Faith, Family and Football: Johnny Evans

How a star quarterback from High Point at NC State University found his calling off the field.
by A.J. Carr | photography by Bob Karp

As a high school, college and professional football player, Johnny Evans carved a career that sparkled with headlines and highlights.

As a youngster he was a “Punt, Pass and Kick” kid — a three-time state champion, two-time regional champ and fourth-place finisher in the PP&K national competition. At High Point Andrews High School, he was a prep All-American quarterback before he arrived at North Carolina State University. 

With an “athlete’s foot,” strong legs and accurate arm, Evans thrived at NC State under coaches Lou Holtz and Bo Rein, both successful and distinctly different personalities. “I loved both of them,’’ Evans says. “Coach Rein was in his 30s, close to our age. He was a very good motivator. He was a player’s coach, there was a friendship.” 

With his low-key style and high-powered coaching, Rein guided State to its last ACC football championship in 1979.

Meanwhile, Holtz was fast-moving and fast-talking, quick with a quip and a masterful motivator who went on to win a national championship at Notre Dame. Holtz knew how to loosen players up, fire ’em up and win games — 33 in four seasons.

“Coach Holtz had a great sense of humor and was very emotional,’’ Evans says. “He got your respect. He was a very strong leader. He sat in on quarterback meetings with a special eye. It was difficult at times. But it was a benefit for me to play for him. I loved him.”

Sometimes, if Holtz’s team wasn’t gelling in practice, he would call everybody to midfield and do a magic trick — like pulling a coin out of a player’s ear.

But Evans also saw the coach’s feisty side: One time, Wolfpack team buses arrived at Arizona State’s stadium on game day and found the gate entrance blocked. While a security guard spoke to the driver, Holtz jumped out of the bus and tossed the barricade onto the side of the road. 

“We were already jazzed up… that energized us,” Evans says.

Whether it was Holtz or Rein at the helm, Evans kept honing his quarterback skills and sending punts soaring into the stratosphere. He averaged 46.1 yards per kick his All-America junior year and posted a 44-yard career average.

Old-timers will remember a 83-yard quick kick at Penn State in 1975, a pivotal punt with the clock ticking down in the Wolfpack’s nerve-grinding, 15-14 upset victory. “It was the only quick kick I ever attempted,’’ Evans says. “It was unique… Coach Holtz pulled it out of the bag at just the right time.” 

There was another magical moment that season: Trailing top-10-ranked Florida 7-0, NC State scored late in the fourth quarter and Holtz called for a two-point conversion attempt — to go for the win, boom or bust.

The play? A pitchout from quarterback Dave Buckey to Evans, who was playing halfback. “I had the option of running or passing,’’ Evans explains. “I ran and got my right hand right on the flag, barely broke the plane of the goal line. We won 8-7. It was a big victory.”

When Buckey graduated after a stellar four-year career, Evans played quarterback his last two seasons. It wasn’t all fun and games. Evans struggled through a frustrating 3-7-1 junior season, which he calls the most “disappointing” period of his football career. 

Ever resilient, he bounced back his senior season, leading the Wolfpack to an 8-4 record. He led a Peach Bowl win over Iowa State and earned the game MVP award. On that memorable afternoon in Atlanta, Evans ran for 62 yards and one touchdown, passed for 202 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 45 yards on six punts. 

Holtz had left NC State two years prior, but wasn’t surprised to hear about Evans’ heroics. “I was confident in his future,” says Holtz, who’s now retired and living in Orlando, Florida. “It was obvious that he would be a great athlete. He was a great punter and a great Christian young man that players rallied around.”

“He was one everyone looked up to,” says teammate and Outland Trophy winner Jim Ritcher, citing Evans’ spiritual and on-field leadership. “He was a huge factor in our ranking 18th in the nation.”

Evans went on to play three years with the Cleveland Browns as a punting specialist, yet never got in a game at quarterback, which was another big disappointment. He spent the next three seasons in the Canadian Football League as a quarterback and kicker, which he said “was much more fun.”

All that football was thrilling and rewarding, but Evans says the brightest moment didn’t come on the field: It came earlier, when he attended his first Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Black Mountain, North Carolina, as a 16-year-old. In that scenic setting he listened to Bible verses, prayers and testimonies from Miami Dolphin players and other men of faith.

“I heard God speak to me that week,’’ Evans says. “I surrendered my life to Christ. I became a Christian.”

Inspired by the experience, Evans went back home and started an FCA Huddle at High Point Andrews High School, and two years later at NC State, he was instrumental in forming a Wolfpack FCA Huddle.

After his six-year fling in pro football, Evans entered the real estate business in Raleigh. While working, he served on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Board, then joined the staff full time in 1994. He’s now in his 29th year as its Eastern North Carolina FCA director.

During that time the staff has grown from one person to 50. With the help of volunteers, the FCA ministers in 500 middle-school, high-school and college huddles for students and coaches stretching from the Triangle to the coast. Hundreds also attend summer camps throughout the state.

Conceived in 1954, the FCA’s Mission is “to see the world transformed by Jesus Christ through the influence of athletes and coaches.” Along with FCA ministering, Evans and his wife, Beth, have led a non-denominational Bible Study at Providence Baptist Church since the mid-1990s. Up to 500 people attend weekly sessions, study in small groups and listen to their lectures.

“Johnny and Beth have done so much for so many people through Christianity,” says Lou Pucillo, a former NC State basketball All-America who has attended the men’s study for 18 years. “Johnny is the very best at supporting you and teaching, and he is very humble. He gives all credit to the Lord.”

Ross Rhudy, a long-time Bible Study administrator, agrees: “Johnny is the ideal example of walking the talk. What he teaches, encourages, he does himself. He’s about living a faithful life, doing the right thing, obedience to God. His level of commitment and conviction is unwavering.”

“Johnny is an influencer, very inspiring, so clear, so effective in communication,’’ Rhudy adds. “People look at him as the rock.”

Evans, now 67, is still physically fit — just 2 pounds over his playing weight, he notes, thanks in part to a regular workout regimen. Throughout the years he has remained closely connected to football, working as radio analyst at NC State games for 38 seasons.

He has seen thousands of plays — spectacular plays, broken plays — but one is etched indelibly in his memory: When Daniel, his son and a quarterback, threw a touchdown pass in the final seconds to spark the Wolfpack to a dramatic victory over Boston College. “It was very special, definitely a highlight for me,” says Evans.

Evans did the postgame interview with his son, whose pass capped a scintillating 75-yard winning drive. “I asked him what he was thinking,” Evans says. “He said he prayed and thanked God for the opportunity. I told him that might be the pinnacle of his career.” Matt Ryan, who became an NFL star, was the BC quarterback. Tom O’Brien, the BC coach, later became State’s head coach.

Today, each of Evans’ adult children — he and Beth have quadruplets — work in the ministry. Daniel is pastoring a campus church near Asheville, while his brother Andrew, a former State receiver, is chief financial officer at the FCA headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. Their daughter Quinn is doing mission work in North Africa while Katherine works part time with a ministry in Durham.

Meanwhile, Evans plans to continue serving in the FCA, leading Bible Study with Beth, connecting with children and grandchildren, and providing analysis for Wolfpack fans over the airwaves. 

As always, it’s about faith, family and football. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of WALTER magazine