Each of the first seven years of Lee Evans' NFL career ended the exact same way.
Evans would finish up the regular season, empty the stuff in his locker into a bag and head home for the offseason. He and his Buffalo Bills teammates would watch the postseason unfold from their living rooms as hundreds of other players around the league got to enjoy the playoff stage and the excitement that comes with fighting it out for the Lombardi Trophy.
Every year, Evans says, he'd wonder whether he'd ever get to experience that excitement, whether he'd get a chance to suit up and take the field in the playoffs instead of having to watch the games from home. And with every season that passed, those questions in Evans' head ("Will I ever get there? Is there a chance I'll never be part of a playoff team?") would only intensify.
This season, of course, is different. Now a member of the Ravens, Evans is a part of the AFC North champions, and thus, he'll get his first ever taste of the playoffs next Sunday when the Ravens host a divisional round game. That's why, despite being asked countless questions this week about finally making it to the postseason, Evans still cracks a smile when yet another reporter inquires about how he's reacting to this experience.
"It's special," Evans said. "To be on this journey with these men who have been there and done it before, really there is only one thing left to conquer. I can't even put it into words. It's a special experience for me. It's kind of like being a rookie all over again going into the playoffs because it's somewhere I've never been, but I'm looking forward to it and I've been preparing for it since I came into the league. So, I'm excited."
The last four years, those in the Ravens' locker room have known nothing but the playoffs. The Ravens have 35 players on their 53-man roster that have been to the postseason before, including guys like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Jameel McClain, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura who have made the playoffs every season in their pro careers.
But not every player is so lucky. Some guys, like Evans, can play years in the NFL and not reach the postseason. Even if they do get a taste of the playoffs, that opportunity might be gone before they've really gotten a chance to enjoy it.
You can file running back Ricky Williams into that category. Williams has now played 11 NFL seasons and has suited up for 147 regular season games in that time. The veteran has made the playoffs twice in his 10 prior years in the league, but both times, his team has been bounced in the wild card round.
One hundred forty-seven regular season games, just two playoff games. That's a ratio that Williams says he's looking forward to adjusting over the next few weeks.
"I've enjoyed everything that I've experienced, but I think when you get into the upper echelon of teams and you have an opportunity to go deep into the playoffs, it's different," Williams said. "It's really where heroes are made, where stars are made and where careers are made. So I think we have an opportunity to show how special we are.
"I've had a long career and a successful career, but a Super Bowl is something that's not on my resume. So it would be nice to go deep and showcase, as a team, our abilities and the way we play football."
According to head coach John Harbaugh, veterans like Anquan Boldin have made sure to talk with the younger players this week and let them know that opportunities like the one they have now don't come around every season. Boldin even made a point to reference Evans and Williams in a speech during an offensive meeting, Harbaugh said.
"When you've been in the league for seven, eight, nine, 10 years and you haven't been to the playoffs, sometimes the young guys take it for granted," Harbaugh said. "The veterans can let them know how special it really is."
"I think that message has been portrayed," said Evans. "A lot of the older guys who have been here, that have gone through it before, they're imparting that upon people. For me, I understand how hard it is to get here and how hard we've had to work to get to this point. This is one of those moments you've got to cherish but also take advantage of because they don't come very often."