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Family Left to Pray, Hope for Former Dartmouth Quarterback

  • Ernest Evans visits with Dartmouth football fan Winnie Stearns before a Sept. 7, 2015, practice on Memorial Field. Evans, a senior that season, suffered a traumatic brain injury June 11, 2017, in Santa Monica, Calif., and is now in a Conroe, Texas, rehabilitation facility. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Dartmouth College football player Ernest Evans.

  • Dartmouth College football players, including Ernest Evans (17), celebrate their season-ending victory over visiting Princeton on Nov. 21, 2015, in Hanover, N.H. Evans, a 2016 Dartmouth graduate, is in a Conroe, Texas, rehabilitation center after suffering a traumatic brain injury last summer in California. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Dartmouth College quarterback Ernest Evans scrambles for yardage against visiting Columbia on Oct. 26, 2013. Evans suffered a traumatic brain injury in California on June 11, 2017, and is rehabilitating in a Conroe, Texas, facility. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • A view of Moomat Akiho Way, looking southeast, on Dec. 6, 2017. Former Dartmouth College quarterback Ernest Evans was found on this stretch of the road during the early hours of June 11, 2017. He had suffered a fractured skull and is now rehabilitating in a Conroe, Texas, neurorecovery facility. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • The entrance to the Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant and bar 41 Ocean as seen on Dec. 6, 2017. Former Dartmouth quarterback Ernest Evans attended a party at the establishment that began the night of June 10, 2017. He was found with a skull fracture early the next day and is now rehabilitating in a Conroe, Texas, neurorecovery facility. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Ernest Evans with former Dartmouth College football teammates during the June 9, 2017, wedding of Sam Laptad, bottom left.

  • Ernest Evans II, in a photograph submitted Feb. 16, 2018, by his father, Ernest Evans, Sr.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2018

Temperatures sank into the low 20s and the wind chill approached single digits, but Pat Lahey’s mind wasn’t on the cold. Standing atop Fenway Park’s famous Green Monster left-field wall, the former Dartmouth College football captain stared out of the stadium toward the lights of downtown Boston the night of Nov. 10.

“I think about him every day,” Lahey said softly, while down below, the Big Green football team battled Brown. “I just want him to be able to take care of himself, to have a normal life.”

Lahey was speaking of Ernest Evans, a onetime Dartmouth teammate and quarterback who suffered a traumatic brain injury five months earlier in the upscale seaside city of Santa Monica, Calif. A police investigation ruled Evans was injured during an accident, but provided no details.

Incapacitated ever since, Evans cannot speak. The 22-year-old has of late shuttled between a Conroe, Texas, rehabilitation facility and area hospitals. His is a life of daily struggle, of others tending to nearly every basic need.

Evans’ family members and friends are heartbroken. They also can’t help but recall how well the young man was living after overcoming the disappointment of a fizzled football career.

Sharing an apartment with two former Big Green teammates in the tony Los Angeles neighborhood of Playa del Ray, Evans was off to a shining start with a national reinsurance company downtown. He was fit, handsome, charismatic and driven. And, in the blink of an eye, he was fighting for his life.

“No one knows what really happened, and that makes it harder to wrap your mind around,” said Dartmouth placekicker David Smith, a senior from Montreal and one of Evans’ many Gamma Delta Chi fraternity brothers on the football team. “He’s a bubbly, funny guy who fills a room up like not a lot of people can do.”

Ernest Evans Sr., who played football at Rice University and worked for a petroleum company before opening his own T-shirt company, said he mostly focuses on the day-to-day details of his son’s situation. He’s comforted by his faith in God but acknowledged that sometimes, while driving the hour or more to or from Conroe, he’s overcome by emotion.

At that point, said the father, “there ain’t nothing you can do but cry.”

DisappointmentAt Dartmouth

Ernest Martin Evans II was smart enough to skip a grade growing up in Houston, but that caused him to often be among the smallest players on his sports teams until an early teenage growth spurt. Before his senior year of high school, he transferred from Westbury Christian, where he was coached by former Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, to one of its biggest rivals, Second Baptist.

Evans, only 16 as a senior, surprised Second Baptist coach Mike Sneed by immediately seizing the starting quarterback job and earning honorable-mention all-state recognition at Texas’ second-highest level of private school football.

“He was off-the-charts smart and turned out to be a diamond in the rough,” said Sneed, who won two public-school state titles and sent numerous players to high-level college competition before recently retiring from football coaching. “He was a real monster running the ball — hard-nosed, but he had a humbleness about him that a lot of athletes don’t have.

“When his family was with him, it was all about them, even if he had just done great things on the field.”

A YouTube highlight video of Evans shows a quarterback with a nice throwing touch and who’s able to escape the pocket, but who lacks the explosive athleticism shown by many players who star at the Ivy League level. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound recruit entered Dartmouth during 2012 and in the same class as quarterback Dalyn Williams, who became one of the best players in program history.

Sneed said he thought Evans would switch to receiver or tight end in college, but he stuck with quarterback and never seriously challenged for the starting job. He played on the junior varsity for three years and took a few late snaps in varsity games where victory was already assured. He switched to receiver as a senior but playing time continued to be scarce.

“He wasn’t happy with the way he felt he was being treated, but I think he felt opening up to Coach Teevens would make things worse for him,” Sonya Evans said. “He would try to keep a positive mind and joke with the other guys who were on the sideline as well.”

Dan Gorman, a Hanover High graduate and former Big Green receiver, said the quarterback would persuade him to stay after practice so they could get in extra throws and catches. No peer motivated him more, Gorman said.

“He would always tell me, ‘Dan, you and I are going to be All-Ivy by the time we get out of here,’ ” said Gorman, who also played sparingly. “And the crazy thing is, he got me to believe it.”

Sam Laptad shared a South Fayerweather dormitory room with Evans their junior year. As economics majors and football teammates, they had so many of the same commitments that they often set one clock or phone alarm to wake them at the same time. A tight end who got into games fairly often, Laptad recalled his friend as one of the team’s “hype men,” bouncing around the locker room before kickoff, shouting and firing other players up.

“By his demeanor, you’d have no idea that he didn’t start,” Laptad said, noting that Evans held the job of signaling in offensive plays during games.

Ernest Evans Sr. would have preferred his son walk on at Division I schools such as Southern Methodist or Texas Christian and said several Division II programs also sought the youngster’s services. Ernest Sr. added that if his boy had fully shared the way things were going on the field at Dartmouth, he would have urged him to transfer.

“I will never be happy about that, but he made a great decision to go there, and he got a great education,” said his father.

Out to the West Coast

Lahey, a 2013 graduate, knew his employer was seeking talented trainees and called the Dartmouth athletic department. Evans came highly recommended and quickly flourished, said Steve Eilers, the Los Angeles branch manager who oversaw his work.

Evans would analyze reinsurance deals, a process in which one company takes on all or part of the risk covered by a previous company in return for a premium payment. As an account manager, determining how much capital his company should put at risk and negotiating these transactions were some of Evans’ responsibilities, Eilers said.

“We need someone with an analytical mind and a marketing-type personality, and that’s hard to find,” Eilers said. “Ernest made a really good first impression, and it was hard not to enjoy spending time with him whether it was the first time or the 10th time.”

At Dartmouth, Evans and teammate Chai Reece, a starting cornerback, sometimes joked how they’d eventually live by the beach in Reece’s native Los Angeles. That’s exactly what the pair did, joining onetime tight end and Big Green basketball captain Jvonte Brooks in a three-bedroom apartment near the ocean.

With a good job and Southern California’s sights, sounds and attractions around him, Evans was reaping the rewards for years of study and toil. Reece said the Texan was the happiest of the trio.

On the weekend of his injury, Evans had traveled to suburban Tulsa, Okla., to stand up in Laptad’s wedding and stayed at the groom’s house. There was an outing to a bowling lane with the fathers in the wedding party, pickup basketball at the Laptad house and copious food and drink. About 15 former Big Green football players were at the nuptials, and Gorman recalls them whooping it up at the reception.

Kathy Laptad, the groom’s mother, was charmed when Evans sought out her 86-year-old mother during a quiet moment at that event. His next stop was with the bride’s grandparents, and he was a hit with virtually everyone he met.

The next afternoon, June 10, 2017, Evans flew back to Los Angeles, and that night, he headed out with his roommate for Brooks’ birthday party at 41 Ocean, a Santa Monica restaurant and bar that refers to itself online as an “ultra lounge.”

The restaurant is near the intersection of Colorado and Ocean avenues and roughly 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean. Patrons enter via a tiled alleyway, walking between the sidewalk tables of two other restaurants feet from Ocean Avenue’s busy, four-lane traffic.

Evans left 41 Ocean by himself that night around 1 a.m. Reece said that although the three roommates had arrived together, they had no plans to depart as a group, and he and Brooks didn’t think anything of it when Evans was no longer around.

Reece said a mutual friend later told him that he and Evans crossed paths while exiting, and Evans mentioned he was calling for an Uber ride.

“We were doing different things, and were under the assumption he had left (the area),” Reece said. “We just figured he was going somewhere. He didn’t make it home that night, and we called and he didn’t answer.”

A Missing Hour

A call to the police by Evans’ roommates before noon on June 11 provided no details. It wasn’t until one of Evans’ parents phoned later that afternoon that they learned his fate. Their friend had been found unresponsive and with the back of his skull fractured on Moomat Ahiko Way, a high-speed access road at the base of a sandstone embankment.

Assuming no wait for traffic, it’s about a 30-second walk to the top of the embankment from the front door of Ocean 41. A pedestrian would cross Ocean Avenue and the narrow, southern tip of Palisades Park to reach the spot above where Evans was found.

The intersection of Colorado and Ocean avenues is one of the busiest in the Los Angeles area and the iconic, lighted arch of the Santa Monica Pier, a tourist mecca, marks the spot.

It seems reasonable that Evans ventured across the street as he waited for his Uber, perhaps by sitting on or leaning against the split-rail fence that runs along the top of the 45-degree embankment. Still, how he ended up some 20 to 25 feet below, gravely injured and lying on the pavement, is unclear.

Evans’ wallet, phone and Dartmouth ring were all on him when he was found by an ambulance crew, and there were no signs of a struggle or attempted robbery. Lt. Saul Rodriguez, the Santa Monica Police Department’s public information officer, said the department believes no foul play was involved.

“There’s surveillance video around the area but nothing covering the exact spot where we believe he fell,” Rodriguez said. “We found no witnesses to what occurred, but if he had been the victim of a crime, we would have seen something more.”

Rodriguez declined to make reports on the Evans incident available, noting that the department does not do so unless a court case is involved.

However, he met with a Valley News reporter in December in a room at the city’s municipal center and referred to what appeared to be about a dozen pages in a manila folder during the interview.

Rodriguez said there are no toxicology results for Evans but that after reading the report, he is “pretty sure there was alcohol” in the young man’s system. Evans’ father said his son drank often and that he had tried to convince him to cut down.

A 911 call by a passing motorist made at 2:16 a.m. notified authorities of a person lying in Moomat Ahiko Way, Rodriguez said. That’s more than an hour after Evans is thought to have left 41 Ocean, and there’s no accounting for the time in between.

Rodriguez said detectives didn’t investigate until several days after the incident, because the department was unaware how severely Evans had been injured.

An inquiry by Ernest Evans Sr. updated the police and led to canvassing and an examination of the area, Rodriguez said.

Detectives would have checked Evans’ phone to see who he had been in contact with before he was injured, Rodriguez said.

Fighting for His Life

The weather in Houston was pleasant on June 11, and Earnest Evans Sr. was riding a bike along a Houston bayou half an hour from his home when he stopped to perform calisthenics.

He answered a call from UCLA Medical Center and learned his son was at their facility with a traumatic brain injury and was on a ventilator while in a medically induced coma. The family, the caller added, might want to send a representative to his bedside.

“When that comes from a hospital, that’s basically saying you’ve got a person who may live or die,” Ernest Evans Sr. said. “They didn’t give me any more information, and you don’t know what to think or how to react.”

Ernest Evans Sr. decided avoiding panic was crucial. He rode home at a brisk but not frantic pace and prayed for an hour. He and 14-year-old Ezekiel, the youngest of his five children, flew to Los Angeles the next morning.

Sonya Evans, a former kindergarten teacher and current office worker, decided to remain in Houston. She underwent double knee replacement surgery as previously scheduled a few days later.

“I talked about it with my daughter, and she reminded me that I had suffered 14-plus years with bad knees and needed surgery,” she said.

“I was a nervous wreck, but I just felt I had to go through with (the knee surgery),” Sonya Evans said. “It would be better if (Ernest II) needed me after, to be able to take care of him.”

Ernest Evans Sr. arrived in Los Angeles to find that his son had undergone emergency surgery and that his body temperature had been lowered in an effort to reduce swelling in his brain.

“It’s very, very troubling to see your young son fighting for his life, and the only thing you can do is touch his cold body,” said Ernest Evans Sr., recalling that Ernest II had more than a half-dozen tubes protruding from his body when his father and brother first saw him.

The pair lived in the Playa del Ray apartment with Reece and Brooks during what became a 55-day stay. Ezekiel attended two football camps during that time, and the reinsurance company helped with food and transportation. An online fundraising effort started by Reece brought in more than $66,000.

About two weeks after being hospitalized, Ernest Evans II opened his eyes. He overcame a lung infection and was flown in August to Houston in a medically equipped plane.

Eventually, he exited an extended period of drowsiness and began reaching toward people he recognized. Occasionally, he pedaled an exercise bike on his own for short periods.

Evans wore a helmet when not in bed and underwent uncomfortable stretching of his limbs, which he otherwise tended to keep bent and tense.

“He made his first sound for me two weeks ago,” his mother said during a phone interview last autumn. “It was a painful grunt or growl, and it was like, ‘Mommy, I’m hurting,’ but it was so good to hear a sound from him. I said, ‘Son, it’s going to pass, and you won’t be here forever.’ ”

Evans sleeps with removable casts and straps on his limbs to keep them extended. A tracheotomy tube was removed after the surgery to close the openings in his skull with man-made plates, and he moved to a neurorecovery center located 90 minutes from Houston.

However, in recent weeks he’s battled pink eye, a staph infection and spent more than a week back in the hospital because of respiratory concerns.

His father said in a Friday text that his son was back in a hospital once again.

Therapists work with Evans to move his arms and hands close to his face, with the goal of allowing him to eventually feed himself. Moving his head from side to side and accurately dropping balls into nets or kicking a small, soft football are also on the rehabilitation menu.

Ernest Evans Sr. said he believes his son hears everything that’s said around him, “but if he knows who’s saying it or recognizes who’s talking, I don’t know that. Right now, all the things that make Ernest Ernest are not intact. The brain’s frontal lobe gives you personality and language, and that’s what’s damaged.”

Swallowing is another hurdle and, for a long stretch, Evans would repeatedly chew on his lower lip while attempting that function.

Sam and Kathy Laptad have visited via FaceTime video chat software, and Evans gave his friend a thumbs-up when he asked, prompting cheers and tears.

The burden on Evans’ family is immense. Some of his siblings and extended family members can’t bear to see him in his current state and avoid doing so. His parents somehow push on.

Sonya Evans is up at 5:30 a.m. on weekdays to help Ezekiel ready for school and to drive him there. She works a full office shift, drives to visit Ernest II afterward and often doesn’t arrive home until midnight.

Her schedule has caused her to neglect physical therapy on her aching knees, she struggles with high blood pressure and she’s undergone testing because of chest pains. Her son was on his own health insurance, but it has limits on some services and there’s dread about how bills may accumulate.

“I would love to just be still for three or four days and think about something totally different,” said Sonya Evans, her voice quavering. “A better day is coming, and Ernest is going to be a miraculous individual who’s healed and walking and talking again. But right now, I’m just full and sad and I wish I could change it and fix it.”

An online resource to help the Evans family with medical costs can be viewed at www.gofundme.com/help-ernest-continue-to-fight.

Tris Wykes can be reached at  twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.