Lee Evans was a content young man. He was gliding around Camp Randall Stadium on a Saturday afternoon, playing a sport that brought him joy and was sure to make him rich.
The All-America receiver was going to play only a few snaps in Wisconsin's 2002 spring football game before giving way to the reserves.
Evans then could look forward to plopping down in front of the TV to find out who had been taken that morning in the NFL draft. He was good enough to be one of them, a potential high first rounder, but he spurned the chance of a monster signing bonus and decided to come back for his senior season.
He made that choice because it felt right. There would be no second thoughts as he watched the names of all those newly minted millionaires scroll across the bottom of his screen.
But before all that Evans had one big play to make, the kind that tantalized NFL scouts and made Badgers fans froth at the mouth. He had screaming speed, flypaper hands and a game-breaker presence.
"I knew what play had been called, saw how the defense was set up and what route Lee was running," recalled Badgers receivers coach Henry Mason. "I said 'This is going to be an easy touchdown.' "
Evans ripped into his post pattern. Brooks Bollinger's pass hit him 36 yards later, and Evans made the catch look easy. The landing, however, was awkward. There wasn't a collision, only incidental contact with a freshman defensive back.
"When Lee went down," Mason said, "he stayed down. It was the most depressing day of my coaching life. It was a sad day for all of us. We were just sick."
While peers Donte Stallworth, Ashley Lelie, Javon Walker, Jabar Gaffney and Josh Reed shook Paul Tagliabue's hand and pulled NFL caps over their brows, Evans was carted off the field with a shredded left knee.
Evans eventually made it back, or else the Buffalo Bills wouldn't have used the 13th overall draft pick on him this year. But what Bills fans should know about the humble youngster from suburban Cleveland is how a heartbroken kid dug deep to get back everything he had lost.
"I'm not a heavily religious guy, but I just try to live right," Evans said recently while perched atop a stool in front of his locker. "Everything I get I think I've earned and worked for and appreciate it. You have to appreciate everything because it can be taken away quick."
Evans is the future linchpin of the Bills receiving corps. He already has surpassed Reed, and should start his fifth straight game this afternoon against the Baltimore Ravens.
Evans is Buffalo's second-leading receiver with 10 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown. His 24.8-yard average ranks second in the NFL.
"He's got a lot of potential to be a very special player in the league," said Buffalo receivers coach Tyke Tolbert, who helped mold Anquan Boldin into a rookie stud last year in Arizona.
"He has the type of ability where, if he had to be the go-to guy every down, he'd be up there among the top receivers in the NFL as far as numbers are concerned. He has the ability to be an upper-echelon receiver and have the stats right now in another situation."
Evans has been carried this far by optimism and a blue-collar work ethic -- he said he learned it from his father, a former cop who works on a Ford assembly line -- traits that have earned him a flock of admirers.
"We as adults learned more from him during his time here than he did from us," said Steve Malchow, a Wisconsin associate athletics director.
Evans' spirit would be tested six months after his knee surgery. He was still harboring hopes of returning to the Badgers late in 2002 when he was informed the operation would have to be done all over again. A half year of grueling rehabilitation was all for nothing.
"That was tough to take," Evans said, hanging his head and wringing his hands at the memory. "It was hard, starting back from Square One."
By this time, Evans suddenly had an out-of-character stigma to deal with. He drove three other inactive teammates to Wisconsin's game at Iowa and was pulled over for speeding. A search turned up marijuana.
He claimed the drugs didn't belong to him, that one of the passengers didn't fess up.
Evans cleared his name by submitting to a thorough drug test that was negative, yet he pleaded no contest to the possession charge to avoid trial.
"I can sit up here and blame the other guy for not taking responsibility for it, but that wasn't my problem," Evans said. "My problem was I put myself in that situation. I was the one that was liable. It was my car. I was the one driving, and I was responsible for everyone in it.
"People don't want to hear excuses."
They just want to see results.