Catch Me If You Can

From Bedford to the big time, it's been a long, weird trip for Lee Evans.

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Lee Evans looks up from his hamburger and breaks into a bashful smile, the kind that could sell Gatorade some day. "Yeah, I'm a little nervous," he says, "because it's out of my hands."

He's speaking of the National Football League draft, which on this day is two weeks away. He will soon be living in a new city, playing for a new team -- and it's all out of his control. But for now, he can smile, because the hard part is over.

For the last two years, he has chipped away at the boulders blocking his path. First there was his height -- he's a sub-six-footer in a land of giants. This he overcame with sheer speed and leaping ability -- until an injury whisked these skills away. Still, he could fall back on a golden-boy reputation; then came the marijuana arrest.

NFL scouts have uncanny memories; Evans knows that his problems have been duly recorded in his prospect file under the heading of "Risks."

Two years ago, there were no such risks. Evans was certain to be a high first-round pick, certain to get a signing bonus of several million dollars and a contract for millions more. The injury and the arrest destroyed those guarantees. He has, in the scout's vernacular, a history.

There remained the danger that, come April 24, Evans would be in his living room, surrounded by friends and family, watching helplessly as the names and video highlights of fellow collegians flashed across the screen. Millions of dollars could melt away as he waited . . . and waited . . . for NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to step to the podium and announce a team's name, followed by the words ". . . select Lee Evans, wide receiver, Wisconsin."

Lee Evans owes much to the Wendy's baked potato.

He was a scrappy but skinny freshman at Bedford High. "The coaches said, 'We're scared to put you on the field. You'll get hit and break in half,'" Evans says. "So I just ate potatoes, potatoes, potatoes."

Ninety-nine cents at a time, they turned 135 pounds into 160.

Underclassmen rarely see the field under venerable Coach Jim Hodakievic, but as a sophomore, Evans began showing up the seniors in practice. Yet there was another prodigy who stood in his way: Chris Chambers -- bigger, older, and also a wide receiver. Besides, Bedford had trouble throwing and blocking, so it remained a run-dominated team, even if it did have two future NFL receivers.

"I was a senior and [Evans] was a sophomore, but we're playing the Wing-T," says Chambers. In that offense, a wide receiver is benched in favor of another running back. "So I was the only receiver -- and I was getting double-teamed."

Despite posting modest stats, Chambers was recruited by the Big Ten powers and signed eventually with Wisconsin. Evans became Bedford's primary threat.

Hodakievic devised methods to get him involved, such as installing Evans at quarterback. "His first play from scrimmage, he took it 90-some yards for a touchdown," says the coach. "It was like . . . a blur." The team used him as a kick and punt returner, running back, tight end, and defensive back, besides his usual chores at wide receiver.

It's a testament to Evans's athletic prowess that he had to be "coerced," in his words, to join the track team, which Hodakievic also coaches. He finished as runner-up to the state champ two years in a row.

Track was fine for collecting trophies, but football was his game. "Even as a kid, he had in his mind what he wanted to do," says his mother Annette. "He always wanted to play football. He was so focused. He kept his grades up. Nothing was going to keep him from playing."

By the time Evans was a senior, the recruiting calls were coming from assistant coaches at regional collegiate powerhouses. The coaches would arrive at his home with solicitous smiles and glorious visions: Lee Evans wearing their school's jersey, catching the decisive touchdown in a nationally televised game. A 3.3 GPA ensured his eligibility, and it didn't hurt that Chambers was already emerging as a star in Wisconsin.

But some scouts seemed to doubt that two great receivers could rise out of the same small Cleveland suburb. Nor did it help that Evans lacked prolific stats, a curse of Bedford's conservative offense.

Like any good Ohio boy, he had his eye on Columbus. But Ohio State wasn't looking at him. Major schools usually organize their recruiting campaigns by A and B lists. A-listers receive constant phone calls, handwritten letters, visits from the head coach. It's not uncommon for them to be courted three years before graduating from high school.

The B-Listers, on the other hand, are shown but token interest -- an occasional phone call, a form letter. They may be invited to visit the campus, but the school will hold off on offering a scholarship, hoping for something better. In Evans's case, he wasn't even invited for an official visit. He was locked into the Buckeyes' B-List.

Yet Boston College, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin called constantly, begging him to visit their campuses. Wisconsin wide-receivers coach Henry Mason recalls being skeptical at first, despite glowing references from Hodakievic and Chambers. "What sold me was seeing him run track," he says. Mason was there the day Evans faced off against Tony Fisher in the hurdles. Fisher was Ohio's reigning Mr. Football, bound for Notre Dame. But Evans won. "At that point," says Mason, "I decided he was a player."

Evans believed that Boston College was too East Coast, that Notre Dame was "the middle of nowhere." Ohio State showed a renewed interest after some of its A-list prospects began to filter elsewhere, but by then, it was too late. Besides, Chambers was the better lobbyist: "He listens to me a little bit, and I wouldn't steer him wrong." Just before Christmas 1998, Evans committed to Wisconsin.

When Evans arrived in Madison, he found a campus transformed since his visit the previous winter. Where it had been gray and ferociously windy, it was now verdant and balmy. Flowers were arranged to spell huge W's, seemingly on every block. The rolling green terrain, traced by serpentine roads and swooping architecture, was a stark change from the paved, perpendicular features of Bedford.

Even more arresting were the human sights: a Bible-wielding man casting a pack of newly agnostic students into damnation; two hippies smoking joints on the sidewalk on State Street; gothed-out kids flaunting their piercings and cursing brazenly; two men holding hands and shopping. As a fiercely liberal town, Madison seems to embrace anyone who has ever felt ostracized.

But it remains quintessentially Midwestern in at least one respect: The city lives for football. Evans saw the unabashed reverence that students held for players, especially running back Ron Dayne, who would soon be joining the New York Giants.

Yet he once again found himself constricted by an offense that viewed passing as an unholy indulgence. He had to make the most of his chances. His first catch went for a 64-yard touchdown.

It was his lone highlight of the year, however, as Dayne dominated the offense, and Chambers feasted on the leftovers. The Badgers won the Big Ten title, Dayne took home the Heisman Trophy, and Wisconsin rolled over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, completing the best season in school history.

The Badgers entered 2000 with high hopes, but on the eve of the team's opening game, a scandal broke involving a store called the Shoebox. The owner, an athletics booster, had been giving football players generous discounts on shoes. Twenty-six players were suspended. The team would never fully recover, going 9-4, but disappointing fans who thought it had national-title potential. After the season, Chambers was drafted in the second round by the Miami Dolphins, leaving Evans cast in the familiar role as follow-up act. This time, he bloomed more brilliantly than ever.

His 2001 season was among the best by a receiver in the history of the Big Ten. Though hounded by double and triple coverage, he caught 75 passes for 1,545 yards, the latter a single-season conference record. He was suddenly a celebrity at the sororities and frats on Langdon Street, invited to the front of the line at jam-packed bars like Kollege Klub and Bullfeathers.

This would have been ecstasy for a receiver like Terrell Owens, who craves adulation. But Evans is naturally humble and withdrawn. "Everything was happening so quick, in one year," he says. "I wasn't mature enough to handle all the pressures."

The agents came in waves. Prognosticators didn't wait for Evans to announce whether he'd return to school: They bet on him going pro and projected him as a top-15 pick. If he declared for the draft, an agent could front Evans a boatload of money and he could quit school. No more essay tests. No more eating from the 99-cent menu.

"When people are throwing millions of dollars at your face, it's easy to just grab it and go from there," says Evans. "But I'm the type that likes to make a decision for myself."

In a move that shocked the pros, Evans elected to return for a senior season.

"I think that Lee still had some things he wanted to accomplish," says Hodakievic. Graduating was a high priority. So was winning a national championship.

As he stands in the end zone at Bedford High Stadium, there's no trace of nostalgia on Lee Evans's face. He looks queasy, walking gingerly across the turf, as if it's ice on a half-frozen lake. "The spring game is today," he says. "It's been two years."

It's an awful memory, jogged loose by the sight of Bedford's leisure-suit-green artificial turf, the same surface used at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium in 2002. At the time, Evans had just completed spring camp, the culmination of which is the annual spring game.

"It was about the fifth play of the game, and I was running a routine post route," he says. "I went up for the ball, and I just came down real awkward. It was the way I landed. I felt the hit [from a defensive back], but by then the damage was done."

The rowdy crowd fell silent as trainers ran onto the field. Tests on Evans's knee would soon confirm the worst: an ACL tear.

The anterior cruciate ligament connects the kneecap to muscles in the lower leg. It is the pressure point for nearly every action essential to a receiver's job -- sprinting, cutting, jumping, stopping. The tear was as destructive to Evans as a mangled hand might be to a concert pianist.

The next morning, Evans awoke to pain -- and to Wisconsin newspapers with front-page photos of the exact moment he wrecked his knee. "It was disgusting," he says, wincing still. The school's finest athlete now suffered the indignity of crutches. Those who'd offered worship turned to extending pity. In an age when the best athletes were skipping college at the first scent of interest from the pros, Evans had been the exception. And this, a career-threatening injury, is what he got in return.

"We were disappointed for him," says Mason. "The commitment he had made to come back and the goals he wanted to accomplish. As a young man, he stood for all the right things."

Like most athletes, Evans was anxious not only to prove that he could come back, but that he could do so quickly. An ACL tear typically requires a year of recuperation. Evans embarked on an "accelerated program." There was talk that he would miss only a few games. He could return by October, prove he was still a star, then wait for his name to be called early in the NFL draft that spring.

But his knee began to swell. Then came the diagnosis everyone dreaded: He would need a second surgery. Eight months of grueling rehab had been too aggressive for a healing joint. Back to crutches. Back to the sidelines.

"That was the hard part," says Evans. "It made me ask myself: 'Do I want to go back to square one and do it all over again?'" Though he never admitted it to his family, Evans wrestled with the idea of giving up football.

That same month, November 2002, Evans volunteered to drive three teammates on the inactive roster to the University of Iowa for a game. One of the players brought a small bag of pot.

Madison is surrounded on all sides by farmland and folk tethered to old-world values. A cop in the town of Ridgeway, population 689, caught Evans going 78 miles per hour.

"There wasn't anybody smoking in the car or anything," says Evans, so he was surprised when the cop told him she smelled marijuana and ordered everybody out. She found the baggie in the glove compartment. "I told her it's not mine," he says, "but the bottom line is that it's my car, and I'm the one who's driving."

Evans might have been saved if the pot owner had confessed. "I didn't think he'd do me like that," says Evans, "but you just have to choose who you hang out with wisely." Evans took the rap and was arrested. He would plead guilty to misdemeanor possession and accept a year of probation.

The next month, the Associated Press ranked Wisconsin's Top 10 sports stories of the year. In a cruel compliment to Evans's prominence in the state, his injury and bust were 10th on the list.

Last August, Evans put on his red Wisconsin jersey for the first time in 20 months. He'd received a fifth year of eligibility. During the previous months, he had looked with trepidation at the twice-repaired knee for signs of swelling. The knee was fine, but Evans says "mental barriers" remained.

In his first games back, he looked uneasy, tentative. There were telltale signs that his confidence was gone. NFL scouts had seen many an athlete crumble after surgery like his.

Three-quarters into the biggest game of the season -- against then-undefeated Ohio State -- Evans had still not proved the skeptics wrong. Smothering coverage by All-American Chris Gamble kept the ball out of his hands.

It was a defensive battle locked at 10 halfway through the fourth quarter. Then the Badgers threw deep to Evans, who was streaking down the sideline, Gamble choking in the vapor trail. Evans caught the pass in stride and raced for a 79-yard touchdown, the game's decisive score. The same school that wouldn't let Evans so much as visit had its season ruined by him. "I always had big games against Ohio State," Evans says with a satisfied grin.

Badger students stormed the field in joyous, alcohol-fueled bedlam. One co-ed found Evans amid the mob, ripped off her shirt, and gave it to him in drunken homage. "I was like, 'Thanks, I guess,'" he says.

But the game that cemented his comeback came a month later against Michigan State. Evans caught 10 passes for 258 yards and five touchdowns. "Everything was going right," he says. "I was in the zone. It was just me and the quarterback. The crowd was hyped. It was my best game ever."

Still, NFL scouts don't trust highlight reels as much as they do stopwatches. After the season, Wisconsin held a pro day to showcase its draft-eligible players. Two years before, Evans had run the 40-yard dash in a stunning 4.33 seconds, speed that put him among the upper echelon of pro receivers. This time, even with two knee surgeries behind him, he ran a 4.4, faster than any receiver projected to be an early choice. At the NFL combine, a meat market for measuring prospects, Evans was timed at 4.33.

Scouts and pundits all agreed: Evans was once again a first-rounder. ESPN draftmeister Mel Kiper declared him "the best comeback story in the draft."

There is something dehumanizing about the analysis that precedes a draft. The assessment of Evans by reads like the monologue of a Westminster Kennel judge: "Has ideal body structure; high cut with good chest and arm definition, thick and muscular legs and a slender waist."

Dan Pompei, the Sporting News' draft expert, says Evans grades well in everything that counts: "He can catch the ball away from his body. He leaves his feet to make catches. He moves well laterally. He has explosion when the ball gets to him. He has good strength, so he's not a guy who will be bumped off his routes."

There is little doubt in Pompei's mind that Evans has fully recovered from surgery. "I don't know how you can be skeptical, if you turn on a tape and watch him play late in the year," says Pompei. "If the guy was hurt, there was no way he could have done what he did."

He compares Evans to former Ohio State great Joey Galloway, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both have blazing speed, but Pompei thinks that with his strength, Evans will be more reliable on short patterns, which require strong hands and the ability to absorb missile strikes of roaming linebackers.

Yet for all that he's done since his Bedford days to bulk up, lack of size remains Evans's biggest problem. Other receivers projected to go in the first round are skyscrapers -- all between 6 foot 3 and 6 foot 6. Evans is a runtish 5 foot 11.

Other ghosts haunt him as well. His profile on carries two "alerts": A "D" for "Durability" and a "C" for "Character," the latter a stain from his pot bust.

"Something like that is always going to raise a red flag," says Pompei. "But the real question is whether it's an isolated incident or whether there's a pattern of questionable judgments."

Evans wants to believe that he's proved himself healthy and that his interviews with pro teams have settled the marijuana matter. But among draftniks, optimism is more guarded.

"Evans's draft status has fluctuated as much or more than any other player in the first round," Todd McShay of Scouts, Inc. told ESPN last week. "When you consider his character issues [marijuana] and durability concerns [knee], I can see him falling into the 20s on draft day."

In fact, McShay's "mock draft" had Evans slipping to the 30th pick.

There's much more at stake than prestige. Last year, the 15th player taken landed a signing bonus of $6 million, while the 30th player took home a bonus of $3.3 million.

Evans insists that money isn't the motivation. "It's to play this game at the highest possible level," he says with a level gaze. He claims to have no real preference about who picks him. He'll like the team that likes him. The new wealth will be spent modestly: a condo, a new car. "The process has been so stressful, and I just want it to be over with," he says.

Chambers has been through it before. In 2001, he was supposed to go late in the first round or early in the second. He talked to the Washington Redskins and thought he was headed there. They picked another wide receiver. Philadelphia's offensive coordinator had had the same job with Wisconsin, so Chambers's next thought was that he'd be an Eagle. When they passed him up, Chambers was sure his hometown Browns would call his name. They took Quincy Morgan. The Dolphins finally picked Chambers in the latter half of the second round.

"I threw a draft party, and we were sitting there for hours and hours," says Chambers. "People were leaving the party; it was rough on me. I don't want [Evans] to go through that. Hopefully he'll be gone soon."

Of all the visits that Evans took in advance of the draft, none was as auspicious as his trip to Buffalo. Bills coaches wanted a big-play man who could spark one of the league's most anemic offenses. They told Evans that he could be that man.

But last Saturday afternoon, as the Bills deliberated over their No. 13 choice, none of the ESPN commentators mentioned Evans's name. Host Chris Berman suggested it but fleetingly before Commissioner Tagliabue made his announcement. The Bills chose Evans. His odyssey was over.

Howls rained down from the crowd of superfans at Madison Square Garden, who, like the experts, also expected Evans to slide into the 20s, 30s, or beyond. But at the Evans home in Bedford, the cheers of friends and family drowned out the Garden audience. "I thought my house was going to come down," says Lee Evans Sr.

By all accounts, the knee injury was harder on Lee Evans Sr. than Lee Evans Jr. "I was pretty distraught about it," he admits. "Back in my days of playing football, when you had that injury, you were pretty much finished."

Instead, his son's career is just beginning.

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