By Jon Lemons
Chris Evans was the last defensive back in his recruiting class to see playing time. He did not step on the field until the end of his sophomore season.
But after just one year as a starter (and one honorable mention to the All-Ivy League team to boot), head coach Tim Murphy is already placing him in elite company. "Chris has worked his way up every year to the point where he is one of the most highly respected kids in our program and one of the toughest and best corners in the Ivy League."
That process of working his way up was possible thanks to supportive parents and teammates, a lot of time in the weight room, and an irrepressibly positive attitude.
While his college career got off to a slow start, Evans' high school career at Princeton Junction, New Jersey started early. "I was sort of thrown into the fire as a sophomore, and I really learned how to play football quickly because I didn't want to hold (my team) back," the former quarterback says. "We were a pretty dominant team in the area for a while and I didn't want to be that reason to hold back such a great team."
Though he went on to be named to numerous all-region teams, and won the Mercer County Player of the Year award as a senior, the 5'9", 170 pound Evans knew he wasn't likely to be playing under center at the next level.
"I knew I was getting recruited to play corner or slot receiver because I was smaller to be a Division I college QB," Evans says. "I was a little more on the quicker-athletic side, so I sort of knew going into it."
Evans was a first team all-county and all-area selection at defensive back in high school, so the fact that Harvard wanted him strictly as a corner was not a major adjustment. What was new was the idea of simply coming off the field at all. "We played two sides in high school," Evans says. "We had a really small team…and everyone played both ways, special teams, everything. So it was definitely a change."
In high school Evans rarely came off the field. But once he got to Harvard, he struggled to get back on.
"It was frustrating just knowing that I was a talented player, and I knew the game of football and just couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't get on the field no matter what I did," Evans recalls.
First things first, the self-described "super-skinny" teenager had to get stronger.
"Part of it was not being ready strength-wise as a freshman coming in playing against some kids who were maybe five or six years older than you."
Enter: director of strength and conditioning coach James Frazier.
"I've always played sports bigger than my body sort of allows me to, is what people say," Evans explains, "but Coach Frazier really took my strength and conditioning to the next level. His program had a lot to do with my strength development so that the coaches would have confidence in me on the field. I think (being bigger and stronger) also subconsciously helped me out with my confidence too."
Bigger muscles might have helped boost Evans' confidence in himself, but his parents' confidence in him needed no such bolstering.
"My parents were so supportive. They said, 'Chris, keep your head up. We all know you are more than good enough to be on the field. Just keep your head up, your time will come.'" Evans says. "That was their thing. 'Your time will come. I know your time will come.' It wasn't even 'I think,' it was 'I know your time will come.' That kept me in a positive light."
In 2014, the Crimson headed into camp with only one starting defensive back returning, senior captain Norman Hayes. While many around the Ivy League, including Harvard's own coaching staff, saw their inexperienced secondary as a potential weakness, Evans saw it as an opportunity. Not just to get on the field, but to prove people wrong.
"Coming into last year, it was 'oh the Harvard d-backs. They're very young. It's going to be a weakness. We should attack them," Evans says of the general perception around the league. "Then, even our coaches said, 'our offense is going to be great, but I'm not sure how our defense is going to be.'
"All of the young guys took that as a personal challenge," continued Evans. "We were new, but we know how to play football and we'll get after it. We ended up having the best defense in the FCS. I think things worked themselves out pretty nicely."
Still, Evans view of football is colored by his long road to game action. The practice field is a player's best and only stage for proving his readiness to see action in a game. When you don't play in games, your relationship with football exists almost exclusively on the practice field. Perhaps because much of his career was spent there and only there, Evans holds it in particularly high regard. This year, Evans is a senior, a returning starter, and presumptive leader on one of the best defenses in the country. Yet when asked about his role on the team, Evans points to his responsibilities on the practice field first.
"The defensive backs are known for being the loud people, especially during practice," he explains. "We have to keep the energy high, keep the practice moral high. We have to be challenging the offense, because we're only good if (both sides of the ball) play well. Part of my role is to push the offense," he says.
Evans points to his daily matchup against his roommate, receiver Andrew Fischer, as an example.
"Going against Fisch every day in practice, I can go against anyone in the league. I know that," Evans explained. "If he's catching passes against our defense, he can catch a ball against anyone in the league."
If last year's performance is any indication, all that practice is paying off. In his first year on the field, Evans started all 10 games, finishing the season with 43 tackles, nine pass breakups, and the aforementioned All-Ivy honorable mention. Impressive numbers, but Evans has some different figures on his mind this year: Specifically, 1, 0, and 3.
"Our goal right now is to be the number one defense in the nation," Evans explains.
And zero? That refers to how many points his defense intends to give up.
"If the other team doesn't score, we're not losing," he says.
And finally, three?
"I want to win a third Ivy League Championship ring in a row."