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Joseph Evans' LSU signing to mark history on journey from tragedy

Franklin Evans often tries to hide his proud tears when people praise his son, Joseph.

But the men both laugh loudly when asked if he will be able to contain his emotions Wednesday when “JoJo” signs his letter of intent to play college football at home-state LSU.

“I can already tell you that one,” the elder Evans admits. “That’s a BIG no!

“I always just think about where he started from, you know — premature, three pounds as a baby, and his mother died giving birth to him. And when people talk about him or he does stuff, I have to hide my face from him because I don’t want him to see me cry. It’s a real emotional thing. I just get overjoyed.”

The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Joseph Evans has come a long way since then, as a young man and as an athlete.

And Wednesday’s milestone will etch the defensive tackle's name firmly among the elite of one of Louisiana’s most storied football communities.

Tornados and Tigers

The opportunity for Joseph to play football at LSU was a no-brainer — especially for Franklin — but one neither Evans anticipated.

Haynesville is known as much now for its high school football as maybe anything else.

The “Butterfly Capital of Louisiana,” a town of about 2,000 residents, in the northwest corner of the state, has claimed more LHSAA state championships than any other public school.

The Golden Tornado boast 17 titles — second only to the 26 of powerhouse John Curtis.

But only one player has signed a football scholarship with LSU out of Haynesville High School: Kenny Jackson in 1974.

Joseph’s biggest familiarity with the Tigers came when North Webster star Devin White, from nearby Springhill, joined the program in 2016.

Until October 2017, in the days leading up to Halloween, when coach Ed Orgeron visited Haynesville and offered the Golden Tornado’s junior standout the chance to follow suit.

“I come to the office, and Coach O is sitting down and says, ‘How you doing, Joseph?’” he recounts, slipping seamlessly into a growling Orgeron impression. “I was speechless. Then he called my dad and said, ‘We’d like to offer your son.’ And his reaction was, ‘Yep! Come on. Let’s sign right now.’”

The Evanses had started trying to build connections with other college coaches.

They considered Louisiana Tech a likely destination.

But Orgeron’s surprise was Joseph’s first scholarship offer — and one to which he immediately committed.

“That was big,” Franklin says. “That was big news for us. I’ve loved LSU. And when we found out a big school like LSU was interested in him, man, we were so happy. And we were sold from the first time he offered. Joseph didn’t want to go anywhere else, and I definitely didn’t want to go anywhere else because Louisiana is our home. It’s our home state, so if we can represent our home state, that’s what it’s all about.”

Franklin’s passion for the Tigers — and New Orleans Saints — grew as a way to represent home throughout his 20 years serving in the U.S. Navy during tours that included Singapore, Hong Kong, Bali, Indonesia, Japan, Guam, Puerto Rico, Spain, South Korea and Panama.

“Being on a ship with people from all walks of life, there was a few people from Louisiana, and we’d all stick together when it came to repping our schools,” he explains. “It’s a big thing in the navy — everybody talking about their home team, home football team and stuff like that. That’s bragging rights right there, so I’ve been on LSU for a minute.”

'That boy's gonna be special'

When his wife, Debrah, passed away, Franklin received orders from the military to remain home in Louisiana for a position that would allow him to raise his children in Haynesville with the help of his mother.

“She always said, ‘That boy’s gonna be special,” remembers Franklin, now a sixth-grade science teacher and assistant police chief in nearby Cullen. “And I didn’t know what she was gonna be talking about at the time, but he wasn’t like the other kids. The other kids were sneaky — but not Joseph. The only thing Joseph was sneaky about was walking through the night sneaking into the refrigerator. The other ones, when I would be at work, they would try to sneak and find things to drink or smoke cigarettes and stuff like that.

“And they used to get mad at Joseph, because Joseph didn’t like that kind of stuff. And he knew that they were doing wrong, and he would tell me, and they would get mad at him. The good thing about Joseph, he doesn’t let anybody else influence him — especially when he knows something is wrong — and that’s why I trust him so much with anything, because I know if he tells me he didn’t do something, I know I can take him at his word because that trust is there.”

Joseph grew. And grew. And grew. With the help of more than a few late-night snacks, his father laughs, until Franklin finally put a lock on the fridge.

“If somebody had left a piece of pie in there, then my urge would tell me to go get that pie,” Joseph admits. “And then the next day, it’s sort of like, ‘Who ate my pie!?’”

“Everybody was like, ‘JOSEPH!?!’” Franklin chimes in, as they both laugh.

Joseph developed a strong faith and work ethic, as well as athletic and musical ability — winning two state shotput titles thus far, singing and playing multiple intstruments in addition to his football talent.

And the older he got, the more he reminded Franklin of Debrah.

“She was silly,” Franklin says. “She loved to smile. She loved to make people happy. And when she walked into a room, the whole demeanor of the room changed. It’s like her spirit had that glow. And Joseph has that presence, too. He walks into a room, and people just get happy like when she walked into a room and people would just get happy.

“I can’t explain it, but that’s the way it was. And Joseph is silly like her. He doesn’t even know where he got his silliness from, but she would just say stuff, funny stuff, all the time, and she always was happy.”

Drive-thru autographs

Joseph’s positive attitude and light-hearted disposition have made him an all the more easy to embrace and support.

“It’s just a big thing up here at Haynesville — and, plus, everybody loves Joseph because of the way he is,” Franklin says. “He’s got great character. He has a great sense of humor. Everybody loves him. If he walks into any store or if anyone sees him, they come up and start talking to him because he’s very approachable and just loves everybody and everybody loves him.”

Half of the community probably has Joseph’s autograph now.

The first woman to ask recognized him through the drive-thru window at his job at a local chicken restaurant about 10 blocks from school.

“This lady while I was at work at Southern Classic, she came through the drive-thru and said, ‘Can I have your autograph please?’” he remembers. “That was the first lady that got my autograph… Then when I went to get my driver’s license, a lady from Homer, she said, ‘You’re going to LSU?!’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ And she said, ‘Can I have your autograph?!’

“I can’t go anywhere without somebody talking about it. It’s a small town, so everybody knows everybody and their grandma, so you’re gonna hear about it if you see me.”

But the celebrity status has extends well beyond city limits.

Franklin has received an influx of friend requests on Facebook and says many fans have expressed plans to travel to Haynesville on Wednesday to partake in the signing celebration.

“I’ve got that picture of Joseph in his LSU uniform and, man, everybody’s sending my friend requests,” Franklin says. “And I joined an LSU Facebook group, and man, they’ve shown us so much love. I mean, people from the group that don’t even live close around — two or three hours away — want to come up and be a part of the signing.”

JoJo and MoJo

Joseph’s grandmother called him “The Gentle Giant” as a child.

The ever-kindhearted young athlete didn’t want to knock other players on the ground when he started peewee football.

He found his intensity and competitive nature as he got older, though, en route to becoming an all-state player and three-star prospect.

“If you’re in front of him, he tries to stare down deep into your soul and just tries to put fear in you,” Franklin says. “You wouldn’t think that about him just seeing him walk around the halls of the school. You know, he’s always laughing and joking and has people laughing just being silly. But, boy, when he gets on that field, you better watch out, because he’s coming for you.”

The switch is so stark that Joseph’s teammates have given different nicknames for his on- and off-field alter-egos.

“It’s really that dog mentality that you’ve gotta have to play football,” he says. “People on the field call me, ‘MoJo.’ They say I’m not ‘JoJo’ no more — I’m ‘MoJo.’ They know when I’m ready to play football, you can’t talk to me because I’m already in my mode and it is what it is.”

Joseph's extra push

Wednesday afternoon will be an occasion for the wide-smiling JoJo, as school and community members and guests from hours away flock to Haynesville to celebrate history.

“We come from a big family,” Frankling says. “I had 10 sisters and five brothers, and we’re a very close-knit family. And for someone in our immediate family to be as loved and respected as Joseph, it just makes the whole family feel good. I mean, my whole family’s coming out to support him.”

Notably, three of Franklin’s cousins plan to be among the extended Evans family joining the ceremony.

A large poster outside Haynesville’s Red Franklin Memorial Stadium displays Demetric, Douglas and Bobby Ray Evans in their respective professional football jerseys with the message, “Success is a trail worth following.”

Joseph admires it almost daily as inspiration.

And all three former Tornado stars intend to join him on stage for his critical moment, Franklin says.

“Wednesday’s gonna be exciting, having my cousins there with me,” Joseph says. “I’m just gonna sign my next chapter in my life, and I think it’s gonna be good.”

Their presence will be meaningful as Joseph strives to not only follow Jackson’s footsteps in signing with LSU, but theirs en route to a professional career in the sport.

Signing with the Tigers will be a dream come true for the Evanses in itself — but not the last.

“It means I have to work hard, work hard to meet expectations,” Joseph says. “I wanna be more than just the first guy from Haynesville to go back to LSU. I wanna be the first guy who goes back to the NFL.”

Franklin expects to choke up, “because all those accomplishments, I wish his mother was there to see him — see the young man that her baby grew up to be.”

But Joseph credits Debrah for being a guiding hand throughout his development into the young man he is today.

“I always feel like my mom was always with me,” Joseph says. “Everything that I did, I feel like she was my extra push in a way in my life. And I just, I’ve never met her, but I have an emotional attachment with her, because she’s that voice in my head, and I know it.”