it up and put it where it belongs.
“That comes from my parents; they always made me do the right thing,” Evans said. “Also, the coaching staff encourages us to help others and keep our locker room as clean as if it was our house. We are a family, we want to stay clean, we want to play football for as long as possible. This helps prevent any bacteria or anything like that.”
Though Evans is the most prominent player in the program, he desires to be as active in promoting a team concept as anybody. Among the traits he exemplifies are positivity, integrity and empathy.
“I want to care for others as if they are caring for me,” he said. “Our coaching staff wants us to choose who we want to be as men, so they try to get us focused on different positive aspects. We’re not just football players. We’re going to be men, fathers, husbands, brothers.”
And leaders. Yorktown has a mentoring program where upperclassmen take freshmen under their wings and teach them about football and classroom work and life in general.
When Evans was a freshman, Brandt Applegate and Christian Hunt made an impression on him. They taught him how to play the game, how to work hard for playing time, and what energy level was required to get on the field.
Now it’s Evans’ turn to impart that wisdom on young players. He’s part of a group called “The Box” that helps each other and hangs out together. They focus on the small things that help build a team concept.
“We play small games like cornhole, or go fishing; things we can do to get to know each other which helps us be a better team,” Evans said. “It’s great. We’re having fun playing football. We’re a team.”
Wilhelm calls Evans a different kind of leader, one who’s concerned about everybody else.
“I’ve never seen a senior ‘father’ the other guys at positions like he does,” Wilhelm said. “He’s truly concerned that they know the plays, and if they don’t, he will personally help them learn the plays. You can’t ask for a better mentor for these young kids when they come in.
“He couldn’t care less about carrying the ball, getting sacks, making plays. He’s going to do all those things, but he’s concerned about the guys next to him. Overall throughout the United States it’s ‘let’s pick on the freshmen,’ and J.J. has the exact opposite attitude. He’s helping the freshmen every day. He’s just concerned about others. Whatever his future plans are, if it’s not about sports, it will be about helping other people in some manner.”
Evans hopes to play college football. Several Mid-American Conference schools, notably Ball State, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, have checked in on him. The normal recruiting process has changed this year because of coronavirus, but he wants an opportunity.
“It’s one of my biggest goals,” he said. “I want to compete at the next level but still focus on my academics. I want to create a good life for myself whether that’s playing football and going to a different level or just focusing on academics.”