NORMAN — Seven months after the last concussion, Tay Evans parks his Nissan Altima in the shadows of his old life.
The day begins here, on the southeast edge of the University of Oklahoma campus, steps away from the football locker rooms. The 86,000-seat Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium towers above.
Evans wears a crimson Big 12 champions T-shirt and slings on a red Nike backpack that reads “T. Evans” with the OU logo above his name. In some ways, when you play football at Oklahoma, the identity is permanent. But for Tay Evans, ever since the fourth blow to the head, identity has turned into a work in progress.
It started in September. A promising linebacker, Evans suffered what he says was his fourth concussion in three years. A team physician told him it was in his best interest to give up football. Knowing the risks, already feeling the mood changes, not wanting to live the rest of his life with a damaged brain, he eventually agreed.
The months after have been both long and confusing, fast and revealing. The bouts of depression have come and gone, come and gone. Finally, Evans is confronting that ugly question: What’s next?
Always a good student, he’s focusing on class. He interns at Edmond Public Schools and plans to pursue a master’s degree. But the reinvention of Tay Evans is still in the early stages.
On a Tuesday morning, like any other student, Evans is running a little late for a 9 a.m. human resources class.
It’s a shortcut to go through the gates and walk under the OU stadium, under the same academic center where he still studies and hangs with his old teammates.
As Evans strolls to class, Gucci Mane raps through the headphones.
I’m on an island by myself
I’m my only competition so I’m battling with myself.
The hit that got Tay Evans here was violent yet subtle.
Evans was a redshirt sophomore and earned his coveted starting spot at inside linebacker. His younger brother, Bobby, was starting on the OU offensive line as a freshman, and the two were fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing together in Norman.
Late in the second quarter against Ohio State, an H-back motioned from left to right. The Buckeyes ran a zone read, and as OU linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo stayed back, OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett handed off to running back Mike Weber. The H-back laid a block on Okoronkwo. Evans filled his gap, and Weber ran downhill with a head of steam.
Evans ducked his head forward. Helmet hit helmet. Freeze the frame and you can see Evans’ neck compress with the blow.
Evans and his Sooner teammates combined for a gang tackle. After going to the ground, Evans got up and grabbed his helmet with both hands. He says now he knew he was concussed.
A coach on the sideline called to him, but the game kept going. Three plays later, Evans and Okoronkwo got tangled on a tackle. A swinging arm knocked off Evans’ helmet.
Now vulnerable, Evans stayed on the ground. TV cameras showed a dazed look on his face, but he says he knew what this meant.
“I knew that was gonna be my year,” Evans says now. “Man. Didn’t make it three games out.”
Tay Evans didn’t truly understand what a concussion was until it happened to him.
“I just thought it was a headache,” he said. “You get over it, it’s fine.”
He says he had a few “bellringers” in high school, but the first official concussion came when Evans was on the scout team as a redshirt his first season at OU. He doesn’t recall which week or much of what happened. He just remembers the sensitivity to light and the feeling of constraint.
“I couldn’t do homework, couldn’t be on my laptop, couldn’t be outside, couldn’t be on my phone,” Evans said. “It was just dark and lonely, man.”
This is when the OU staff started telling him more about concussions. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury, when a blow to the head shakes the brain and often crashes it into the skull. Effects include headaches, vomiting, ringing in the ears and irritability. In the long-term, concussions have been linked to dementia, anxiety, depression, anger and worse.
“It kinda freaked me out a little bit,” Evans said. “But I didn’t make a big deal over it.”
He suffered another concussion during his freshman season against Kansas when he took a nasty blow on the kickoff team. Then Evans’ father, Bobby Sr., started researching, too.
Last year in fall camp, Evans got a third concussion and missed several practices. OU’s team doctor warned him of what could come. If it happens again, we’re gonna have to have a discussion.
Studies show the more concussions you suffer, the more susceptible you become. Evans’ parents say he was having headaches going into the Ohio State game. He might have taken another hit that week in practice. Evans says OU was strict about protecting players with concussions, but he admits he tried to hide all of his.
“We could already tell something was kind of off with him before the game,” said Evans’ mother, Kimberly.
When the Evans family met with their children after Ohio State — a 45-24 loss and the low point of OU’s 2016 season — Evans complained of headaches, but he tried to act like nothing was wrong.
The week after Ohio State was a blur.
There were the tests he hates so much, the ones he had done too many times before. Doctors asked him questions, tested his memory and gauged his reaction time.
“It’s frustrating,” Evans said. “I got mad whenever I had to take it.”
Then came more exams and more questions. Team physician Brock Schnebel gave Evans a week to think about his future, but they all knew what was coming.
At the end of the day, it’s your decision, Schnebel told him. But I don’t think you should play anymore.
Evans spent a week almost in denial. He said he would play until it killed him. But inside, he knew he would be prone to future concussions. He knew if he ever got another, there’s no way he could report it to trainers.
Doctors and family members talked.
“My parents, there was no question they wanted me to quit,” Evans said.
OU linebackers coach Tim Kish gave Evans similar advice: If you were my son, I wouldn’t want you to play.
The night he knew his career was over, Tay Evans called home.
“Mama, I’m OK.”
“Tay, just talk to me and tell me how you feel.”
“It’s tough, but I’m good.”
Kimberly called the rest of the family and several friends. She said she cried like a baby.
Back at the apartment, Evans sat down with his brother and OU running back Rodney Anderson, their third roommate. Bobby could see the sadness in his brother’s eyes. Tay and Bobby spent the early days of their life in Norman before moving to Allen, Texas. They grew up watching OU games every Saturday and slept in the same bed for years, just because they liked each other’s company.
“He was pretty down about it,” Bobby said, “because this is what we started doing together.”
Bobby Evans Sr. has rare, if not unfortunate, perspective.
A talented athlete himself, Bobby Sr. played basketball at OU in the mid-90s. Knee injuries did him in. Two surgeries, no more cartilage on the left side of his knees. Bone on bone. No more career.
As he watched his oldest son give up the game he loved, Bobby Sr. couldn’t help but think back to the end of his own playing days. He hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone. Being around basketball was too much to bear. But Bobby Sr. and Kimberly already had two boys at home. Tay Evans was about 2 years old, and Bobby Jr. was just a baby.
“I’d go home to my apartment, and I’d see Tay and B.J. there,” Bobby Sr. said. “I was like, ‘Man, I got to do something else. There’s life after this game. Who’s gonna feed these guys?”
Bobby Sr. always told his kids the importance of having a backup plan. And while Tay Evans had a support system, he didn’t have children. He didn’t have the same unavoidable motivation to move forward.
And Evans’ injury wasn’t a knee. Physically, he still feels fine. But it’s hard to know what’s happening in the brain. Sometimes it’s tough to concentrate. Sometimes, remembering the little things is still hard.
The Monday before the Texas game, OU coach Bob Stoops made the news public. It was the second in an odd wave of concussions that plagued OU last season. At least three players retired and one left the team midseason in part because of head injuries.
“Sadly to say, Tay Evans is going to be disqualified from playing any more — next year and from here on out,” Stoops said. “… The guy had been starting and really had an incredible future, but we want the best for him moving forward in his life.”
As the news hit social media, Evans’ phone started blowing up. Friends, family, reporters all wanted to talk. Evans shut down.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I kinda got a little depressed and a little nauseous.”
Finally, he released a note of his own on Twitter. It included this:
Although this is a tough time for me I trust in God’s plan and I know he has something great in store.
In the beginning of life after football, Evans just wanted to be alone.
“I was hardly talking to anybody,” he said. “I couldn’t eat, couldn’t really sleep. It was like that for a while, actually. Just no social thing going on.”
He heard the same questions from every direction.
Dad: Hey, get it off your chest. Let’s talk.
Mom: Tay, are you sure you’re all right?
Girlfriend: I know something’s wrong. What’s going on?
The first days all felt the same. Class then home. Class then home.
He didn’t want to go out with friends, stopped playing as much Grand Theft Auto with Bobby and Rodney at the apartment. He couldn’t get into the Netflix show “Last Chance U” — it made him miss football.
At the time, Rodney Anderson was also sitting out the season with a neck injury. Anderson also missed most of the season before with a broken leg. The two spent time talking, but Anderson could never fully relate. “I knew I was coming back,” Anderson said.
Often, when Anderson and brother Bobby were at practice, Evans would be the only one home.
“It was weird,” Bobby said. “I ain’t never really did nothing without him.”
Evans said he always had support from his OU teammates, and Stoops gave Evans a chance to be a student-coach. That didn't stop the guilt.
“I just felt shameful,” he said. “I kinda felt like I was giving up on the team. And I had dreams for what I was going to do with football, and it was just kind of taken away.”
A dean’s list student, Evans would finish his school work as soon as he got home. It was habit from when his schedule was so much busier. After the work was done, so many days he sat and asked himself the same question: What do I do with myself?
Evans wears a cross around his neck and spent a lot of time praying for guidance. He talked to his parents almost every day. Kimberly says Bobby Sr. and Bobby Jr. are often the life of the party. The youngest Evans son, 17-year-old Jon Qua, is the same.
Tay, she says, is a little different.
“He’s kinda like I am,” Kimberly said. “He doesn’t really open up until you get to that point where you can’t really take it anymore.”
When the walls finally crumbled from the pain, the linebacker broke down and cried.
That’s what happened to Tay Evans in December. Supposed to go on a weekend trip down to Texas A&M with Anderson and a few others, Evans had slept through a test that morning and decided not to go.
“It was just building blocks, building up to it,” Evans said. “That was just the breaking point.”
For months he had been fighting a losing battle with his own emotions. Team trainer Scott Anderson told Evans early on he might want to meet with OU’s sports psychology staff. Evans kept rejecting the idea. I don’t need nobody to talk to. I don’t need no counselor.
But Evans was spending more and more time alone in his room, slowly withdrawing from the world his skill as a football player helped him create.
“Go without me,” Evans told Anderson that weekend.
“Are you sure?” Anderson asked.
Evans had his mind made up. And when the doors closed and the people left, Evans did the only thing he could think to do.
“As a dude, you don’t want to cry,” he said. “But I fought it for as long as I could.”
In that moment, as he bawled and prayed and wrestled with his lost identity and the questions about what comes next, Tay Evans decided to do the bravest thing he’s ever done.
He decided to move on.
Early February, and Tay Evans was scared. Today was the first day of his human resources internship at Edmond Public Schools.
For weeks, Tannaz Zakeri — Evans’ girlfriend — had push pushing him to open up and talk. Her friends had always been amazed at Tay. You hit a gem, they would say. Guys aren’t supposed to be like this. It killed her to see him sad.
So finally, Evans thought back to that old advice. He found a number for Cody Commander in OU’s sports psychology office. He set up an appointment and, again, let the emotions flow.
“Once I finally accepted I, let it all out and let someone know I was actually hurting, I was good,” Evans said.
For 20 years, Evans grew up seeing himself as an athlete. Now, he needed to reinvent himself. As the spring semester set in, Evans drifted away from football and decided not to student-coach. He wanted to spend a semester seeing what else is out there.
“The reason why I was so upset with having to quit in the first place was because football was who I am and my dream and everything,” Evans said. “Now that it’s is over, I wanted to see what I’m like away from football.”
Evans started looking for ways to fill his schedule. He reached out to family in Edmond and got set up with his internship. On the first day, the football player dressed in a collared shirt, tie and slacks. He brought things he didn’t need — a notepad, books, papers and too many pens.
“I was nervous,” Evans said. “I didn’t know what was gonna happen. … I wanted to have everything just in case.”
His education has continued like that, a slow adjustment to his new self. It’s odd in a way. The structure of football is still present — the stadium, the academic center, the friends. But there’s no more practice or games. Instead, he’s reading books: self-help, education, “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren.
“It got so much better when his mind was occupied,” Zakeri said.
As Evans learns and grows, his days are back to a more normal pattern. Class during the day, internship until 6 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Small things, like Netflix with Zakeri and Xbox with his roommates. He’s planning a study-abroad trip to Italy with this summer with Anderson and his brother.
“That’s a respectable guy right there,” Bobby said.
All that is good, but there are times mom still worries. Evans knows there could be lingering effects from his concussions, but tries not to think about it.
“I can see a difference in him,” Kimberly said. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just sadness sometimes, because I know for sure he misses football.”
There are times Tay Evans still feels the game pulling on his heart. He hasn’t ruled out an eventual return to student-coaching. He says he’d be fine with his children playing football, as long as they understand there’s more to life.
In early April, Evans and his parents went to watch Bobby play in OU’s spring game. Evans was happy to see old teammates. He talked with athletic director Joe Castiglione about classes OU offers in athletic administration. But he left early that day. He told family he was hot.
“We were all hot,” Kimberly said. “I don’t think that’s the reason why he left.”
Back in the bowels of the football stadium, Tay Evans meets with his academic adviser.
He’s looking at options for his master’s degree and considering three different programs. On his mind today is that path into athletic administration. Maybe he could be like Castiglione. But his athletic scholarship won’t cover anything after undergrad. If he works at OU as some sort of graduate assistant, he’d be getting paid next to nothing. Right now, he’s still getting a cost-of-attendance stipend as part of his scholarship.
“Is it more than what we get right now?” Evans asks his adviser.
Eric Bailey, a former OU track star turned academic adviser, stays quiet.
“It’s less? And you got to buy books?”
Bailey smiles and nods. Evans leans back in his chair and shakes his head. Dang. Like he keeps finding out in ways big and small, real life can be hard.
In the days ahead, there will be more questions to answer and lessons to learn. But one afternoon, Tay Evans showed how far he has come since the last time he wore a jersey. He got back from his internship, unbuttoned the shirt, took off the tie, pulled off the slacks. He slipped back into his street clothes, dressed like an athlete, and strolled over to Louie’s Bar and Grill on Campus Corner.
He shared his story, talked about the hit and the depression and the tears, and, finally, the biggest thing he’s learned from it all.
“I can do anything I set my mind to,” Evans said. “I’m more than a football player.”
And sometimes, on the way to class, Evans will gaze at that towering stadium and think of dreams past and future.
He won’t live in the shadows.
“OK, I did that,” Evans said. “What else can I do?”