GEORGETOWN — The Cincinnati Bengals will travel from their Georgetown College training camp, up Interstate 75, to open their pre-season schedule Friday night at Detroit.
For DeQuin Evans, a rookie free agent, the 330-mile trip is another step on a road that only a few years ago he could have never imagined.
University of Kentucky fans know Evans. He played in 25 games, including 20 starts, over his two seasons with the Wildcats. As a junior-college transfer, he led the team with 12½ tackles for a loss and six sacks, and was named by the coaching staff as UK's most outstanding defensive player. His teammates voted him a team captain the next season. Slowed by illness and injuries as a senior, he finished his two seasons with 54 tackles, 16½ tackles for loss, 7½ sacks and a pass breakup.
Not shabby for someone who never played until 2007.
Growing up, football wasn't on his radar.
"You've got to remember, I come from some projects in Compton, Calif., and a lot of my friends are shot, selling drugs, gang banging; a lot of them just have families and are working men now," Evans said. "So sports just weren't in their repertoire like how kids grow up here in the South. You know — how football's so big and basketball's real big. They come from a family full of athletes. Your dad probably played basketball, mom ran track or, if not, they all watch sports. There's really not too much of that going on in my projects back home."
With his father rarely around and often in jail, Evans grew up with his mother, grandfather, uncle and three sisters.
Although not a gang member, many of his friends were.
At 15, he was stopped in a stolen car that had been related to gang activity.
His sentence: 16 months in a juvenile detention facility.
He was sent to Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu, where the rehabilitation program included football.
In games where a player from one gang might be opposite or next to a player from a rival gang, things got rough. Fights were common.
A movie, The Gridiron Gang, is based on Camp Kilpatrick.
When Evans was released, he completed his last semester of high school and, to help with family expenses, took a job bagging groceries.
A cousin, Hershel Dennis, intervened.
Dennis, starting tailback on a 2003 Southern Cal team that included freshmen Reggie Bush and LenDale White, urged Evans to consider football. Dennis gave Evans a tour of the USC campus and had him tag along for a class.
That planted a seed, although it would take time to grow. Evans wasn't ready to rush into the unknown.
"I didn't take to it right away. ... I care about self-image a lot, and I didn't want to go out there and suck," said Evans, who is listed by the Bengals at 6-foot-3, 256 pounds. "Just because I was a big dude, I didn't want to go out there and be like, 'Oh, man, he's big and sorry.' I wanted to train myself and prepare myself mentally and physically before I did start playing football. And just being blessed with a work ethic and a motor. ... Luckily, I was born with that and it led over to a lot of positivity in my life."
He trained for six months. Inspired by a program he had seen about the life of Walter Payton, part of Evans' training included running up Signal Hill, just outside of Los Angeles.
A childhood friend, playing at Los Angeles Harbor Junior College, urged him to contact the coach. Evans did.
He became an all-conference defensive end and was rated among the top 15 junior-college prospects in the nation.
"Just blessed, man, and hungry," Evans said. "A lot of people think that balling is skills or whatever. I feel like it's a mentality, where you're-not-going-to-let-somebody-beat-you-type of mentality. Of course, a little skill's got to go with it, but I feel like it's more mentality than skills."
Then-UK head coach Rich Brooks and assistant Steve Ortmayer recruited Evans, also convincing his mother — Samoan-born Penina Maefau — that they would be like family in Lexington. UK also reeled in a childhood friend and teammate of Evans, receiver Chris Matthews.
Once on campus, Evans rarely spoke of his past.
"I didn't feel like it was anybody's business. ... I felt everybody had a past and I didn't want to talk about mine because I was in a better place, so I left that behind me," he said. "But it's good for me to talk about it, because it's molded me into the person I am. I don't want to forget about it because it makes me work that much harder, because I don't want to go back to that kind of life."
Evans, who needs three classes to complete UK requirements for a degree in communications, now shares his past with many. He has a video interview with Dick Gabriel of WKYT-TV, produced for a segment on The Joker Phillips Show, and eventually wants to write a book to tell his story.
"I talk to lots of kids, man, and I like to talk to kids who are in some trouble," Evans said. "Because it's easy for them to listen to a person who's been in their shoes rather than a person who just studies psychology, and that can understand. I'm glad that Dick Gabriel and (WKYT), they filmed me and did that whole biography on me because it's such a great tool for helping these kids out, because they can see it.
"It's cool to hear it from somebody, but when you actually see it, and you see the emotion I have when I'm talking about how my mom felt when I was in (Camp Kilpatrick), and me not being able to see my sisters grow up and stuff like that, I think it touches them. And then just me telling them life skills to keep them out of there. There's not too many people who are in my shoes who came from where I came from."
A defensive end for UK, Evans was signed by the Bengals as a linebacker.
He has adapted well and came up with an interception during Tuesday's workout. He's also getting some work on the line.
Going to Detroit, he could see action at middle linebacker or rushing off the end. He is second string on the nickel package, kick-return and punt-return teams.
"He's got a lot of new positions to learn," Coach Marvin Lewis said. "His effort is outstanding. He just has to keep coming and developing, and we'll see what happens. But it won't be because he didn't try at it, whether it be at the linebacker spots or down at the rusher in our substituted defenses or whatever his role is on special teams. He's a good prospect and hopefully he continues to grow and can do some things."
Evans has been diligent in studying his playbook, watching film and listening to his coaches. He says his main goal Friday is to play to the best of his ability and to not miss any assignments.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of it, man, and make the team," he said. "I don't want to just be a guy who says, 'Oh, yeah, I played with the Bengals.' I want to be a guy who says, 'I contributed to the team,' and 'these are my teammates.' ... It's going to be my first NFL game, something that I never thought I would be in a position (to be) doing.
"Glory to God. He put me here, and this is a blessing."