As he stared down at the magazine in front of him, Donnie Evege suddenly had a thought:
“That would be a great way for us to start our story: ‘Why is this guy smiling?’ ”
He was focused on the cover of the “MVP — Miami Valley Sports Magazine” from 2006. It featured a group photo of him and 21 other top high school football players from the area. His pal, Josh Copeland, also in the picture, had saved the magazine and brought it along the other day to a meeting at Sinclair Community College.
“The thing that always got me about this photo was that everyone there was mean muggin’ for the camera — everyone except Donnie,” Copeland said. “Look at everybody’s faces, then look at him.”
Sure enough, almost everybody else was offering his “I’m-badder-than-you” look, including Copeland, who was standing in the top row in his Fairborn High School jersey, his arms crossed, looking like he just had swallowed a mouthful of prunes.
But two rows down on the end, there was Evege, in his Wayne High No. 5 jersey and blue jeans, arms resting on his knees and a cover boy smile lighting up his face.
“He might not remember this, but afterward I asked him, ‘Why are you smiling?’ ” Copeland said. “And he told me, ‘God’s been too good to me not to smile.’
“I never forgot that and afterward, for every photo I took, I smiled, too.”
That MVP cover was a decade ago and since then football has ended for both the 28-year-old Evege and the 27-year-old Copeland.
So, too, for a while did their smiles.
That happened when each — at different points in their careers — was forced to face the reality that, as Copeland put it, “the crowd had stopped cheering and there were no more games to be played.”
Filling the void
Evege had been the first commitment to Ohio State coach Jim Tressel’s 2007 recruiting class and for him the chance to be a Buckeye was “a dream come true.”
But once he got to Columbus he had only one healthy season, a 2009 campaign where he became a special teams star. With that long black hair sticking out the back of his helmet as he went barreling down the field for another jarring tackle in the Horseshoe, he was dubbed “Little Polamalu” for the way he reminded people of the fearsome, full-mane style of Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu.
During his five years at OSU, Evege suffered three season-ending injuries and, in fact, one of them — a destroyed right knee — sidelined him for almost two years.
As for Copeland, he starred at Fairborn in basketball and especially football, where, as a quarterback and defensive back, he was named the Greater Western Ohio Conference (GWOC) Southern Division player of the year.
He then had a solid career at the University at Buffalo — playing cornerback, linebacker and safety — and hoped to make it into an NFL camp after college. But when he drew no interest, he suddenly wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
“I felt I was in the best shape of my life — that I was at the peak of my athleticism — but my phone wasn’t ringing,” he said. “I had defined myself by my football and this was the first time in my life where I wasn’t wanted for a sport.
“I struggled to figure out what I was going to do with my day. How was I going to fill the void?
“I went out on job interviews. One place I went to six times and still didn’t get it. In sports, you were taught if you worked hard, you were rewarded. You got instant gratification.”
When Copeland finally broke into the work force, he bounced around several jobs, he said:
“I worked in sales for Total Quality Logistics and stocked shelves at a Meijer store on the night shift. I got my real estate license and did that a while. I worked at a linen factory and at an apartment complex and then I became a bus boy and server at Texas Roadhouse, right by Wright State.
“It was really close to Fairborn and a lot of people I grew up with — their parents and other friends, people who used to watch me play — were coming in.
“What threw me for a loop was a kid who came in and he recognized me. He said, ‘I used to look up to you’ and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want you to see this.’ ”
What he was going through was the same thing athletes of all stripes face some time in their careers. Whether it’s a kid who starred in junior high, then didn’t develop and ends up getting cut from varsity, or even NFL players when their careers finally end, it comes down to finding definition, validation and self-worth another way.
Evege and Copeland are now well on their way to working through those challenges.
Each has found meaningful outlets in his life and Wednesday evening — at the prompting of Michael Carter, Sinclair’s senior adviser to the president and its chief diversity officer — they are teaming up with former Ohio State and Green Bay Packer receiver Dee Miller (who’ll be the moderator) to share their thoughts on the subject in a roundtable discussion for high school athletes and coaches and anyone else interested.
The 7 p.m. event is free and will be held on the downstairs stage of Sinclair’s Building 8. For more information, contact Carter’s office at 937-512-3883.
“This is not a woe-is-me story,” Copeland said. “It’s just the opposite.”
Evege’s dad played baseball at Central State and his mom won a state basketball title as a prep player in Akron. He inherited their athletic genes and it showed all through his days growing up in Xenia.
“I say this humbly, but with peewee sports — basketball, baseball, football — I was always one of the best players on the field,” he said.
After his sophomore season, he transferred to Wayne, had a breakout year as a junior and soon had numerous scholarship offers.
The story was similar for Copeland.
“I was always one of the biggest kids on my youth league teams and one of the best athletes,” he said.
Nothing changed in high school. When he wasn’t getting 28 rebounds against Butler in a basketball game as a senior, he was amassing 2,706 yards and 28 touchdowns passing and running as the Skyhawks’ quarterback that year.
The baubles that come with such success — the attention, the popularity, the sheer fun — can make for a profound sense of loss when they are gone.
“There are really so many layers to this discussion,” said Carter, who was a high school basketball coach at Springfield South and Trotwood-Madison before he became a Sinclair administrator.
“I can remember getting called over to watch an eighth-grade kid and them asking me, ‘Coach, what do you think?’ ” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘He’s done. He’s already got hair on his legs and he won’t grow anymore. He’s a 5-foot-11 post player who can’t handle the ball. He has dominated, but when he gets to high school, he’ll play maybe a year of JV and that’s it.’
“It just as hard for kids like that. I’ve seen some of them become poor students or act out because they lost their sense of worth.”
At the other end of the spectrum are players in the NFL, where the average career span is 3.5 years.
According to a recent Sports Illustrated study, 78 percent of pro athletes — after two years away from the game — either had filed for bankruptcy, been divorced or were unemployed. Some 22 percent had difficulty adjusting to life after sports and had turned to vices like alcohol and drugs.
That’s one of the points they are going to stress, Evege said:
“Don’t bottle up your emotions just to release them in a bottle or another vice. You have to talk to people and find healthy outlets.
“It wasn’t until I got out of college that I realized there were sports psychologists and other professionals right there on campus to talk to and get help from.”
Copeland agreed and said he found new direction when he got a job at Sinclair:
“Mr. Carter and I started talking and he’s been a mentor to me. It’s the same with another guy I know here, Dwayne Kirkman (Sinclair’s director of student affairs). They’ve helped me understand the most important thing:
“You’re more than just a football player.”
Determined to help
After failing to draw interest from NFL teams after his college career even though he had worked with a personal trainer and gotten himself in top shape again, Evege served as a commentator at Ohio State football games for ABC-Channel 22 in Dayton.
He’s also begun carving a career as a motivational speaker and he’s writing a book. His website donnierayevege.com details these pursuits and others.
Copeland — whose website is joshuanorvel.com — is now the academic adviser for the Upward Bound program at Sinclair.
“We’re in four Dayton Public Schools and I visit them and encourage students and try to get them career-ready for college,” he said.
While the pair had been acquaintances over the years, Copeland said he finally called Evege to “pick his brain” about his motivational speaking and dealing with the changes of a post-football life.
He said in calling several of his other college football friends, he found they all faced similar challenges and that’s when he knew there was a bigger issue to be dealt with.
He introduced Evege to Carter and as the three shared their thoughts, they came up with the roundtable idea and, after that, hopefully a campaign that could help athletes not only around the Miami Valley, but one day nationwide.
“One thing I tried to stress to them though was that they were going to have to figure out a way to talk to athletes on their own terms and in a different venue than they might expect because this isn’t something a lot of colleges are going to want to deal with,” Carter said. “Most college programs are not going to bring you in to talk about these problems.
“The analogy I used is: ‘They want you to just eat the hot dog because you don’t want to see how it’s made.’”
But Evege and Copeland are undaunted.
“I think we have something to share,” Evege said. “We’re guys who have already been through it and we can save them some potential heartache. When you can come through that and realize you have other passions and there is something else that defines you, it feels pretty good.”
As he thought about that, Donnie Evege began smiling.
Sitting next to him, Josh Copeland was, too.