Everything calmed down in the Evans household at 2 p.m.
About 30 people were there, all friends and family. They circled up, joined hands and prayed, just like always, before anyone could have a bite to eat from the buffet that had been sitting there all afternoon. People were hungry at this point, but no one dared to touch the food until the next order of business was done. Emotions were too high on this Saturday in late spring of 2014.
One by one, everyone said something personal to Rashaan Evans, whether it was a piece of advice, a memory or just a simple good luck, because the next day he would leave Auburn to play football at the University of Alabama. This was his going-away party.
Evans had picked the Crimson Tide over his hometown Tigers.
“That’s probably one of the memories I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” the senior linebacker said. “My family basically supported whatever I wanted to do with my life, and they’ve done that.”
A brother’s praise
Alex Evans pulled Rashaan aside. He didn’t want to speak out in front of everyone, mainly because he was trying not to cry. Out of the five Evans children, they were the only two boys and were super close.
“I’m just so happy for you,” Alex told his big brother. “I’m so glad I have somebody I can look up to, have some kind of a role model that I can strive to look at and be.”
The next year, Alex followed Rashaan’s footsteps to UA. Alex signed to run track, but ultimately became a cheerleader instead. It wasn’t an easy decision. He was tugged in both directions but knew he could only pick one.
So, Alex turned to Rashaan, remembering how the older brother had been in a similar situation not long before when deciding between Alabama and Auburn. His brother’s advice: Only you know what you want to do.
“I told him track wasn’t really for me, and he was like, ‘I’m so passionate about football. I can’t imagine being in something that I’m not fully in love with,’” Alex said. “So he held on 100 percent with me and was on board.”
Rashaan fell hard for football at a young age. His father, Alan Evans, played at Auburn in the 1980s and prayed for a son after his first-born was a baby girl. The elder Evans remembers Rashaan starting to show an interest between first and second grade.
Oh, man, was Alan excited.
“When he was a toddler, he used to run around the house with a helmet and shoulder pads on in his underwear,” Alan said. “I knew then that he had a heart to play football.”
That was also evident when Rashaan would take matters into his own hands.
Alan wanted to wait until Rashaan was at least 13 years old to begin strength training. So when Rashaan was in seventh grade, his mother, Dr. Chenavis Evans, promised to buy him weights for Christmas. He’d be old enough by then, but would have to wait.
One morning, while getting up around 6 a.m., Chenavis looked out the window and saw Rashaan in the backyard. He had a rope tied around his waist and was pulling an old tire uphill. It became a daily routine until he got stronger.
“It’d be almost dark outside,” Chenavis said. “I knew then that if he wants to be the best, he will work until he falls out.”
Still will. Rashaan’s work ethic is unparalleled to most, and his younger brother eagerly takes notes from it. He tries to be more like Rashaan that way.
Growing up, the Evans brothers were always compared. They’re both naturally gifted with athleticism. They just chose to put their talents to different uses.
“I used to take it to heart a lot, like wow, they don’t want me to be me,” Alex said. “But it’s an honor, really.”
A father’s advice
Alan Evans could relate to Rashaan like no one else. He knew what the young man was about to go through and didn’t sugarcoat it, even at the dinner table. The lesson needed to be passed on before Rashaan left for college.
“You certainly have some difficult days ahead,” Alan told his first son. “There’s going to be some days you’re going to want to quit, you’re going to want to pack everything up and say ‘To heck with this, I’m quitting and going home.’ That’s the time when you need to stay your course and continue to fight.”
There’s history there, a first-person experience Alan wanted to pass along. Alan signed to play running back at Auburn in 1982. He was classmates with Bo Jackson, who ended up being the Tigers’ star back. After a couple seasons, Alan ended up transferring to Tennessee-Chattanooga.
That was not an option for Rashaan, and he knew that well before he chose Alabama.
“One thing we said was once you make that decision, you will not transfer,” Chenavis said. “You will go to school and finish. If you don’t play football, that’s fine, but that’s where you will graduate.”
It wasn’t always easy, but Rashaan is on track to do just that.
During his first season at Alabama, Rashaan played in 13 of the Crimson Tide’s 14 games. He never started. He made 15 tackles. Twelve of those were on special teams, not at linebacker.
The next year, he played in 14 of Alabama’s 15 games. Again, he never started. He totaled 10 tackles and four sacks.
It was during his sophomore year that Rashaan hit a rough patch. He was playing but not as much as he’d like.
“I just remember trying to do everything at once,” Rashaan said. “I didn’t understand that sometimes it’s better to process everything and then make your move.”
Rashaan learned patience, and it wasn’t a moment too soon.
Alabama went to the national championship game that year. It was tied with Clemson heading into halftime. Rashaan’s parents were there in Arizona, watching from the stands.
“I felt like Clemson would win the game because our defense was so exhausted, and nobody had laid a finger on DeShaun Watson the whole game,” Alan said. “And then they send Rashaan in the game off the bench.”
It was during the third quarter. Clemson was facing third-and-8 at the Alabama 46-yard line.
“(Rashaan) was pass rushing and just out of nowhere, he sacked DeShaun Watson,” Alan said. “It changed the momentum of the game, and Alabama went on to win the national championship.”
No other Alabama player recorded a sack. Rashaan made two. The Crimson Tide won, 45-40.
Rashaan played in 14 of Alabama’s 15 games the following season – recording 53 tackles, four sacks, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. This time, he finally got his first career start. It came against Washington in the College Football Playoff, and he was prepared, finishing as Alabama’s third-leading tackler.
Alan can recite all his son’s big moments, play by play.
“I always knew he was better than me,” Alan said. “It takes a special type of player to be a defensive guy. You have to have the heart of a lion, especially at linebacker.”
A mother’s reassurance
Chenavis Evans kept her farewell message short and simple. She wasn’t able to hold back her tears for most of the day, but she needed her boy to know how much his family loved him. They’d always be there for him.
“You stepped into your manhood with the decision that you made,” Chenavis told her second-born, “and we’re proud of you.”
Every week for the past four years, they’ve shown that. Alan has missed only one of Rashaan’s collegiate games – at Arkansas his freshman year – and it pained him to do so. He and Chenavis never missed any growing up. She has had to miss three Alabama games for her daughter’s high school homecomings.
Otherwise, the family has been there. They gathered before every home game at the end of the Walk of Champions under the tree to the left of Bryant-Denny Stadium by Gate 47. Everyone embraced. At away games, whenever Alabama coach Nick Saban has allowed it, his parents have stopped by the hotel Friday night for about 30 minutes to talk.
“One time, Alan and I goofed off,” Chenavis said. “We’re out of town, and we took our time going over to the hotel. When we got there, A’Shawn Robinson’s grandma was like, ‘You guys better not be late again.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ He was all over this hotel like, ‘Where’s my mom? Where’s my dad? Have y’all seen my mom? She’s always here.’
“We were just like 20 minutes late.”
Never happened again.
Parents and son have needed those moments together, and they’re dwindling down. Rashaan has at least two games left, four max. His last regular-season game with the Crimson Tide is the Iron Bowl. It will be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium, just five miles away from the house in which he was raised.
Everything is really coming full circle now.
“It’s going to be an opportunity for him to come back and show his hometown folks what they could’ve had, how far he’s come,” Alan said. “I think he’s going to come in Jordan-Hare Stadium with one thing in mind, and that’s winning. “
Auburn fans expected Rashaan to become a Tiger. His father was. His mother has four degrees from Auburn. His older sister cheered there. His extended family is full of alumni.
But it wasn’t what he wanted, and now he’s being thrust back into the middle of the rivalry.
“I feel like how he started is how he’s ending,” Chenavis said, “with this huge climax right here in Auburn.
“It’s overwhelming to me. I have to stay focused. We have to keep him focused.”
Which he is.
Really, Rashaan is excited about the Iron Bowl. He’s in the midst of his best season, despite sustaining a groin injury at the start. In the nine games he has played in and started, he collected five sacks, broken up two passes and forced a fumble to go along with his 48 tackles. He will also graduate in December with a degree in psychology, like his mother.
The 18-year-old who left his childhood home in Auburn four years ago is now 22 and all grown up.
Another transitioning party will be needed.
“I just look back over my whole career, and to be honest with you, I’m actually satisfied with it,” Rashaan said. “A lot of people can look back and be like, ‘Well, I could have done this or that,’ but I can’t look back and say I could have done anything more than what I’ve done.
“That gives me an inner peace for when this is all over with.”