By definition, NFL fullback Heath Evans’ role is to clear the path ahead. Little did he know, the hometown hero had to clear a personal path much greater than any obstacle the gridiron could offer.
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After playing for the Seahawks, Dolphins and Patriots, it’s fitting Heath is now on a team called the Saints. A member of the Who Dat Nation and the Super Bowl-winning Saints, Heath undoubtedly lives up to the team’s moniker. A good-natured, quasi-Southern boy with an easy charm and affable personality, he’s approached his wife’s recovery from sexual abuse just like he would a linebacker – at full strength.
A 6-foot, 250-pound behemoth of a man, Heath grew up in West Palm Beach and was a two-time All-State tailback for the private school, The King’s Academy. Raised in what he describes as an “action Christianity” home where his family lived the Christian faith “out to the best of their ability,” Heath says he dreamed of playing in the NFL since he was 4. He left South Florida to enroll at Auburn University, becoming a featured back on Tommy Tuberville’s team. While at school, he met a pretty blonde from Alabama named Beth Ann.
“Heath and I officially met my senior year at my dad’s [automotive] business,” Beth Ann details in an e-mail. “Heath came in while I was working at the front desk, and he told me he was going to marry me. I laughed at him! He then asked my dad for permission to ask me on a date, which completely won over my entire family. Our first date was a Bible study at FCA [the Fellowship of Christian Athletes], and the rest is history.”
The two met on March 4, 2001, and by July 14, 2001, they were married. By all standards, Heath and Beth Ann were in the perfect marriage: two kind, generous, all-American lookers with huge aspirations, both as individuals and as a couple. But as their marriage progressed, they both knew something wasn’t right.
Heath remembers first hearing of Beth Ann’s painful experience during a car ride from Auburn to Florida to visit his parents while the two were still dating.
“She literally just said it so nonchalantly, just in passing: ‘You know I was sexually abused when I was a little girl, right?’” Heath recasts. “I remember leaning over to her and saying, ‘I’m so sorry, Beth.’ I didn’t know what else to say. I expressed my remorse for her, but I didn’t dive deeper. I had only known her about a month and a half at the time, and didn’t really want to hurt her or wound her worse.
“Call it my stupidity or call it naivety to the subject, but I never brought it up again. By the world’s standards, she was a 5’8 ½’’, 5’9’’ smoking hot, beautiful blond woman who was a 4.0 college student in marketing, wanted to go to law school as soon as she graduated, with the world by its tail. So visibly – even to the degree that she let me into her emotional world – I saw nothing.”
As the Evanses reveal, an emotional wall was built between the two. “The first couple of years were tough, it was emotionally trying. For me, I couldn’t do anything right,” Heath, 31, says. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how to touch her, I don’t know how to talk to her, I don’t know how to love her, I don’t know how to communicate with her,’ all these different things.”
Heath stayed by his wife’s side and did what he always does best: barrel through the massive roadblocks ahead to clear the path for Beth Ann. As a couple, they sought guidance and help from family members and church leaders, and Beth Ann later went to professional therapy. The couple found a Christian-based counselor who Beth Ann says gave her newfound hope. She began peeling off the two decades-plus of self-loathing and guardedness that made close relationships difficult for her to achieve. Slowly, very slowly, Beth Ann got better.
“I thought this was going to take decades to fix because, really, she had close to 20 years of ‘thinking-thinking,’” Heath says. “But I’m telling you, man, her progress really has so surpassed what I envisioned.”
Today, the Evanses – parents to 5-year-old Ava Grace and 3-year-old Naomi Reece – look to help others ease the pain and anguish of being sexually abused. In 2006, they set up the Heath Evans Foundation in Palm Beach County with the goal of bringing hope and healing to families and victims of sexual abuse by way of professional counseling and through programs and services to treat those at risk, free of charge. Staffed by two full-time administrative members and a dozen or so volunteers, the foundation has helped close to 80 families.
“Once we found that kind of the counseling care that Beth Ann needed and responded to… we said, ‘How can we keep this to ourselves? How can we, knowing that the statistics are one out of four young girls in this country before the age of 18 is going to be sexually abused, and one out of every six young boys?’” Heath says with a sense of agitation. “If those are the statistics we are battling, how can we afford to keep our mouths shut and say, ‘We got Beth Ann help, and that’s all that really matters’?”
To raise funds and awareness, the foundation holds two major events every year. In the summer, Heath holds his annual 7-on-7 high school football championship, one of the largest of its kind in the nation. Florida schools are invited to compete and also meet some of the biggest names in football. Past football celebrities include Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Zach Thomas. There, Heath also gets the chance to speak to the more than 400 youths, motivating them to be upstanding citizens.
The second event is the Softball Showdown. Born out of a running joke between Pro-Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss and members of the Palm Beach County SWAT team, the event pits athletes like Moss and Dolphins players Channing Crowder and Tony Fasano against the officers in a good ol’ fashion slugfest. The showdown takes place at Roger Dean Stadium, and, as Heath aptly puts it, takes “the game of softball to an all-new low.”
Last year, the foundation raised about $400,000, an amount that foundation president Glenn Martin says is a good start and one they can build upon.
Martin, who incidentally was Heath’s former teacher at The King’s Academy, says seeing the now-NFL star mature from a young student to a professional athlete and community activist has been exhilarating. At last year’s 7-on-7 championship, Martin remembers a mother and father of two young boys, both autistic and both victims of sexual abuse, walk up to Heath.
“The mother was literally hiding behind the father when they walked up to Heath,” Martin says. “They told him how their family was affected, and they just broke down in tears. Heath hugged both of them and said it was going to be OK. And, they believed him.”
For Heath – who stays in Palm Beach Gardens during the offseason – it’s just a way to give back to his hometown. As he puts it:
“We just want Palm Beach County to be saturated with the name Heath Evans; to know that there is a kid from our county who came back and gave back and wanted to protect the younger generation of Palm Beach County from pedophiles.
“Ten years down the road in this nation, when [people] hear of Heath Evans, I could care less if they think of the 10-, 12-, 14-year NFL veteran, whatever it ends up being when I retire. But if they say, ‘Oh, that’s where you go if your child is sexually abused,’ I will be the happiest man in the world.”
And as for Beth Ann, she’s come a long way from suffering the constant stomachaches that prevented her from going to school, developing close relationships and connecting with her husband in the early years of their marriage. Heath says some days are better than others. But that’s not enough for this Saint. No, he’ll keep marching on until all her days are better.