During an Evans practice drill last spring, disaster ensued when junior Devante England attempted to tackle a teammate. He pounced on speedy Bradley Hegland, twisted him to the ground and crashed his near-400 pounds into Hegland's lower leg. The force fractured both bones.
Hegland showed a remarkable tolerance for pain that day -- coaches barely remember him wincing -- and England took away another lesson: he believed he could remain effective along the defensive line if this powerful ability could be harnessed.
"I hate to say it, but I like to cause people pain -- just when it's not my own team," England said.
England is unofficially the largest football player in the area. He says he weighs 370 pounds, down from 420 a year ago, but that is not officially recorded because the scales Evans players use for preseason physicals stop at 350 pounds.
What is indisputable: England has carved himself into enough physical shape to become a starter along the team's defensive line. He is a regular contributor for the first time this season for Evans, which has won six consecutive games heading into a 7:30 p.m. meeting with Cross Creek today.
England's participation initially brought several demands. Coaches had to order a special helmet and size XXXXXL pants that cost more than $100. (Typical pants cost around $20, coaches said.) These demands were not new for England, who is 6-foot-1. He must purchase his size 17 shoes in Atlanta and buys most of his clothes from a catalog, which he prefers, he says, because he is always wearing something different than his peers.
England had only played organized football for two middle-school seasons when he arrived at Evans, because he said he was never under the weight limit for recreation leagues. He doesn't remember the limit, because he said he wasn't close to making it.
Coaches worked with England even when he weighed 420 pounds and had difficulty moving, because they saw a natural athlete. England flicks his wrist with perfect form when shooting a basketball and can throw a spiral 60 yards in the air, among the farthest on the team.
"He's agile and has great hand-eye coordination," coach Marty Jackson said. "For a big guy, he moves pretty doggone good."
England says drills that come natural to teammates -- hitting a blocking sled, for example -- help work him into shape just as much as the 40-yard distances he sometimes repeatedly lumbers alone after practice.
"For a young man his size, he has never complained about running," said John Ellis, Evans' athletic trainer. "He's on the right track, from a health perspective."
Evans defensive coaches use England on all non-passing situations. They want him to occupy multiple blockers and stuff the middle on running plays. They have to remind him to keep his pads low, to gain better leverage, like last week during a win over Hephzibah. Jackson said Hephzibah quarterback Terry Robinson was able to score on a 1-yard sneak, because England did not stay low enough.
"We're not asking him to run 100 yards," Jackson said. "He's not going to run people down, but he can plug the middle. ... It's tough to move him if he stays real low."
Hegland, the teammate England injured, must sit out the season. He is filming the team's games this year, proving for posterity that the kid once too big to play has finally earned his place on the field.
"It took me two years to get where I want to be," said England, who hopes to continue to lose weight and play at around 340 pounds next season. "I told myself I would never quit, and I'm never going to quit no matter what."
Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.