TAMPA — Like laudatory asteroids, the kudos flew at Mike Evans from all corners of his existence. Blood relatives, boyhood idols and seemingly all associates in between hit him up earlier this month.
Even Dwyane Wade and LeBron James reached out shortly after Evans notched his seventh consecutive 1,000-yard season, becoming the first NFL player to reach that particular millennial mark in each of his first seven years.
“That’s awesome,” Evans said. “I’ll never be too big to not appreciate that. That’s some of my childhood heroes and they’re paying homage and showing love to me, it means a lot.”
Yet the plaudits were clouded by pain. One play after establishing the record, in the first quarter of the regular-season finale Jan. 3 against the Falcons, Evans slipped while cutting across the middle of Raymond James Stadium’s damp south end zone as a Tom Brady spiral headed toward his helmet. Evans had hyperextended his left knee. Replays induced universal cringes.
“It was painful,” Evans said.
Yet in a six-day span, the 27-year-old team captain somehow segued from questionable to remarkable. Bent on competing in the first playoff game of his pro life, Evans established a Bucs postseason game record with 119 yards (on six catches) in Saturday’s 31-23 road victory against Washington.
“That was pretty amazing, watching it and knowing that he truly sounded like a game-time decision,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who faces Evans in Sunday night’s NFC division playoff at the Superdome. “It’s a credit to him. He’s always been tough.”
Toughness is one thing. Defiance of physiological convention is another. How in six days did Evans successfully stare down an injury that typically requires a couple of weeks’ recovery?
Through treatment, prayer, treatment, raw will and a bit more treatment. On Wednesday, Evans offered a condensed version of his whirlwind odyssey that culminated with his career night.
“The first two to three days was really painful,” Evans said. “But then the swelling started to go down, I was able to walk better, and I knew I was going to be fine on Saturday.”
Brady diagnosed the injury before anyone. Evans said he felt his leg slip a little on the fateful crossing route as Brady’s crisp 11-yard pass arrived, then felt a pinch. Initially upset he didn’t make the catch, he was trying to exit the field fast when the pain intensified.
Then he needed assistance walking off. Only one play before, Brady had found Evans on the right side for a 20-yard gain, securing his career milestone.
“It was in pretty bad condition, but Tom knew right away what it was,” Evans said. “He came over, he was like, ‘Did you hyperextend it?’ I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know what it was.”
An MRI revealed no structural damage to the ligaments, and a day later, coach Bruce Arians indicated the swelling in the knee was subsiding. By then, Evans was affixed to his Game Ready machine, a portable cold compression device combining ice therapy with compression therapy to help with the recovery of injuries.
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“It’s compression, it’s cold, and I did that a lot on my own at the house,” he said.
He also frequented Brady’s TB12 Performance and Recovery Center on North Armenia Avenue in Tampa, in addition to the regular treatment he received from the Bucs trainers. A non-participant at practice last Tuesday and Wednesday, Evans did limited work Thursday, at which time Arians said he would be a game-time decision.
“He’s a very tough guy,” Bucs fourth-year receiver Chris Godwin said. “He’s a fierce competitor, and I knew there wasn’t going to be much that was going to be able to stop him from playing in his first playoff game.”
Evans was greeted at FedExField by 40-degree temperatures and a 10-mph wind, hardly conducive to loosening compromised ligaments. Yet on the game’s second play, Brady found him on the left side for a 15-yard gain. He was targeted only twice more before halftime, but found a groove in the final 30 minutes.
He caught five of the seven passes thrown his way in the second half, for 104 yards. As if to serve notice of his recovery, he reached for a high Brady throw early in the fourth quarter, landing on his left leg for a 19-yard catch inside the Washington 5. Two plays later, Leonard Fournette scored on a 3-yard run to give Tampa Bay a 28-16 lead.
“It was expected,” Fournette said. “He takes care of his body. He’s in there every day no matter how small the nick is. He just takes care of his body, period, and I think that’s what a pro does.”
Evans said he feels as if he “dodged a bullet” by avoiding serious ligament damage, and is hopeful of arriving at New Orleans a bit closer to 100 percent.
That may be a pipe dream. His collection of injuries in 2020 alone (including hamstring and ankle problems) likely call for substantial offseason rest before total health is restored. Now, he is preparing for arguably his greatest nemesis, a team against whom he has flourished (seven catches, 147 yards in 2018 opener) and fizzled (six total catches in two 2017 matchups).
At least his fortitude — by all accounts — will remain at full strength.
“You can tell on film when football matters to someone,” Payton said. “And periodically I’ll ask (former Bucs quarterback) Jameis (Winston) about personalities ... and he goes on about Mike.
“That was pretty amazing, I think, just from watching him out there, and especially with the injury he had.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.