Witnessing his own father’s death fuels JJ Evans to be great every day
Published 2:38 pm Wednesday, December 19, 2018
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor
Sitting on a pier he had been fishing from just minutes earlier, a fourth-grade JJ Evans watched and screamed in a panic as his dad Thaddeus’ boat started to sink out in the middle of the pond.
Standing alongside his stepmother and stepsister, Evans’ older brother Ty came sprinting back thinking his younger brother was in trouble from his screams, only to see his dad’s boat capsizing.
JJ and Ty were both ready to jump in, along with his stepsister, to attempt to save their father, but their stepmother kept them from doing so, knowing that their adrenaline was rushing and so was their dad’s, meaning all three of them would have been in the middle of the pond in panic mode.
Instead, for their own safety, the family had to sit there and watch, traumatized, as their father never resurfaced.
“All I remember after that was a whole bunch of people showing up to the lake to try and save him or find him,” JJ said.
Thaddeus’ body was found shortly after the rescue units showed up, but it was too late, as the minister and father had lost his life on Saturday, May 29, 2012.
Growing up, Thaddeus Evans taught his sons everything and had become their role model and the reason they were even involved in sports to begin with.
“He actually started me playing sports,” JJ said. “I would just sit in the house and play games all the time, but he would get me out of the house to play all the time. He would throw the ball with me and shoot basketball with me and stuff. Once I started playing with him, that’s when I started to love sports.”
With the loss of his father went his passion for sports.
“I didn’t want to go to school or anything,” JJ said. “I stopped playing sports for like three years because I didn’t want to do anything.”
Instead, the grieving process began, and it was tough for him to stay out of a depressed and emotional state with the event he had witnessed.
He didn’t even feel like waking up, going to school or really doing much of anything, which led to JJ having to go to court because he missed so many days of school, but the nightmare wouldn’t end and everything he did still reminded him of that devastating day.
“I had nightmares about it all,” he said. “It just kept happening over and over again in my head. It really messed me up, and I couldn’t even think about anything else.”
Fortunately for JJ, his older brother stepped up and tried his best to act as a father figure for his younger brother knowing that JJ wouldn’t move on unless he showed him it was possible.
“You get the feeling that you can’t do anything,” Ty said. “After so long, you just have to get over it. There’s nothing you can do. Dreaming over it for so long, or hoping things get better defeats the purpose. Everything happens for a reason.”
Ty eventually stepped back on the football field, which helped JJ realize he could use sports as a tool to help the grieving process.
“I’d always go to my brother about things when I was feeling bad,” JJ said. “He stepped up and made me mature and feel better about a lot of things because he was the only one that understood me. He was there and knew how I felt and how to tell me how to react.”
Sports is the best medicine
“Once all that happened, I never thought I’d play sports again,” JJ said. “Everybody knew I loved sports but I didn’t plan to play or be around people.
“My mom eventually said, ‘Don’t use that as a reason why you don’t play sports, make that a reason why you want to play sports and go harder. You know your dad would want to be there to watch you play.”
Eventually JJ got the itch to play sports again after his mom’s advice and with his brother getting back into it, so it became a no brainer to eventually start playing again.
At first it was just basketball because the basketball coach convinced him to start playing, and the start back had officially begun.
A year after his return to the basketball court, JJ started playing football again as a sophomore, and quickly flashed signs of brilliance, but it was just a flash in the pan of what was to come.
Just one year later, JJ was back in the rhythm of competing, had put in a ton of work to improve on his game, and went into his junior season ready to play for his dad and make him proud.
He went on to lead the state in receiving his junior season at Montevallo High School with 1,704 yards, which is second all-time in a season among receivers finishing 21 yards behind the top mark. He also posted 18 touchdowns and did all of this on 64 receptions, which is good enough for 26.6 yards per catch.
“Once I started playing sports, I didn’t forget about it, but it got my mind off of it and helped me get through it,” JJ said.
Now using a tragedy as motivation to be the best he can be, JJ has received offers from several of the top college football programs in the country, but he isn’t satisfied.
He wants to continue improving and working as hard as his dad would make him work were he still here.
The best view
“Just to know that he is watching me makes me go harder and train,” JJ said. “I know I want to make him proud and I know he would be proud if he were here.
“I tell my mom all the time that I wish he could be here to see what is happening. She always tells me, ‘He’s watching, just believe he is watching.’”
While JJ still misses his father dearly, and still reflects back to that sad day, he also has a father, and one that can see everything his son is doing with the best view.
Because of that presence, Thaddeus is still leading his son and making him do the best he can every day, because his son knows that influence is helping him strive for greatness, meaning the fatherly presence will never die.
“Most dads see most things, but his dad sees everything, and he wants to make him proud,” Montevallo head football coach Brandon Wilcox said. “You can see that in the way he carries himself, and that’s definitely a separator between him and a lot of other guys.
“He hasn’t let a tragedy deflate him,” Wilcox said with emotion after listening to the story. “He’s used it to be his why. There’s no doubt his dad is looking down with the biggest smile on his face.”
JJ didn’t hesitate saying that if his father were still here, he would have him out on the football field working every day, which brought a smile to his face.
“We’d be working and he’d be pushing me,” JJ said. “In a sense, he is still doing that.”
With all of the recruiting efforts and offers coming from several major Division I colleges, JJ also said his dad would push him in those regards too.
“He’s a big Alabama fan, so he would be crazy about that offer,” JJ said with a grin. “He’d be pushing me and talking to me trying to get me to go there. No telling the conversations we would have right now.”
Becoming a leader
His return to sports was a quiet one. Still not sure of how everything was going to go, and reluctant to be around a bunch of people, JJ eventually started gaining confidence in front of his peers as his junior season went along.
Montevallo was having a strong season, and everybody was just enjoying success with no real leadership from a player in the locker room, but five weeks into the season, the Bulldogs took on a top-5 ranked American Christian.
They fell behind 35-0 and were eventually down 70-22, and the team was in desperate search of a leader with their heads hung.
“Everybody’s heads were down and they were looking sad,” JJ said. “I had to encourage them not to give up and play all four quarters. We were giving up early in the game, and I didn’t like what was going on. At first, early in the season, I didn’t realize that I needed to be a leader, but I saw all my teammates looking at me and knew I needed to change.”
Montevallo went on to lose but put in a strong second-half effort totaling 54 points in a 70-54 loss, and then closed out the regular season with five consecutive wins to finish as runners-up in the region.
For the Bulldogs’ head coach, he saw those qualities in JJ a week before that only loss of the regular season.
“A light bulb came on during the Jemison game,” Wilcox said. “I think he learned that from a mindset point, he could take over a game and do what he wanted to do, and that’s when his confidence level went through the roof. As that game went on, I saw him go from a passive guy to a guy that was reciprocating what us coaches were saying, which is key on any successful football team.”
While just a few years ago, JJ was struggling to get out of bed much less play a sport, he’s now the leader of his football team, and one of the top players in the country, and a player ready to improve and do what it takes to lead his team to a state championship during his final season.
He truly has taken a tragedy and turned it into his motivation.
“He’s the reason I started playing the game,” Evans said. “And he’s still the reason I push myself to be as good as I can be.”