NASHVILLE – Josh Evans had the time of his life playing for the Titans, although it took him a while – with the help of counseling – to really appreciate it.
While lying in a hospital bed over the weekend, his body and voice weakened by cancer, Evans looked back at his life through 47 years, eight months and 16 days. His voice went up when he talked about his three children, so it came as no surprise when he called them his greatest accomplishments. Evans spent a lot of time beating himself up, even though he's accomplished many things few around him growing up thought would be possible.
In recent months, Evans has spent way too much time reflecting on his life, while also worrying about his future.
Cancer, unfortunately, has a way of doing that to even big and strong NFL players, too.
"I've been scared -- I'm scared now," Evans said in a telephone interview. "I'm fighting hard, man, I promise you that. It ain't easy. But I'm fighting, and I'm praying I can get through this and I can get myself together. I am not going to give up, regardless of the news I get.
"And I want everybody out there talking to God for me, if they will. Please pray for me. Talk to God for me."
Evans, a 6-foot-2, 288-pound defensive lineman for the Oilers/Titans from 1995-2001, played in 71 career games with the franchise. He racked up 225 tackles and 14.5 sacks before finishing his career with the New York Jets. Evans was a starter in Super Bowl XXXIV for the Titans during the 1999 season, and he was a big contributor during the postseason that year. Evans had a sack in the team's Wild Card win over the Bills, and he was credited with a half sack for a safety in the team's AFC Championship Game win at Jacksonville.
Today, Evans is in a hospital bed at a Cancer Treatment Center in Newnan, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. He's down to 189 pounds. During a 20-minute interview, Evans sounded worried and weak, but he also managed to give reminders of the gregarious laugh and smile he was known for during his playing days with the team.
Evans hasn't had a lot to smile about of late. After being diagnosed with cancer in one of his kidneys back in January, Evans had surgery. What was supposed to be a two-hour procedure turned into 13 hours, and doctors removed his right kidney, part of his pancreas and some of his small intestine in the process. Evans described his condition as dire. He spent a month in hospital, but he got out and was doing well -- until pain returned in full force. When Evans checked himself back into the hospital, doctors found cancer in his spine and liver.
Evans has spent the last two weeks in the hospital, but his treatment has been delayed because of the pain. He's hoping he can begin radiation and chemotherapy soon. At this point, he considers himself lucky, because he's still alive. Doctors told him if he hadn't kept himself in good shape they wouldn't have operated on him, and his family likely would have been forced to put him in hospice care.
"I sometimes ask the doctors: Am I going to die?," Evans said. "And they obviously can't answer that. They just say they are going to do the best they can, and I have to do the best I can. I don't want to die."
What troubles Evans the most these days, however, isn't necessarily the pain or the uncertainty of it all.
Evans said he hates being an inconvenience to his family.
"I hate it, I really do," Evans said. "I just feel like I am such a burden on so many people right now. I have been used to taking care of everybody, and making sure everybody is OK, and now I have to rely on so many people -- my mother, my kids, my friends. Everybody has been extraordinary to me. But I don't like being a burden. And it makes me feel down that I have to lean on so many people. My mother and my kids have pretty much had to stop their lives to make sure I am OK and I hate to be a burden for them.
"I cry so much, and I'm trying to understand: "Why me? Sometimes when I go back over my life, I always reflect on all the bad things I did. I could never think of the good things I did, and I've always punished myself so much. (With the cancer diagnosis), this has made me reevaluate everything, and now a part of me thinks: 'Why not me?' I have a great family. I was able to play in the NFL. I've been to Russia and Switzerland. I did things in my life I never thought I would do in life. I had a great life, man. God has given me so much in life. Now, I can't cry just because I have cancer. I have to fight through this, and with the help of God and my family and friends, I am just going to keep on fighting."
Evans said he initially didn't want to talk about what he's going through "because I didn't want people to think I'm sitting around thinking, "Woe is me."
He decided to share his story, in part, to get more prayers working for him.
Evans knows his journey has never been an easy one.
Evans was born in Langdale, Alabama, and he overcame struggles and troubles as a youth. He played collegiately at Alabama-Birmingham, and after going undrafted, he was signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 1995. Evans was released by Dallas the same year, and he joined the then-Houston Oilers. Evans spent the majority of his first season on the team's practice squad before being elevated later that year. Over the years, he worked his way from being a back up to a starter.
Evans sounded torn when discussing his days with the Oilers/Titans. While he called it the "time of his life", he also beat himself up for mistakes he made along the way. Evans served several suspensions during his playing days in Tennessee, including a four-game suspension at the start of 1999 for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. He was suspended for all of 2000 following a subsequent violation.
Even to this day, he feels badly about it.
"For a while, I didn't even tell people I played ball because I was just ashamed of who I was back then and the things that I did," Evans said. "I let the organization down, and I let my teammates down. I let my family down because I was so immature. I couldn't figure it out back then. I messed it up, man. I messed a lot of things up for a lot of people. And the devil has always wanted to remind me of the bad things I did."
But Evans said the Titans stuck with him, and he's never forgotten it.
"The Titans, they kept standing by me, and my family kept standing by me," he said. "It wasn't until having counseling made me let go of my mistakes, and that's when I started to feel good about myself. … I finally learned to let go of my past and be happy.
"And I'm telling you, those days with the Titans, I had so many good times. Going to the Super Bowl, and everything I experienced. When I talk to God, I know I am so blessed. I had so many great teammates, and I had so many good times. I had the time of my life."
Evans said his defensive line coach in Tennessee – Jim Washburn – remains a source of motivation today.
And he reflected on how much he learned from going against eventual Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews during his early days in the NFL.
"Wash, he is still my coach," Evans said of Washburn. "He is basically coaching me through this situation right now (with the cancer), and I really appreciate it. He is always sending me words of encouragement. Back in those days, we all got along. You play for your teammates. I still miss those guys. I think about the locker room, and guys picking at each other all the time. I think about (former strength and conditioning coach) Steve Watterson and how he used to have fun picking at everyone. I have so many memories. I'll tell you, that was the best time of my life. I had some great times, yes indeed."
As for Matthews, Evans said he learned the hard way.
"I got to go up against the best offensive linemen in the NFL every day in Bruce Matthews," he said. "I remember when I first came in in 1995, I was on the practice squad and I got to go against Bruce every day. He was beating the hell out of me, but I was learning. It was some of the best ass-kickings I ever got, because I learned so much from him."
Toward the end of the interview, Evans rolled off the names of John Elway, Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Warren Moon, and Dan Marino when discussing great quarterbacks he'd sacked, and hit, during his playing days.
He's actively looking for pictures from his career so he can show his kids.
Yes, these days, Evans is finally giving himself credit.
And before the conversation ended, Evans circled back to his three children when talking about what drives him to live.
His oldest daughter, Morgan, is studying law and is on track to be an attorney soon.
His oldest son, Joshua, is a successful painter.
His youngest son, Noah, plays football at Sandy Creek High School.
Evans wants to be around for them. He badly wants to live.
"They are all doing good, and that makes me smile," Evans said of his children on Father's Day weekend. "When the devil is kicking you, I look back and I see my kids and I realize I am a good father. I took care of my kids, and that is the most uplifting thing for me, knowing my kids are well and the opportunities they have ahead in life. I just want to be around to see them, and I want to see my grandkids. When the devil comes around and says "You did this and that', I think about my kids and that lifts me up.
"Man, I know I didn't always do things right, before all this (cancer) stuff happened. But I had finally learned to let go of my past and be happy. I was at a good place, a peaceful place, before all this. Now I am praying I get through this and I can get myself together again. Anybody out there who can talk to God for me, please pray for me. I can use all the prayers I can get."