Dane Evans remembers when he first laid eyes on the CFL.
He would sit with his dad during the summer time at their home in Sanger, Texas. They’d turn on the TV, flip the channel to ESPN, and watch the football that was being played north of the border.
“I’d be in eighth or ninth grade and we’d be done with our workout for the day and we’d just be chilling in the living room and all of a sudden the CFL would come on,” remembered Evans over the phone last week. “We got into it. We watched every game, every week it was on ESPN.”
Evans watched as the teams played with an extra down. He saw how beautiful Canada was and he watched the league’s biggest stars playing the game.
“I can remember watching, I didn’t know at the time who it was, but it was Calgary playing and I don’t know who they were playing,” he said. “They had (Jon) Cornish and I think Bo Levi (Mitchell) was just getting his starts there and they were always showing Banff and all those national parks. (They showed) all the sceneries of Calgary and stuff like that.”
Fast forward a few years and now Evans has made a name for himself in the league he’d started to fall in love with many years ago in Texas. Last season was the six-foot-one, 218-pounder’s breakout campaign. Following a season-ending ACL injury to quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, Evans was thrown into the starting role.
He made his first start in Week 8 against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He notched his first win the following week against the BC Lions. Evans finished the year completing 298 of 413 passes for 3,754 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
His 10-2 record as the starter helped lead the Ticats to the top of the East Division and a franchise-best win record. Their victory against the Edmonton Football Team in the Eastern Final sent the black and gold to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.
It was a strange spot for the 26-year-old to be in, however; succeeding while a teammate was forced out of the game due to an injury. But it was the opportunity that allowed Evans to flourish and show his team, and the rest of the CFL, exactly what he could do.
“I tell people all the time that it’s one of the weirdest things in sports because you don’t ever want to see someone go down,” said Evans. “And when someone does go down, and it’s one of your best friends on the team, then you have to step in and basically do his job. It can be a weird dynamic but I think me and Jeremiah have such a good friendship and respect for each other that it’s the job, someone’s gotta do it. There’s no love lost at all.”
As the years of watching CFL football continued, Evans found out that he was on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats negotiation list. That fact was always in the back of his mind as he finished up college and went to try his hand in the NFL.
When he was cut from the Philadelphia Eagles before the end of training camp in 2017, he decided to have his agent make a phone call.
“I think it was right at the end of my senior year of college,” Evans said. “I think I had gotten a tweet update, or somebody tagged me on Twitter that I was on the Ticats’ neg list and then I started paying attention to it a little more. Then when it didn’t work out in Philly, I started coaching for a little bit and knew I wanted to still play. I asked Hamilton, I asked my agent, if they’d still have me come up there and kind of just went from there.”
In 2017, his first season in the Hammer, Evans started on the practice squad. He had to learn the Canadian game and the entire offence on his own.
“It was wild because right when I got up there, that’s when June Jones just took over as head coach and changed the whole offence and everything,” he said. “He kind of, no fault of his, but he had so much on his plate that he was basically only working with Jeremiah and those guys to get the offence ready. So I was the only scout team quarterback, basically.
“I was just figuring out the game on my own in my own practice reps. Honestly, it probably didn’t go very well for me so I’m glad they kept me around. It was nuts because I had just came up from the Eagles, had never, ever played CFL at all and was thrown right in the fire against our number one defence every week. It was a good way to figure out pretty quickly if I was going to be able to do this.”
It took a while for Evans to start to feel comfortable with the nuances of the game and the offence that head coach June Jones was implementing. To learn things quicker, Evans would show up to Tim Hortons Field at six a.m. to start working with receivers coach Jarryd Baines. They would watch film as Evans tried to soak up as much information as possible before they both started their days.
“Then I’d stay after practice and then all of a sudden I started completing more balls at practice and was actually scoring on our defence when the plays are designed not to be scored on in practice,” said Evans. “When that was happening I was like, ‘okay, maybe I’ll be able to do this.’ Then I think June started noticing that things like that were starting to happen too and kinda getting me a rep here and there. Then I just ran with it.”
Now Evans is ready for the next season ahead of him. Assuming Jeremiah Masoli is healthy enough to play, there will likely be a battle in training camp for who starts on opening day.
And to think, it all started from catching a game on TV all those years ago.
“I always thought (playing in the CFL) was something cool that hopefully I’d get to do one of these days and now I’m doing it,” said Evans. “And I’m ready for this season so I can keep on doing it. It’s kind of a weird, small world how somebody in Texas watches CFL.”