Much to learn at Heath Evans' camp
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Whether it's playing in front of 80,000 people at the Louisiana Superdome or watching a seven-on-seven quarterfinal game between Miami Booker T. Washington and Pompano Beach (Fla.) Ely in the tournament that bears his foundation's name, Heath Evans loves good football.
So when Booker T. Washington junior receiver Jimmy Walker fully laid out to grab a touchdown pass, the former NFL fullback jumped out of his golf cart to congratulate Walker on a great effort.
The competition in the Heath Evans Foundation 7-on-7 tournament is the hook that draws in many of the state's top teams and athletes. However, Evans hopes they take much more out of the event.
"For me, the main goal of the event is about getting in front of the kids and talking about making right decisions," Evans said. "A lot of what I talk about comes from my faith, but overall I just want to talk with them about taking the high road and making the right choices, choosing the right friends and keeping yourself out of bad situations."
Now retired from the NFL, Evans devotes much of his time to his foundation which is dedicated to helping victims of sexual abuse. This issue took on a new life last fall when former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was hit with allegations of sexual assault.
"The sad part is that the [lack of response] didn't surprise me," Evans said. "We try to focus on the people that get hurt. Everyone wants justice, but my heart breaks more for the kids that never got the help because they were pushed aside by the university's leadership.
"But this isn't just a Penn State thing, it happens every day, it happens in schools, it happens in after-school programs, it happens in churches, it happens in colleges and now we know it happens in great football institutions. My goal is awareness, but it's more about helping these victims, and that's why we offer the counseling we offer. We want to help these victims avoid the disastrous, tough lifestyle that is often a result of sexual abuse."
Evans said that he hoped more good could come out of the situation at Penn State. But his foundation hasn't seen a noticeable increase in people asking for help, giving financial donations or any other area that his foundation deals with.
"I think we all wanted to turn a bad situation into something good whether it be Penn State or even Syracuse," Evans said. "But the truth is that hasn't been the case; we haven't seen more interest.
"The thing with sexual abuse is that a lot of people want to pretend it's not happening.
"Can anything good come out of Penn State? Sure, but we need people to quit denying the fact that this does exist and this is a disease. It's a complicated situation. It's a taboo subject and it's something we're fighting every day."
Evans spoke to the players during lunch, flanked by Cleveland Browns tight end Benjamin Watson and Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
"Set goals, set a plan for achieving those goals," Evans said to the crowd. "And make a strong effort to follow that plan."
Evans enlists the help of his friends to get the message across. Every year he invites a few current and former NFL stars to join him at his alma mater, King's Academy in West Palm Beach, Fla..
He encourages his friends to engage with the young athletes and share their stories of success and perseverance.
"Donte' Stallworth was someone the players were really engaged with because of what he went through and how he persevered and got through it," Evans said. "The kids learned a lot from him I thought. Even I learned a lot, and everyone's got a different story and different obstacles they had to overcome."
Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Vince Wilfork are among the players that have stopped through during the seven years of the tournament.
"We try to bring in different guys each year with the same goal of talking to and educating these young athletes," Evans said. "This year we're happy to have Ben and Ryan here, and we tell them that we aren't perfect by any stretch. We've all made some boneheaded decisions in life. But how you manage them and avoid them the next time is the key."
Miami Carol City quarterback Akeem Jones said the competition and the message were received well.
"This is a great event and it's for a good cause," Jones said. "It's inspiring to hear about what these successful NFL players have had to go through to get where they are.
"A lot of people wrote Mr. Tannehill off when he came to Texas A&M as a receiver and even more people doubted him before the draft, but he got picked in the top 10 and he's working to prove the doubters wrong."
Tampa (Fla.) Plant head coach Robert Weiner credits the competition with helping his team prepare for the season and the message for helping his team prepare for life.
"As a coach, it's a message we try to tell our kids every day," Weiner said. "And it's great to know that there are athletes that are willing to come out on a hot Saturday and work with our kids. I hope we are invited to this event every single year."