One phone call changed Ethan Evans’ life forever.
With pick No. 223 in the 2023 NFL draft, the Super Bowl LVI Champion Los Angeles Rams came calling for the punter from Wingate University and North Surry High School.
“It took a couple of days to sink in, but eventually I sat down and realized that I had accomplished my dream,” Evans said.
It was clear to football fans that the Rams entered the 2023 draft with a plan to start fresh on special teams.
Within the span of four days in March, 2022-23 starting punter Riley Dixon signed with the Broncos, kicker Matt Gay signed a record deal with the Indianapolis Colts, and even long snapper Matt Orzech left to join the Green Bay Packers.
L.A. filled most of these spots by signing free agents, but didn’t take a chance on letting Evans get snatched by a rival. As a result, the former North Surry Greyhound became one of only three punters drafted in 2023.
Evans was also the first NCAA Division II player selected in this year’s draft.
“Coach (Chase) Blackburn and I had met before and ate dinner together the night before my pro day,” Evans said. “That’s when he ran me through the punter situation in L.A. He’s always been a guy that likes taking chances on the underdog, and I’m lucky he took a chance on me.
“It means the world to me that the Rams believe that I’m the next guy to step up to the plate, especially after arguably one of the greatest punters of all time – Johnny Hekker.”
As if drafting Evans wasn’t a strong enough vote of confidence, the Rams signed the punter to a four-year, $3.95 million contract less than two months after the draft.
“I would like to give a special shout-out to my entire family and coaches,” Evans said. “They are the real reason I was able to accomplish my dream. They have all done so much for me, and I can’t wait to keep making everyone proud by going out and giving it my all. Go Rams!”
According to available records, Evans is the first NFL draft pick from Surry County since 1951 – half a century before he was born.
“Saying I’m proud of my son is an understatement,” said Evans’ mother Kara. “I do not have many heroes or people I look up to in life, but I can say without a doubt that I look up to my son and he inspires me to fight harder every day.
“We told him growing up with this dream he had that, ‘You have a dream and you want it bad enough, so let nothing stand in your path, focus, drive, practice and pray.’ I am in awe of my son. He has a beautiful soul and a dreamer’s mind with determination in his heart. He is an amazing person, and he will continue to do great things.”
Prior to Evans, the most recent local draft picks were Billy Cox and John Gruble 72 years ago.
Cox was a 1947 graduate of Mount Airy High School. Following a four-year career at Duke, during which Cox was a two-time All-American, he was selected No. 87 by the Washington Redskins.
Gruble was also a 1947 Mount Airy grad. He played four years at Tennessee, then was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 356 in 1951.
Though not drafted, there were numerous local players that signed with NFL teams as free agents. This includes fellow North Surry Greyhound Ben Norman, who briefly played with the Broncos in 1980 following a career at Colorado State.
Getting the Call
Despite previous conversations with the Rams and a few other teams, there were no guarantees Evans would be selected in the draft.
“I knew I had the abilities to get drafted. However, I also knew that there was a chance I wouldn’t being that I came from such a small school,” Evans said. “When the Rams called, and I saw my name come across the board, it felt like the biggest weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
Celebration’s from the Evans household resonated throughout Surry Co. when Ethan was selected, and his mother Kara called the feeling indescribable.
“We had been sitting in front of the TV all day,” Kara said. “Ethan was in contact with his agent the whole day. We had got to the end of round 6 and Ethan’s phone began ringing even more. Different teams wanted to offer him, hoping he went undrafted, and then came the phone call we all knew was ‘the one.’
“I lost it, and so did the rest of the family. We all were able to take a deep breath; we knew he had done it!”
Evans was considered an underdog by many despite his impressive resume.
As a senior, Evans averaged 45.69 yards per punt while punting 77 times. This included a season high of 67 yards, 30 punts of at least 50 yards and 39 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Only 11 kickers in the entire NCAA averaged more yards per punt in 2022-23: nine in Division-I FBS, one in Division-I FCS and one in Division-II.
Evans also made 10-of-18 field goals, converted 43-of-44 PATs and kicked 44 touchbacks on 67 kickoffs as Wingate won a program-record 11 games. His stellar senior campaign earned Evans multiple All-American and All-South Atlantic Conference Honors, two selections of National Special Teams Player of the Week, and invitations to both the Shrine Bowl and Hula Bowl.
“There is nobody more deserving of this than Ethan Evans,” said Wingate head coach Joe Reich. “He has great natural gifts, but they are nothing compared to his work ethic and desire to be the best he can be.”
Prior to Evans, only one other player from Wingate had been taken in the NFL draft: David Jones. A cornerback, Jones was picked by the New Orleans Saints in 2007.
“I have watched Ethan over many years put blood, sweat and a lot of tears into his craft,” Kara said. “People used to tell him it was a crazy dream, but he didn’t listen and just worked harder.
“Ethan has a drive unlike anyone I’ve had the pleasure to meet in my life. I have seen firsthand the amount of time he puts into the game he loves so dearly. I know he missed out on some things growing up for this game, but that wasn’t a problem for him because he loves the game of football so much.”
Evans’ career at Wingate, which garnered the attention of multiple NFL scouts, was preceded by a record-setting campaign at North Surry.
“Playing football at North Surry made me fall in love with the sport,” Evans said. “My coaches and friends supported me along the way and gave me opportunities that eventually led me to Wingate.”
Evans didn’t set out to be a punter in the NFL, at least not originally.
“I watched my first NFL football game in the seventh grade and saw all of those huge guys, and then I saw this little 5-foot-8 guy walk out there and kick a field goal,” Evans said during his college signing with Wingate in 2019. “I wasn’t the biggest back then, and I thought I could do that. I went to Walmart, bought a cheap football and started kicking it around the yard.”
Evans played football for Gentry Middle before making the jump to North Surry, which is where he started to focus more on his kicking game.
Danny Lyons, North Surry’s head football coach from 2012-18, recalled meeting a freshman Evans in 2015. Ethan wasn’t the smallest kid around, now up to about 5’10, but was still on the lankier side.
That didn’t deter him from setting high expectations for his football career.
“He was out working on his own, like a lot of kickers do, before the season started,” Lyons said. “I asked him if he wanted to play anywhere else, and he just said, ‘No, I don’t.’ So, I asked if he had any specific goals and he just said, ‘I’m going to play in college one day.’
“That struck me because you don’t have a lot of freshman that know exactly what they want to do in college. Sometimes kids say that and it fizzles out, but he made a plan, stayed committed to it, and dedicated himself to his craft and to doing it better than almost anyone else.”
Lyons’ observation fits well with Evans’ favorite quote as listed on his Wingate profile page: “Hard work is worthless for those that don’t believe in themselves.”
Evans spent most of his first two high school seasons on JV, already showing promise as a punter and kicker.
“He had a few varsity kickoffs his sophomore year, and we felt like we had something special with his strength,” Lyons said. “He was working on his accuracy, but you already knew he was going to kick it a mile.”
He’s got that Dawg in him
It was during Evans’ junior season that he became one of the best punters and kickers around, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The 2017 Greyhounds were led by 20 seniors and had experience top to bottom in all three phases.
North Surry went on to win the Western Piedmont 2A Conference Championship that season, the school’s first since 2000. The Greyhounds also tied a school-record 10 wins.
Evans placed 24 of his 57 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks that season. He also converted 39-of-41 PATs, made 6-of-9 field goals and averaged 36.3 yards per punt as he worked alongside an eventual D-I long snapper in Carson Todd.
As a senior, Evans increased his distances in both punting and kickoffs while staying consistent on conversions. He averaged 40.6 yards per punt while placing 12-of-33 inside the 20-yard line. He also recorded 50 touchbacks on 61 kickoffs, made 38-of-42 PATs and converted 11-of-18 field goals.
The kicker set a new school record by making a 47-yard field goal against East Surry on Aug. 31 of that season, then broke the record a week later by hitting from 51 yards out.
“Everything about Ethan was a gamechanger,” Lyons said. “Offensively, we knew we always had a chance to convert on a lot of field goals and PATs, and defensively we could pretty much count on the other team starting deep in their own territory. That’s a luxury most high school teams don’t have.”
Ethan went on to compete in the N.C. Coaches Association’s East-West All-Star Game.
Evans stood 6’3 and was “built like a linebacker,” by his senior year according to his former coach. Despite Evans’ natural gifts, Lyons echoed Reich by stressing the importance of the kicker’s discipline.
“We worked on things at practice, you’d see him working on things with his grandfather at the field and he worked probably every day on his own,” Lyons said. “He was way ahead of his years with his discipline, work ethic, intrinsic motivation, you name it.
“Ethan wanted to be the best at what he did, and that carried into college and even now. Getting drafted means there’s a chance he’s going to be among the best 32 in the world at what he does, and that’s what’s mind-blowing to me. To go from Gentry Middle School to that in what, nine years, is pretty special.”
Lyons went on to say how important Evans’ achievement is for local athletes by showing how kids from small towns can make it to college and beyond. The road is anything but easy, the coach said, but Evans’ accomplishment is proof that dreams some may consider outlandish don’t have to be impossible.
“I just want to say how proud I am of Ethan, and how happy I am for him and his family,” Lyons said. “He’s a phenomenal kid that comes from a great family. I was very lucky to have had the chance to coach him, but everything he’s accomplished is a direct result of the hard work that he’s put in.
“We’re all excited to see what he does.”