‘The toughest mental year of sports in my life’: Ticats’ QB Dane Evans reflects on difficult season

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ quarterback Dane Evans gave a blunt assessment of this past season in Steeltown, speaking openly regarding how challenging it was to get through the year.

“I think this was a year for me personally that was probably the toughest mental year of sports in my life. I’ve played team sports since I was three years old and this was the toughest one by far,” Evans told the media in Hamilton.

“I had some really amazing things happen this year, too, like the birth of my daughter and becoming a father. I felt like I became a better husband this year, too, so I had some really great things going on but at the beginning of the year, it just wasn’t working on the football field.”

Evans was under a new level of pressure heading into the season as Jeremiah Masoli, with whom he’d previously shared quarterback duties, moved onto the Ottawa Redblacks in free agency. He was an undisputed starter for the first time in his career and had the contract to match, earning approximately $430,000 in 2022.

Between his new role and some challenging circumstances surrounding the birth of his daughter, the 28-year-old found it difficult to deal with the pressure.

“I think just becoming ‘the guy,’ having a daughter whose due date was game one in Saskatchewan all the way across the country, having the birth be kinda tough — not crazy, definitely not what some people go through — but it wasn’t smooth sailing. Anybody that’s a parent can tell you what that’s like, especially in the first couple months of your infant’s life,” he said.

“It was just a lot and I’m never gonna blame anybody else and I think I just put all that on me and for my whole life, it’s never been really that much but this was a lot.”

Evans worked with sports psychiatrist Dr. Carla Edwards this past season and felt it helped improve his level of play. He had easily his best game of the year after discussing their sessions publicly for the first time, throwing for 327 yards and five touchdowns in a 48-31 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The victory sparked a run of six games in which Hamilton went 5-1 to qualify for a berth in the postseason.

“I think if it wasn’t for Dr. Edwards, honestly I don’t think I would have made it through this season,” said Evans. “I think she helped me see how strong I actually am. I think she helped me see how good of a football player I actually am, which I think I had lost at a point, especially at the beginning of the year.”

The fourth-year quarterback set a new career high this season with 3,883 passing yards but struggled to protect the football. He led the league in interceptions and fumbles, while his quarterback rating of 90.2 ranked tenth among players with at least 100 pass attempts.

He struggled again in the playoffs as he threw for 123 yards and one interception in the East Semi-Final. He was pulled early in the third quarter with his team down 22-6 and Matthew Shiltz threw for 127 yards, one touchdown, and one interception in relief in what turned out to be a 28-17 loss to the Montreal Alouettes.

Evans is scheduled to make approximately $455,000 in 2023, which the club could deem too rich given his level of play this past season. The club could ask him to restructure his contract for next year or release him outright depending on their plans for the future. He remains confident in his abilities as a CFL quarterback despite the challenges he faced this past season.

“I know some people probably think that sounds crazy since I got pulled or whatever, but I still think I’m a pretty damn good football player. I really would like to have finished that game and I think I came in strides from how I started this season. I really view this as two seasons: when I wasn’t me and when I was me. I think you can see that when we got hot, I was me.”

Evans remains pleased with how his teammates handled a turbulent season despite the club’s early elimination from the playoffs. He expressed his appreciation for players remaining positive and supportive when it would have been easy to turn on one another due to the pressure of losing so many early-season games.

“(I’m) insanely proud of how even when we were 0-4 and also when we were 3-9 after Labour Day, after losing to Toronto, who we never lose to at home, nobody flinched. Nobody turned on each other,” he said.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with coaching, I think it had everything to do with the guys in the locker room, the special people that they are because we have some insanely special people on this team, some insanely special characters, guys that I’ll never forget, memories that I’ll never forget. I think that’s what allowed us to even be in the playoffs in the first place because let’s face it, everybody had written us off after Labour Day.”

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.