WSSU’s Donald Evans and the value of spreading yourself thin

The recently inducted N.C. Sports Hall of Famer made a career and life out of not specializing

Former Winston-Salem State and NFL player Donald Evans speaks following his induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in April. (Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — Young athletes are cautioned from specializing in one sport too soon. The best approach, modern training and medicine now seem agreed upon, is to have kids get exposed to a wide variety of different activities rather than focus on one at a young age.

Heck, Donald Evans knew that 30 years ago.

The former Winston-Salem State football star and member of the 2023 North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame is a testament to the value of spreading yourself thin. Now 59, Evans still hasn’t settled on the one thing he wants to focus on.

The Raleigh native — “I grew up a few blocks from here,” he said at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Raleigh downtown convention center — was the youngest of 18 kids, along with his twin brother, and there were always plenty of things to do.

At Athens Drive High School, he ran track, was a power forward on the basketball team and played both ways on the football team, doing well enough as a running back and linebacker to get his number retired by the school.

He went on to college at WSSU, but legendary coach Bill Hayes still didn’t make him settle on one position. He played halfback, linebacker, tight end and defensive end for the Rams.

Despite not having one full-time position, Evans was inducted into the WSSU Hall of Fame in 2004 and the CIAA Hall in 2012. He also earned the attention of the NFL, not an easy task to accomplish at the time.

“An NFL scout (Charles Bailey) came by, and he had some influence with the Combine,” Evans recalled of his senior year at Winston-Salem State. “1987 was the first year of the Combine.”

While the league had brought in college players for predraft workouts for the previous five years, 1987 was the year that the NFL Combine took its first steps toward becoming the weeklong, televised event that it is today. That was the first year it was held in Indianapolis, and it began attracting larger numbers of players and evaluators. Evans was one of those early pioneers, starting at the Combine along with other future NFL stars such as Rod Woodson.

“I went to the Combine, and I was ranked in the top five, athletically, that year,” Evans recalled. “And that’s how I pretty much got known.”

The exposure paid off as Evans was selected in the second round of the 1987 draft, becoming the highest-chosen player in WSSU history.

“Going to a small school like Winston-Salem State University and to get chosen in the second round was exciting,” Evans said. “It was a surprise, really, because it was unheard of for someone from a small school to go so high.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Rams, or any of the three NFL teams Evans played for after, were quite sure what to do with him. The Rams tried him at running back, then let him depart for the Eagles the next season, who put him into five games as a linebacker.

He finally found a home with the Steelers at defensive end in 1990.

“We discussed focusing on one position,” he recalled. The plan worked out. He played the next four seasons with Pittsburgh, starting 62 of a possible 64 games and recording 14.5 sacks. Of course, just because he had one position to his name didn’t mean Evans was put into a box. The Steelers featured some of the most creative defensive coaches in NFL history, using a 3-4 zone blitzing scheme with assistants like Dom Capers, Marvin Lewis and Dick LeBeau, who went on to be some of the biggest names in the coaching profession.

“My versatility was the driving factor in my success,” he said. “You had to be able to play the run, rush the quarterback and also drop into coverage against the pass.”

Then, it was on to a new team and, of course, a new position, as the New York Jets moved him to defensive tackle.

After his retirement in 1995, Evans left the sport behind, heading off in a few new directions. He immersed himself in philanthropic causes. His official biography from the WSSU Rams Foundation lists 11 causes with which he divides his time, including The V Foundation, the American Heart Association and End Slavery Now. He also has helped coordinate several fundraising campaigns for WSSU athletics.

Then there’s his day job — with his twin brother, Evans founded the Nehemiah Builders, a Raleigh-based contractor that specializes in building churches and renovating longtime family homes.

Evans feels like the work keeps him connected to his roots.

“Growing up how I did, I felt compelled to always do better. Be better,” he said. “It’s fulfilling to me to be able to help others and give them the opportunity to become the best they can be.”

Even if that turns out to be an ever-changing menu of things.