Dwyer linebacker Gage Batten, NFL fullback Heath Evans form friendship through football
Thursday, June 16, 2011
by Matt Porter
Damon Higgins / Palm Beach Post
Heath Evans and Gage Batten at the Dwyer High School football field.
Gage Batten, a high school linebacker, once thought it was "cool" he was friends with NFL player and local legend Heath Evans. But the bond between the 16-year-old Dwyer student and the New Orleans Saints fullback has become much more.
"Since then, he's been just like my older brother," Batten said. "Sometimes I even forget we're not brothers by blood."
Evans has invited Batten to his home in New Orleans to work out with fellow Saints players and Batten has baby-sat at Evans' West Palm Beach home. They hang out, bonding over faith and football and Evans has had dinner at the Batten home with Batten and his parents, Greg and AnnMarie.
"I remember the first time he showed up, how weird it was," Batten said. "It's an NFL player ringing the doorbell. They didn't know what to expect. But he's part of the family now."
What Evans, a former King's Academy star, sees in Batten, who transferred to Dwyer from King's last season, is potential and drive.
Batten, at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, enters his senior season at Dwyer with interest from BCS schools such as Florida, Florida State, Auburn and Georgia, as well as premier academic schools such as Harvard and Stanford. He is a linebacker's linebacker: thickly built, aggressive, a non-stop worker on the field.
"He's hands-down the most gifted high school player I've ever worked with," said Evans, who Saturday will host his sixth annual 7-on-7 tournament at King's Academy to raise money for the Heath Evans Foundation. While Dwyer will play in the tournament, Batten will sit out with an ankle injury.
Evans and Batten met three years ago when Evans was a spectator at a junior varsity basketball game and noticed a stocky, tenacious freshman on King's. After the game, Evans introduced himself to Greg Batten, a general contractor who owns Batten Construction, and his son.
Soon, Gage was tagging along with Evans to the gym and on the practice fields at King's. The line between coach and pupil blurred. The high school freshman pushed the 6-foot, 250-pound NFL veteran just as hard.
"Shoot, I said 'hey, if you want to be great, I can help you be great,'" Evans recalled.
Batten was ready, but there was one condition. If he gave less than his best just once, Evans said, he would need to find another workout partner.
No issue there.
"I write out a diet, he sticks with it down to the single calorie. I write a workout plan, he sticks with it to the last sit-up, the last tricep extension. He doesn't skip a beat," Evans said. "I make this kid eat stuff that would make a billy goat puke. I put him through workouts that you could get probably less than 20 NFL players to do."
Evans sought the advice of coaches and teammates, like Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, creating a custom plan for a future pro.
Batten spent two weeks last summer staying at Heath and Beth Ann Evans' home in New Orleans, working out with his Saints teammates. At the Evans' offseason home in West Palm Beach, Batten occasionally baby-sits for their daughters, Ava, 6, and Naomi, 4. During the season, Evans flies in on his bye weeks to see Batten play. They call or text each other every few days.
"My phone is always on to him," said Evans, 32. "I'm that age in between parents and him, so he gets some parental instruction, so he also gets that big brother instruction from me as well."
They'll work out more this summer, and little brother will keep making big brother proud.
"When you see someone who has been gifted, but also has the work ethic to go alongside it, that excites me," Evans said. "He's a kid that craves what I can give him, and that's made me fall in love with the kid. He's going to be special. He already is special."