SANFORD — Football in the ACC is home to eight national championships, 48 Pro Football Hall of Famers and 95 first-round NFL Draft selections (since 2005).
It’s also home to three Lee County athletes, each working to cement their own legacy on different campuses in the Triangle.
For Desmond Evans (North Carolina), Jamie Shaw (N.C. State) and Nate Thompson (Duke), the massive stadiums packed with thousands of screaming fans may be their new reality, but it all started in the much smaller — but still passionate — Lee County.
They haven’t always been a Tar Heel, a member of the Wolfpack and a Blue Devil.
At one time, they were a Yellow Jacket, a Titan and a Cavalier.
And deep down, they still are.
“My sophomore year, we were in overtime against Lee County and there was a tipped-ball Hail Mary (and we won), that was great,” recalls Thompson with a laugh when asked about his favorite Southern Lee moments. “And also in basketball, my senior year, going all the way to the fourth round. Those are just memories I’ll never forget.”
From unforgettable plays to career-defining moments to near-championship seasons, their time spent in Lee County — specifically, their hometown of Sanford — acts as the backbone for their football success.
Evans was on the field, under the bright lights, for the 10th-ranked Tar Heels’ season-opener in Blacksburg, Virginia, last Friday night against Virginia Tech.
The unranked Hokies’ defense was a force to be reckoned with, sacking UNC quarterback and Heisman hopeful Sam Howell six times and forcing three interceptions en route to a 17-10 upset victory.
One of the team’s most promising outside linebackers, Evans played 24 snaps against the Hokies, where he totaled four tackles (one solo, three assisted) in a fairly quiet night.
But a few years ago, the noise surrounding Evans was anything but quiet as he emerged as one of the most highly touted football players in the country.
Scouting reports — including that written by 24/7 Sports’ Charles Power in Sept. 2018 — praised Evans for his effort, his physicality and his ability to “dominate the competition with his physical tools,” wrote Power.
Before committing to UNC in Oct. 2019, ESPN tabbed Evans as the No. 1 player in the state, the No. 1 defensive end in the nation and No. 2 overall player in the nation.
“(Scouts started watching me) when I was young, probably in 9th grade when I was 14 years old, so they’ve always been around me,” Evans told the News + Record. “My dad and my mom just told me to be humble about it and not let it go to my head, so that’s what I’m doing right now, being calm, cool and collected.”
“He wasn’t a real big guy on social media,” recalls Steve Burdeau, Lee County’s current head coach and Evans’ head coach for his final two seasons. “He wasn’t worried about what other people were posting on social media or this and that throughout his recruiting process. It was more just about his team and how he could improve, he wasn’t necessarily worried about accolades.”
While Evans was garnering plenty of hype nationwide — he received offers from powerhouse programs such as Alabama and Clemson, along with UNC — those at Lee County already knew how special he was.
During his four-year varsity career, Evans was one of the primary leaders of a Lee County team that lost just five games in four seasons, amassing a 50-5 record, four playoff appearances and, in his senior season, a state championship game appearance where the Yellow Jackets came up just short of a state title, losing 34-14 to the Weddington Warriors.
“He was fortunate to have the natural abilities that he was blessed with: long arms and long legs,” Burdeau said. “He’s an explosive, fast-switch type of guy. Really what always impressed me about Des was how hard he’s willing to work. Any time you turn it up on him, he can turn it up as well.”
Evans announced his commitment to UNC during a homecoming pep rally his senior year, a move that impressed Burdeau because of Evans’ willingness to get the entire school involved instead of having a specific ceremony dedicated to himself.
“(One of my favorite memories) was the homecoming when I committed,” Evans said. “Everybody came to the gym, I said where I was going to go and everyone went crazy. That was a good moment right there.”
Evans said that UNC’s prestigious reputation for education, along with the chance to play under Hall of Fame Head Coach Mack Brown, were two of his biggest reasons for choosing the Tar Heels over the likes of the Crimson Tide and the Tigers.
In his true freshman season last year, Evans racked up 10 tackles (two solo, eight assisted), a sack and a fumble recovery in 10 games.
With some of UNC’s top senior linebackers, such as Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper, being granted an extra year of eligibility this season by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Evans will likely have his role limited again this year, though increased from last season.
But if he can show both talent and improvement during his 20-30 snaps per game, there’s a strong possibility that he could blossom into a star for the Tar Heels.
“I’m just looking forward to my team winning games and me doing my job,” Evans said. “If I’m doing my job, we’re going to win more games.”
Nate Thompson, a redshirt junior safety for the Duke Blue Devils, is one of the other players representing Lee County in the ACC this year.
And this season is poised to be his biggest yet.
Thompson’s season, however, got off to a rocky start when it was announced by the team that he’d miss the season-opener last Friday night due to COVID-19 protocols — a game in which the Blue Devils desperately needed all the defensive help they could get, dropping a 31-28 contest to the Charlotte 49ers — but that has little effect on his outlook this year.
For the first time in his career, Thompson is set to be a full-time starting safety for Duke.
“The real big difference right now (from last season) is having an actual camp and getting bigger, stronger, faster,” Thompson said. “We worked over the offseason to fix our culture and everybody’s more bought in, playing as a team and playing for one another instead of just for themselves. That’s a big difference and we’re excited for this year.”
Prior to arriving in Durham, Thompson — an all-around athlete — was a key member of Southern Lee’s football and basketball programs during his four-year career as a Cavalier.
In eight total seasons split between both programs, Thompson missed the playoffs just once, which came during his senior year of football, when the Cavaliers finished 5-6 and were narrowly left out of the postseason.
On the field, he was a three-time all-conference defensive back from the Cape Fear Valley 3A Conference who compiled 205 tackles and 10 interceptions over four seasons. And on the court, he even added a Cape Fear Valley Conference Player of the Year award for his play during his junior season on Southern Lee’s basketball team.
“I used to play quarterback in middle school and they tried me there at Southern Lee, but with my size (now 6-foot-3, 200 lbs.), they wanted me at corner and that turned out to my advantage,” Thompson said. “I started getting a lot of letters my freshman year from big-time schools and that made me realize that I can do this. So I started grinding harder.”
Perhaps one of Thompson’s greatest accomplishments, however, is his 3-1 career record against Lee County, including a close, 16-13 win against Evans’ team in 2016.
Now, with Thompson playing at Duke and Evans at UNC, the famed Lee County-Southern Lee rivalry has found its way into the historic UNC-Duke rivalry.
“(The UNC-Duke rivalry) is kind of similar because playing Des, who went to Lee County and is now at UNC, brings back those memories,” Thompson said. “It’s always just a hometown thing.” “I look at (the rivalry) as if Duke was Southern Lee,” Evans added with a laugh. “Either they take the Bell (Victory Bell trophy) or we take the Bell, and they ain’t going to take the Bell this year, that’s all I’m saying.”
Thompson originally decided on Duke because it made him feel at home and he had already begun to think of life outside of football, so receiving a Duke education in the process didn’t seem like a bad idea.
“It’s more of a 40-year decision instead of a four-year decision,” Thompson said. “And also my mom’s just in love with Duke, so that kind of helped me out too.”
After redshirting his freshman season due to a hamstring injury and a deep safety group, he went on to play a combined 21 games in his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons. Including five starts, racking up 45 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one interception and one fumble recovery.
Now, as a full-time starter, Thompson’s role should be much bigger in a season where Duke will need to rely on their defense to get stops in key moments.
“I realized that the game is way faster than it was in high school, everybody’s just bigger, stronger and faster and you actually have to put in the time to get better,” Thompson said. “(My role) is just to be the best player I can for my teammates and give it my all, no matter what.”
Shaw’s situation was a little different than his Lee County counterparts.
While he lived in Sanford — and was homeschooled there through middle school before attending an early college for high school — his passion for football caused him to make the 35- to 45-minute drive to Fayetteville each day to play for the Sandhills Titans.
Sandhills deems itself a Christian ministry-based program with its athletes stemming from a variety of area high schools, homeschool programs and early colleges.
It’s essentially a high school football team without an actual high school, with their competition consisting of private high schools and some smaller public schools. Shaw compared the team to the size and competition level of 2A public high school team.
When Shaw arrived at Sandhills, he primarily played defense, but after the starting quarterback left, there was a vacancy at the position and Shaw sought to fill it.
For the next three years, Shaw acted as the team’s starting quarterback and would go on to throw for over 6,000 career passing yards, making him Sandhills’ all-time leading passer.
“I always did a lot of extra work outside of practice and I felt like that prepared me,” Shaw told the News + Record. “I also had good coaches and good players alongside me, so I felt generally well-prepared when I got (to N.C. State).”
Shaw, who’s always valued academics and his career after football, decided to attend N.C. State to both major in mechanical engineering and walk onto the football team as a quarterback, following in his father’s, Mark Shaw’s, footsteps, who was an engineering major and a defensive end for the Wolfpack in the early 1980s.
However, with five quarterbacks ahead of Shaw on the depth chart his freshman season, he decided to redshirt his first year with the idea that he likely wouldn’t see the field much, if at all.
And while he enjoyed his time in the quarterback room, learning behind some of the most talented players on the team and helping with signals on the sidelines, before his redshirt freshman season, Head Coach Dave Doeren presented him with the offer to switch back to defense, the position he grew up playing before his sophomore year at Sandhills.
He obliged, switching from quarterback to linebacker in 2020, a position he claims is more similar than people think.
“I kind of missed the physical aspect of the game because when you get to college as a quarterback, there’s no physical aspect unless you’re actually on the field playing in the game,” Shaw said. “Now I play Mike linebacker, which is essentially the quarterback of the defense, so there are leadership similarities. … And also, having that quarterback mindset and being able to think from their position, understanding how offenses work to that extent, has really helped me on defense.”
Due to his position switch happening so soon before the start of the 2020 season, he decided to sit out for the entire year, learning the position behind a strong group of linebackers.
For his redshirt sophomore season, Shaw is unclear of what his role will be for the Wolfpack, but he appears enthusiastic to help the team in whatever way they’ll let him.
“It’s hard for me to say at this point because we have the best linebackers in the ACC, in my opinion, and I’ve seen a lot of analysts that have said the same,” Shaw said. “So, honestly, I’m going to support wherever they need it.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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