Wrestling with the right turn

BY CODY GOODWIN | MARCH 13, 2015 5:00 AM

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Tom Brands shot up from his desk in his office. He did it with a straight face and with a fierce look in his eyes. He meant business. He showed his hand. “That’s it,” Brands said. “You’re gone.”

It was during the spring of 2011, and Mike Evans was sitting in a chair on the other side of the desk. Evans, just a freshman then, was upset. He stood up and, the way Brands remembers it, nearly shouted, “I don’t want to leave.”

How did he get there? It’s a long story, Evans says now, but it’s his story. When asked to describe it in a word, he first comes back with “Holy crap, man,” before adding: “There might not be just one word to describe it.”

Then he lists three — adaptive, resilient, hardheaded — that he thinks might best do the job.

Evans didn’t want to leave then, and sitting in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on a recent Wednesday afternoon, just down the hall from Brands’ office, he’s glad he didn’t. He traveled a winding road to get to where he’s at, a senior 174-pounder with two All-American honors, 100-plus wins, and just one tournament left in his Iowa wrestling career. He’s not terribly surprised by the way he’s progressed — at least on the mat, anyway.

But his lifestyle, though — well, that’s where the story begins. “I could’ve very easily gone the other way,” Evans says, and it almost sounds like a sigh of relief.

• • •

Some 40 minutes before that sigh of relief, Evans strolled in and sat down with a palpable intensity normally reserved for his opponents. He’s always been intense on the mat — he’ll often clap at wrestlers if they take too much time getting back to the center circle. When he was born, says his father, Rick, he came out “screamin’ and hollerin’.” Evans’ ferocity quickly made him a favorite among Iowa fans.

But on this day, he is pissed. The Daily Iowan posted a video of his teammate losing in overtime at the Big Ten Tournament. Evans seems offended that someone so close to home would do such a thing. He cools down some after a bit. He has an interview to do, after all, followed by practice, a tight schedule that can sometimes produce annoyance. So on with the interview, he says.

“Someone took my shoes out of my locker,” he says. “So I’m a little fired up.”

• • •

Mike Evans hated losing so much that, when he was about 8 or 9 years old, he bit his own arm to try to win a wrestling match. His dad laughs at the thought of it now, nearly 14 years later. Mike chomped down hard enough to form teethmarks and then showed the official to try to disqualify his opponent.

“He’s down by 4 points and getting a little teary-eyed, a little upset,” Rick Evans said. “And I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh my God, he’s biting himself.’

“So he gets up bawling, goes over to the ref, and points at his arm. I walk over and say, ‘No, no. He bit himself. We’re not going to win like that.’ So the ref puts them back down — and Mike manned up and beat the guy anyway.”

Mike reversed the guy to his back on the restart and won. Afterward, he and Rick shared words, though Mike remembers it more as him crying while his father yelled. His one takeaway was to never, ever do it again.

“Most lessons, I only have to learn once,” Mike says now.

He pauses, then adds, with emphasis: “Most of the time.”

• • •

About two hours west from his hometown of Enola, Pa., is Raystown Lake. Growing up, Mike Evans often fished there with his father and grandpa. One year, cicadas covered the lake to the point where Evans couldn’t see the water. The fish weren’t biting, but the young Evans saw the chipmunks and squirrels running around. He had an idea.

“I tied a peanut to a hook,” he says. “Sure as shit, they ran up, put it in their mouth, and ran away.”

So what do you do with a chipmunk on a hook?

“You cast it out, cut the line, and watch it swim to shore,” Evans says. “They got smart. You catch one, and he ain’t coming back.”

Evans’ dad taught him to fish when he was very young, and it’s become his escape from the mats and everyday grind that comes with wrestling season. He’ll drop his line in the Iowa River, Lake Macbride — virtually anywhere he can sneak away to. He and good friend Ryan Baack entered a fishing tournament last year in Clear Lake.

Back in Enola, Evans’ father built ponds in the backyard and stocked them with fish — mother Cindy calls them “Michael’s Ponds,” as family friends often refer to them when asking permission to fish there. Whenever Evans can get home, which isn’t more than twice a year, he’ll go out back, fish, relax, and enjoy the scenery.

“It’s back in the woods,” Evans says. “Nothing comes out of there but pure. Less people. Just yourself. You got your family and you got your dogs.

“That’s a good life, man.”

• • •

Blair Academy is a private boarding and day school in Blairstown, New Jersey, and home to a nationally renowned wrestling program. Under former head coach Jeff Buxton, Blair churned out Division I talent on a yearly basis and won 31-straight National Prep Titles between 1981-2012.

Evans was given the opportunity to attend Blair for his entire high-school career, but he only went during his senior season. It was a decision his mother and father left for him to make, despite their constant urging for him to go when he was in junior high.

Midway through his senior year, he called home and told his parents he wished he had gone sooner.

“When I went to high school [in Pennsylvania], I was more of a name than most kids, but when you have a class of 1,000, with grades nine to 12 at the same school, you’re a number,” Evans says. “At Blair, you have a class of 75 kids, and I know every single one of their names. It’s a lot more personal, and you live with those guys day to day.”

Going to Blair rinsed Evans of the lifestyle from back home. There were parties every weekend around Cumberland Valley, he says, among other influences that added to the toxicity. Blair didn’t have parties. There was no alcohol. Everything Evans needed was there, he says. There was even a lake where he could fish, his feeling of pure away from home.

“You get halfway through the year at Blair, and you’re just like, ‘Damn, I made the right decision,’ ” he says. “Making strides in your life.”

During that year, Evans won a National Prep title and was named to the Asics All-America, Dapper Dan Classic, and Cliff Keen Dream teams. He went 165-8 overall during his four prep years and headlined Division I wrestling’s top-ranked recruiting class of 2010 when he signed to wrestle with Iowa. He got to campus shortly after his 19th birthday, became fast friends with roommate Bobby Telford, and the two got into all sorts of mischief together.

And that’s where the lessons began.

• • •

Evans can smile and loosely joke about it now, his arrest during that true freshman season. He was pulled over for drunk driving early in the morning on Jan. 8, in the parking lot of Quadrangle Hall. Josh Dziewa, Nick Moore, and Telford were all with him.

He called Brands the next morning to tell him the news. Brands asked who was drinking. Evans said just him.

“He was like, ‘I’m going to call back in about five minutes and see if you change your answer.’ I was like, ‘OK,’ ” Evans says. “He called back and asked who was drinking, and I said me, Dziewa, Moore, Owen — just rattling names off.

“… Sometimes, you just don’t understand the gravity of what you do. Sometimes, it takes a couple times to learn a lesson.”

His lifestyle that first year, Evans says, was more squeaking by than it was about flourishing. He did not do as well as he could have in school — he skipped his sociology final that fall, he says. He and his classmates were out partying too much during the season. They’d all win titles at whatever open tournament they attended that weekend, grab fast food on the way back, and start drinking once they returned to the dorms.

“We were too wild,” Evans says. “We were destructive to each other. If we get in trouble once, shame on us, you know? But we just kept doing it. We thought we were typical college kids, but we’re not. That took a little more than a slap on the wrist to learn.

“It took Brands two or three times before he was just like, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’ ”

After a while, Brands had had enough. He called Evans into his office and told him, “That’s it. You’re gone.” He kept Evans out of the wrestling room for two months that spring, from the end of February to the beginning of May, suspending him until Evans himself decided to turn it around.

Evans refused to leave — but he had to make some changes.

“He had to realize that jumping through hoops wasn’t going to get him very far,” Brands says. “Especially with the way that we operate around here. We know everything. And when it starts to interfere with what’s in your best interest, that’s when we step in. That’s the biggest thing.

“It wasn’t about saying the right things when you were around and then going off on a binge when we’re not around. … Just be honest and tell the truth when we ask you a question.”

Brands let Evans back into the practice room on May 1. Evans returned, and, in Brands’ words, has been good ever since.

“Not good, like, he just fell in line, but good because he knew there was truth out there about a lifestyle that you have to abide by,” Brands says. “And even when you abide by that lifestyle, you can still have a heck of a lot of fun.”

• • •

Evans does not remember what class he so desperately needed to get to that day, late in the spring semester of 2011. He only recalls sprinting from the Field House to catch a bus so he could make it there on time. Once on the bus, he checked his phone. He had a text from Brands.

“He said, ‘Hey, you look fast,’ ” Evans says. “I didn’t know he was watching me.”

It was a small episode during Evans’ transition toward a better, smarter lifestyle. He began implementing a routine that worked for him, picking up little things from Brands along the way.

Evans learned to keep his priorities straight, to eat right, to study hard — and, most importantly, to train like a madman.

Even more, there was continuous dialogue between Brands and Evans. They were honest conversations, and they served a purpose.

“They were harsh,” Evans says. “But when someone shocks you with reality and dumps a cold bucket of water on you, it’s going to be harsh. That’s the way you turn things around. If you baby someone and you pat them on the butt a little bit, they’re going to go right back to it.

“If you see a toddler throwing stuff across the room and just pat him on the butt, he’s probably gonna do it again. If you smack his butt and let him know he’s not doing that anymore, he ain’t gonna do it.”

The talks were proof that Brands was always 100 percent in with Evans. He held a firm belief in Evans throughout the process, but it was a lesson Evans had to learn himself. Much like the sport of wrestling, it matters not what the coach says or does; it is always on the athlete to get the job done.

Brands can not wrestle Evans’ matches for him, nor can he make the necessary lifestyle changes to help Evans along. He can only encourage and hope and support — which is all any coach can do. The rest was, and remains, solely up to Evans.

“We knew what we could do, but if he didn’t want to do it, then, you know, what the heck,” Brands says. “This was a matter of him wanting to do it.

“And you know what? He made the choice to do it.”

• • •

Evans wishes he could give more time to his younger fans. He tries his best, but he either gets sidetracked or turns his attention to his more important priorities. But he always responds to fan mail. Always. A kid from New York once asked him for an Iowa quarter because he was trying to collect one from all 50 states, so Evans sent him one.

More recently, a fan mailed a blown-up picture of him and Evans for him to sign. Evans wrote a message on the poster and mailed it back. It makes the kids’ days, he says, because Iowa wrestlers garner a type of celebrity that’s not often associated with the sport.

“I’d like to give them all the time in the world,” Evans says. “In doses, it’s good. You have to make time for the little guys. But I have my own life to live, too.”

At that moment, someone cracks open the office door. It’s almost time for practice, and Evans still has not found out who stole his shoes from his locker. He leaves the office, goes down a flight of stairs, then turns right and disappears into the wrestling room — a place where, not long ago, he was kept out of and could’ve very easily turned left and gone the other way.

Follow @codygoodwin on Twitter for updates, news, and analysis about the Iowa wrestling team.

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