An NFL player can contribute to his team's success by doing many different things that won't necessarily show up in the box scores.
In New England, the system asks its players to be versatile, and fullback Heath Evans' ability to help the team win in many ways makes him a valuable component both on and off the field.
Evans has learned over his six-year career that there are many ways to a help a team succeed beyond carrying the football or scoring touchdowns. Unlike some players who are comfortable with doing only one job and having just one responsibility, Evans has grown to enjoy his many duties.
"I've really found a niche here," the 28-year-old said. "For any player you just want to feel comfortable in your role. For me, having a variety of things that they ask me to do week-to-week, I enjoy that. There's never an opportunity to get bored doing the same thing over and over again. It's really been a blessing."
The 6-foot, 250-pounder has spent the majority of the season lining up as the fullback in the I-formation, where he has served as a lead blocker and short-yardage specialist, but has also expanded his role as a pass catcher, even lining up as a split end at times. He has been a big contributor on special teams and is also known as one of the friendliest players in the locker room.
Head coach Bill Belichick recognizes Evans' vast array of skills. "He's built kind of like a fullback, but he's really a running back," Belichick said. "He ran the ball in college and we used him as a running back here last year in several games when we were a little short at the position. He's a very good pass receiver, and he's been contributing for us on special teams and in the kicking game, both in coverage and on return units. He's a smart guy. He's good on blitz pickup. He's a very good, all-around versatile player."
While he's been called on to do many things this season, it has been Evans' blocking out of the backfield that has become his most significant contribution.
Evans has thrown key blocks on several long touchdown runs this season, including Corey Dillon's 21-yard touchdown jaunt in the Patriots' 40-23 win over the Tennessee Titans in the regular-season finale.
Evans, who was a star tailback at The King's Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida and primarily a tailback until his senior year at Auburn, admits that blocking was one of the hardest skills for him to learn when he came to the National Football League.
When he was drafted by Seattle in the third round of 2001 NFL Draft, the Seahawks turned him into a fullfledged fullback. He was fortunate to become the understudy to veteran Mack Strong, who is regarded as one of the NFL's best-blocking fullbacks. Strong took Evans under his wing and taught the rookie about blocking.
"Mack has taught me the most of any player," Evans said. "He was unbelievable; so humble. He would sit down and explain how to do it. Most veterans don't want to help a rookie coming into the league because they see him as someone who is trying to take his job, but Mack was the complete opposite."
Evans has developed a love and appreciation for blocking. He said that the sensation of throwing a big block to open a hole for a running back now trumps the excitement of scoring a touchdown.
"The self accomplishments like getting in the end zone feel good, but when you go through and knock out a safety or a defensive back with Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney or Kevin Faulk flying off your hip, that has really become the highlight of my day."
Developing his speed has also been a vital part of Evans' success. It hasn't always been a key attribute of his, and nearly changed his career path.
"Catching the ball and running have always come easy to me, but I needed to improve my speed to make it in the NFL," he explained. "Now, the speed that I play the game at 250 pounds surprises people, but when I was a freshman going into spring practices at Auburn, the coaches tried to get me to play offensive line because they didn't think that I'd be fast enough."
Having been a two-time all-state running back at The King's Academy, Evans believed in his ability to run the ball and refused to let Auburn's coaches' first impressions lead to a position change. So, Evans went home and found a speed coach. They went to work to make him faster.
"He gave me a workout plan and all that summer I stuck with it," Evans recalled. "We worked out six days a week. I dropped a lot of body fat and got faster. From that point on, I kind of had everything that I needed."
Never one to give up easily, Evans attributes his work ethic to his father, who was a former Marine who served for three years during Vietnam.
"There was just a mental toughness that was expected in our home," he explained. "You hear stories about the life of a Marine, and you compare them to my daily life as a high school football player or basketball player, and everything would be put into perspective.
"It was easy to go work out to my fullest extent because there was always a clear perspective in my mind of what was truly tough. For me, second-best effort was never accepted, but if my best was second best, then that was alright."
Growing up with that outlook has helped Evans succeed, despite an up-and-down NFL career, which has included being released by the Miami Dolphins midway through the 2005 season.
With injuries mounting in the Patriots backfield last season, Evans was signed by New England to help resurrect the running game.
In Evans' first game with the Patriots, Dillon was injured on one of the first plays of the game against the Dolphins and Evans became the premier back against his former team. To the pleasant surprise of many New England fans, the newcomer rushed for a careerhigh 84 yards in leading the Patriots to a 23-16 road victory.
"Corey got hurt and they had nobody else to turn to," he recalled. "I got an opportunity and I took advantage of it."
Evans also collected a career highlight this season against the Dolphins in October, when he scored his first career touchdown on a 1- yard pass from Tom Brady.
Although his list of achievements on the field has been growing, Evans insists that it is the things that he does off the field that he wants to define his career.
"I was always taught that it is your character, not your accomplishments, that determine your legacy," he explained. "There are guys who have played in this league who have rushed for thousands of yards and a boatload of touchdowns, but because of a major character flaw, they are remembered for their mistakes rather than their accomplishments.
"When I'm done playing, sure I'd like to have a lot of accolades but as long as my teammates can look back at me and say that I was a man of character, fun to be around, that I was going to play hard and do all the things that were asked of me. That's how I want to be remembered."