HAYNESVILLE — Yard dogs scampered toward the rental car as it pulled into the grassy driveway. LSU's next defensive tackle, 17 years old, smiling in a gray tank top and cargo shorts, called to them from the porch of the ranch house.
The Evans home was unquestionably occupied by men. A rusting bench press stood at the head of the driveway. A weight bench rested on the porch. Another was in the living room, across from two plush leather couches that faced a flatscreen TV.
It was a home of music, too. A dusty Wurlitzer organ pressed against the wood panel walls. A 61-key electric piano laid on a desk.
Joseph Evans pulled a guitar from his closet until he noticed its E string was busted, and he reached for another.
One night when Joseph was 12, he strummed a guitar quietly in this same bedroom, trying to compose a song about the mother he never knew.
"It was pulling some string that I ain't really felt toward her before," said Joseph, who signed with LSU in December. "Because I never met her."
He glanced at the closet's top shelf, where the spiral notebook with unfinished lyrics used to be. A birthmark hovered over his left eye. His family told him his mother had given a final push before she died, ensuring the birth of her 3-pound son who was born two months too soon.
"They said that was my mother on my face," Joseph said, stretching the separated marks toward his cheek. "You can still kind of see the wings. They said it was an angel and a teardrop."
He brushed a hand over the guitar, which was somewhat dwarfed within his 6-foot-2, 302-pound frame.
He'd taught himself to play music watching YouTube videos. He once drove to Shreveport for an "American Idol" audition. Joseph's father, Franklin, posts videos of his son singing on Facebook, and he sometimes shows them to his sixth-grade science class. The girls swoon and ask when Joseph will visit next. On a recruiting trip to Baton Rouge, an LSU assistant coach had Joseph sing in front of the rest of the prospects.
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Joseph handed over a phone video of him on the keyboard performing a song by one of his favorite artists, John Legend:
We're just ordinary people. We don't know which way to go ...
Franklin, the dad, met Deborah Fitzpatrick at the start of a six-month U.S. Navy deployment that began in Yokosuka, Japan.
He worked in the personnel office atop the Samuel Gompers-class destroyer, where he spotted Deborah boarding with the rest of the sailors.
"I thought she was out of my league," said Franklin, now 52. "Because, to me, she was the most beautiful lady I had ever seen."
Deborah turned the corner onto his hallway, and their eyes met. After exchanging hellos, she asked him his name. He couldn't remember. He stood blankly until another personnel officer took over the conversation.
Deborah worked in the mess decks, where the sailors ate, and every time Franklin went in, he'd stop by and talk with her for hours. He found himself smitten, doing silly things like buying her a CD player from the small store on board. When the ship ported in Indonesia, they took a horse carriage through Bali and its volcanic mountains. By the time they walked Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, Franklin knew he was in love.
The "longest seven days" of Franklin's life were when his personnel officer flew him to California ahead of the ship to prepare for Navy advancement exams. He wrote Deborah a letter every day, and he handed her the stack when she walked off the dock in California.
Deborah punched him on the shoulder playfully and said, "I missed you."
"I didn't know she was playful," said Joseph, stepping into his father's story.
"She did that all the time," Franklin said, smiling. "She loved to laugh. Just like you. That laugh you've got? Just like her."
Joseph laughed, throaty and merrily.
A couple of varsity basketball players were holding a dunk contest when the Muskegon High fo…
From 'Jojo' to 'Mojo'
A large poster of the Evans cousins hangs on the west side of Alton "Red" Franklin Memorial Stadium, under the words "SUCCESS is a trail worth following."
All three of them — Bobby Ray, Doug and Demetric — are pictured wearing their professional football jerseys, and beside the poster, there are seemingly enough Tornado championship placards that they could flatten all the piney forests in northern Louisiana if they were real.
The Haynesville Golden Tornado football team has won 17 state titles, second-most across all divisions in Louisiana, trailing only to John Curtis.
"Growing up in Haynesville, you go to high school and you know who's going to win," said Demetric, a defensive end who won three state titles and played nine NFL seasons for the Redskins, Cowboys and 49ers. "There weren't no ifs ands or buts about it."
It's enough success to where locals have to sort through the dates to remember that Doug won a title with the ’87 team, while Bobby Ray helped win the one back in ’84.
Bobby Ray played safety in six CFL seasons for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and Doug started at cornerback for the Green Bay Packers in their Super Bowl XXXI championship.
LSU defensive end Rashard Lawrence said Saturday that he will miss spring football practice …
Driving through town, Joseph pointed out another poster of Demetric titled "Catch your DREAM" on a store's brick wall.
A few levels up from Joseph on the family tree, three Evans brothers had married three sisters from another family, and there were plenty of other football players who just didn't make it to the pros.
As an Evans, Franklin said, you knew you had family that played for the Tornado. And you wanted to be better than them.
Joseph finished his high school career without a title, earning a runner-up trophy in 2016 and falling short last season with a 20-14 loss to Kentwood in the Class 1A state semifinals. And outside his three years as Haynesville's starting defensive tackle, Joseph won two consecutive state championships in the shot put.
But before he was the brawny double-team-splitter nicknamed "Mojo", Joseph was "Jojo," a short, pudgy 9-year-old who got his start in peewee football as a kicker.
An hour before LSU football coach Ed Orgeron's trademark "Hold That Tiger!" recruiting tweet…
Joseph's peewee coach, Lorenzo Jackson, recalled that Joseph had kicked the ball 40 yards in the air on his first try. The coach presumed it was an accident. Joseph kicked it the same distance on his second.
Joseph was the kickoff specialist all the way through high school, and his leg was so strong, opponents only returned his kickoffs a handful of times during his senior year.
Perhaps that had something to do with the kicker being a giant lineman who ran full-speed down field.
"Nobody wanted to block him," said Tracey Jackson, Haynesville's defensive line coach.
Jackson knew Jojo wasn't always Mojo.
"The beauty of it for me is to see him as a freshman that came in with the black horn-rimmed glasses, wasn't that strong to what he is now," Jackson said, "and to see that kid go from there to the young man he is now."
The transformation started around Joseph's sophomore year. Whenever his father grounded him, Joseph's "but I'm bored!" was met by Franklin saying, "Do push-ups."
So Joseph would pace around his room, doing 20 push-ups at a time. Soon, his thigh muscles began to grow faster than his arms. Franklin called his son's thighs "a freak of nature," because he had to keep buying new pants when they'd rip around the seams.
One time, Joseph was sent home from a school pep rally.
"I said, 'Boy, what you doing home?’ ” Franklin said. “ ‘Pants ripped again.’ Gosh dog, son. I just bought those!"
Despite his late-booming size, Joseph thought he was destined to play an hour's drive down La. Highway 146 at Louisiana Tech, as Doug had.
That was until one day, during Joseph's junior year, Jackson called him to Haynesville's front office, and Ed Orgeron rose to shake Jojo's hand.
Joseph became the first defensive tackle to commit to LSU's 2019 recruiting class — a cycle defined by Orgeron's urgency to strengthen the trenches for its on-field battles with Alabama.
Haynesville head coach David Franklin doesn't put much stock in Joseph's consensus three-star rating by recruiting sites, which he feels tend to draw thin in smaller divisions in north Louisiana.
Ed Orgeron didn't name him.
Jackson noted that most every night since football season ended, Joseph has called him to pick up the keys to the stadium for a late-night workout.
"It still didn't feel real to me," Joseph said, after unlocking the gate to the stadium on a quiet February night. "It just felt real when I went down there (two weeks ago). 'I'm going to LSU. This ain't your average school to go to.' Just more motivation that I can go farther."
Joseph walked toward the gym and smiled upward.
The moon shined a halo through the ice crystals in the sky.
'We'll name him Joseph'
Deborah Evans told her husband she'd had a dream.
It was a biblical dream, she said, rubbing her pregnant belly. A replicate of the one Joseph had in Genesis, where wheat bowed down to signify he would become greater than his brothers.
We'll name him Joseph, she said.
Franklin added the middle name, Debrazion, a combination of his wife's name and the holy hill Mount Zion.
He'll sing Songs of Zion, he said.
The Navy relocated the Evanses and their two children, Joshua and Naomi, from Virginia to Tennessee.
At a picnic in Memphis on April 27, 2001, Deborah began to have labor pains.
Franklin herded the family to a hospital. A nurse checked them into a room. The children said they were hungry. Deborah told Franklin to take them to the cafeteria.
On the way back, he saw nurses scrambling. Shouting. One rushed Franklin and his children into an empty room.
The nurse began to sob.
Deborah, 25, died of a heart attack during precipitous birth — a rapid labor that concludes less than three hours after the beginning of regular contractions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnancy-related deaths in the United States increased from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 18.0 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014.
The reasons for the overall increase are unclear, but over one-fourth of pregnancy-related deaths were related to heart issues.
The nurses led Franklin into the neonatal intensive care unit, where Joseph breathed with the help of medical tubes.
"I remember when I was feeding him at the hospital," Franklin said, lifting his left palm. "His little body was right there in my hand. I had that little bottle, feeding him. It was instant bond. I felt like he was a gift that his mom left for me, and there was no way that I was going to separate from him."
Franklin said he believes he was prepared to raise children.
The fifth of 16 children, Franklin grew up helping his mother cook big dinners in the family's shotgun house in Haynesville. They'd cook a pot of greens. Hot-water cornbread. Neck bones. Fried chicken. Yams and sweet potato pie.
Franklin maintains his mother's habit of cooking for 16 even today, and he'll throw the scraps to the yard dogs.
He had it in his mind to teach his children — 12 total from other marriages — to live off the land, and he planted a half-acre pea patch on the north side of the house.
At 6 a.m., Franklin would wake the household to go till the soil.
"Oh my goodness, the garden," said Naomi, 19, who now lives in Ruston with Joshua, 20. "I hated it so much. It always seemed like he would pick the hottest days: 'Let's go outside and pick the peas!’ ”
It was Franklin's way of parenting. Naomi said their mother figures were next door, with their grandmother and aunts.
Franklin hardly ever spoke to his children about Deborah.
"I regret that now," he said. "My kids knew how I was, and they didn't want to bring nothing up to me that would make me sad. I learned later on that they wanted to know more about what happened."
Joseph said his father found a note he'd written in sixth grade, how he felt alone. How he felt felt no one cared about him. The father and son embraced and cried together.
On Dec. 10, 2017, Naomi received the first message from her father about her mother.
Slowly, Franklin began to unfurl the story he'd held inside for so long.
"We've gotten closer since then," Naomi said. "We got way closer."
'A Song for You'
As he counts down the days until incoming players report June 1, Joseph is learning something new on his electric piano: Donny Hathaway's "A Song for You."
He wishes he would've sung this song at the "American Idol" audition (instead of Chris Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey").
He's uncertain why "A Song for You" strikes him:
If my words don't come together, listen to the melody. ’Cause my love is in there hiding.
Back in Haynesville, he considered a question: What does he think of when he thinks of his mother?
"I think of it as a positive way to push it in anything I do," Joseph said. "Because she gave the extra push when she was dying. She gave me the extra push to give me life."
LSU football now has the nation's top-ranked recruiting class of 2020, according to 247Sports.