Exiled from football, Chris Evans finds power in mentorship

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 7:09pm

Before Evans lost his spot due to academic suspension, he had a total of 1,722 rushing yards across three seasons.

Before Evans lost his spot due to academic suspension, he had a total of 1,722 rushing yards across three seasons. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

Majdi Issa is no stranger to mentorship. As the youngest of seven children and owner of Ahmo’s Gyro and Deli in downtown Ann Arbor, he has 18 nieces and nephews and a restaurant staff looking up to him.

Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Issa has always been a passionate Michigan sports fan. So when his cousin put him in touch with Chris Evans in February 2019, he immediately recognized the Michigan running back’s name.

At the time, Evans had just lost his spot on the football team due to an academic suspension. The ban came at a critical time in his career, as he appeared set to take over lead back duties for the Wolverines after totaling 2,114 scrimmage yards across his first three seasons.

Instead of gearing up for his senior season, Evans found himself in the market for a job. He eventually found three — one at Ahmo’s, another as an early-morning carpenter and a third as a high school special teams coordinator for Ann Arbor Huron. As Evans grappled with the realities of his suspension, Issa offered him work as a delivery driver and dishwasher at Ahmo’s.

“He just wanted to get everything back on track,” Issa told The Daily. “He was always on time and worked hard. Very positive, always optimistic and always had a smile on his face.”

Even when Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh announced Evans would be reinstated for the 2020 season last November, Evans continued working at Ahmo’s until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, he spent just over a year at the restaurant. Evans developed a relationship with Issa that ran deeper than his day-to-day duties, and eventually, beyond the walls of the deli itself.

“He was also helping everyone manage and overlooked everything,” Issa said. “I put a lot of trust in him and he delivered. … Even other than working here, he would do some side work with me as well. He was always hustling, just trying to stay afloat.

“I tried to help him in the right direction when it came to schooling, helping him structure his classes and his homework and how to take priority. He came a long way.”

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Chris Evans worked as a carpenter during his hiatus from football.

Chris Evans worked as a carpenter during his hiatus from football. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

As winter turned to spring, Evans held out hope that he’d be eligible to play during the 2019 season. He wasn’t enrolled at Michigan, let alone on a football scholarship, yet his appeal remained under review as the Wolverines began spring practices. But in June, a report surfaced that Evans’s suspension would last through the football season.

“Mentally, it was tough not knowing if you were ever going to be able to play football again at Michigan,” Evans said in a Zoom call with reporters Friday. “That was the big question as I got closer to the end of the school year in November. … I went the whole year without 100 percent knowing if I was coming back or not. It wasn’t my choice. It was coach Harbaugh’s and the school’s to let me back in and if I was going to be on scholarship. I just stuck to what I knew and grinded all the time.”

During his suspension, Evans began working out at Huron’s field to stay in shape. There, he crossed paths with Antaiwn Mack, the school’s first-year head football coach. They swapped cell phone numbers, and when they reconnected a few months later, Mack agreed to bring Evans on board as his special teams coordinator.

“He felt he could contribute at a high level because he learned a lot of special teams at Michigan,” Mack told The Daily. “One of the things that stood out to me was, no matter what type of player you were, Chris Evans always wanted to coach guys up. Guys that were average players, not so good, he always worked on developing kids and developing relationships with the kids.

“He was able to do whatever I needed him to do. He was always willing to learn, always worked hard, always coached the kids with high energy.”

During the fall — more than six months after the beginning of his suspension — Evans worked as a carpenter from daybreak until noon before coaching at Huron in the afternoon. Afterward, he spent about four hours at Ahmo’s delivering and washing dishes. 

At Huron, Evans led daily special teams practices, prepared game plans and assembled scouting reports. Most importantly, though, the school became a place where Evans could both mentor and be mentored. His arrival paid immediate dividends, and in his first game coaching special teams, Huron snapped its five-year, 39-game losing streak with a 63-14 victory.

Throughout Huron’s season, Evans and Mack formed a close relationship. And as Mack began to open up about his own past, Evans did the same. 

“I would talk to him about things and share hardships that happened in my life,” Mack said. “And he would share some of the things about being without football, how it made him feel and what he needed to work on to get back. We shared things, and as I shared more of my story, it was encouraging for him as well.”

One Saturday, as the Michigan football team took the field, Mack brought up the elephant in the room, asking how the suspended Evans felt about missing what would’ve been his senior season.

“I’m sad, but I’m rooting for my guys,” Mack recalled Evans telling him. “I’m rooting for the guys starting at my position. I want to see them do well. I want to see them develop. And if I get a chance to come back, I just want to compete at a high level and be prepared for those guys to get better.”

Added Mack: “(Evans) was always positive about his situation, even when he wasn’t playing. That showed me his true character.”

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It was announced Evans would be reinstated for the 2020 season after nine months of suspension.

It was announced Evans would be reinstated for the 2020 season after nine months of suspension. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

In November, nine months after Evans’s original suspension and removal from the team, Harbaugh announced he would be reinstated for the 2020 season.

For Evans, the formal announcement marked the culmination of a year of uncertainty. Even more than that, it was a validation of his hard work. Now back on scholarship, everything about the hundreds of hours he spent working odd jobs to stay afloat are in the past.

That is, everything but the lasting relationships and perspective they gave him.

While away from the Wolverines, Evans’ jobs opened his eyes to realities he’d never considered. Perhaps most of all, it shined light on the value of his eventual reinstatement.

“I felt like there were some older high school coaches on the (Huron) staff that wished they could play football again, trying to hype kids up, get them going,” Evans said. “They knew that they couldn’t play again. I watched that, and I was like, ‘I get the luxury and might be able to play again.

“So I’m going to make sure that when I get my opportunity, I’m going to make the most of it.’ ”

For Michigan, Evans’s reinstatement will add another dimension to an offense that already returns its two leading rushers from last season. Evans will be greeted by an offensive scheme drastically different from the one he left, but he projects as a great fit for second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’s up-tempo system. Addressing the media earlier this spring, Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh mentioned Evans has shown interest in the details of the game, adding that his passion and personality have driven him to ask extra questions.

In Schembechler Hall, Evans’ teammates have welcomed him back with open arms.

“We all know he’s a great guy,” senior safety Brad Hawkins said on a Zoom call with reporters Friday. “We all know he’s a great football player. The mental toughness that he has, being away from the team for a year, getting his mind right, doing the things that he had to do and coming back this year, being a leader and stepping up, that says a lot about him as a person and the character that he has. He’s a great guy and definitely somebody that I look up to.”

With a productive senior season, Evans could play his way up NFL draft boards. He currently ranks No. 50 on ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s list of top 2021 NFL Draft prospects, which translates to a second-round selection.

Regardless of his NFL Draft status, the next time Evans puts on a winged helmet will be a reflection of his own journey. For that, and whatever comes next, he’ll have his battle-tested work ethic and people like Issa and Mack in his corner.