Be a role model, Dukes' brother pleads

Taking a different path from their troubled upbringing, he cautions his big-league sibling.

Published May 27, 2007

TAMPA -- Elijah Dukes' little brother has a plea.

Tyrone Evans, one year younger than the 22-year-old Devil Rays rookie outfielder, grew up side-by-side with Dukes as they overcame the hurdles of a tumultuous childhood to become successful athletes.

He's read what people are saying about his brother -- calling him a monster and demanding the Rays cut ties with him. He doesn't know what to make of accusations by NiShea Gilbert, Dukes' wife, that he threatened her and showed up in a rage at her middle school job. He admits his brother made some bad choices in his young life.

But he has his own personal message to Dukes.

"You knew what it took to get to the major leagues," said Evans, a 21-year-old rising senior and business management major at Albany State University in Georgia. "Don't mess it up now."

"You only have so many chances in life," Evans said. "This is his chance right now. Just leave everything else alone and just focus on being a better role model."

Evans, a former Hillsborough High School basketball standout, is a starting guard on his college basketball team. He is an A student. While Dukes has a history of anger on and off the baseball field, Evans speaks softly and addresses people as "sir" and "ma'am."

They grew up in a household that preached the value of being competitive, Evans said. Each of them played baseball, football and basketball. But it didn't stop there. They battled over who could catch the most fish, or who could make the best R&B mix CD.

Evans admits his brother has trouble switching off his competitive drive and controlling his emotions.

Familiar behavior

Those emotional outbursts landed him in his current situation, accused of leaving a voice mail message on his wife's telephone that said, in part, "You dead, dawg. ... Your kids, too." Gilbert said Dukes also sent a photo of a handgun to her cell phone.

Following an April 30 confrontation at Beth Shields Middle School in Ruskin, where Gilbert works as a teacher, Dukes was escorted off school property and warned not to return or face arrest. On May 17, Gilbert was granted a protective order barring Dukes from contacting her. A hearing to extend that order is scheduled for Wednesday.

Evans said he's familiar with Dukes' fiery demeanor. His brother has a history of acting up when provoked.

"Sometimes I wish he could have my kind of attitude, you know, a laid-back competitor," Evans said. "I just wish that sometimes he wouldn't wear his emotions on his sleeve. But that's his makeup. I guess that's why he's survived this far. He's just such an emotional person."

Dukes and Evans were born in Homestead and lived with their mother, father and three older half-siblings as well as a younger sister, Mary. Evans said his last name is different than his brother's due to a hospital mix-up. Evans is his mother's maiden name.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed their home and forced the family into a shelter. Left with nothing, the family relocated to Tampa with an aunt, Evans said. They settled into an apartment near Copeland Park and later moved to a duplex in Sulphur Springs. The father, Elijah Dukes Sr., took a job as a truck driver.

Evans and his brother were close to their father, who took them fishing and attended their sporting events. Evans said his father took pride in his children and pushed them to succeed. So the family was rocked when he was arrested in 1995 on a murder charge. Dukes Sr. received a 20-year prison sentence for shooting a man who sold his wife $100 worth of fake crack cocaine.

Evans said he was at a loss to explain the circumstances of that incident -- which he thinks is brought up too often, whenever Elijah lands in trouble. His father had no prior criminal record and he said he never saw his mother use drugs. "She never showed signs of someone who was on drugs," he said.

An escape

Dukes' mother went on welfare, Evans said, and he and his brother turned to sports as a distraction. Even at a young age, people recognized Dukes' physical prowess.

But their home life was a different story.

One night, not long after their father's conviction, Evans said his mom, Phyllis Dukes, came home from a night out with a swollen jaw, carrying several of her teeth. He said she was punched by a friend of the man his father was convicted of killing.

"To see someone beat up your mom, it does something to your psyche," Evans said. "Any time someone comes within striking distance you feel threatened."

He said his mother sat all of the children down and told them not to let their situation get them down. "She told us, 'You all don't have to live with anger in your hearts,'" Evans said. "'Don't live with fear.'"

But life wasn't easy for the family.

Evans said his older brother, Willie Evans, was shot in the arm and the leg in a drive-by shooting.

Evans said his mother would always make sure her children had a hot meal. And before school started every year, they each received a new pair of shoes and one outfit, he said. But he also remembers coming home from school and the electricity would be shut off.

"The federal help she got was only able to do so much," Evans said. "We understood that. She would tell us not to run around so much outside or else we'd have to take a cold bath. ... We would light candles and it would be fine. She did everything she could and she would tell us all the time, 'Don't be ashamed.'"

As an escape, Dukes and Evans talked about professional athletes like Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. They dreamed of playing ball and building a better life.

"We spent countless nights crying because we wanted some of the things that other kids had," Evans said. "(Elijah) always told me, 'Yo, T, it's gonna get better, man.'"

Evans said Elijah assumed the role of father figure in the house. He was always in the stands at Evans' basketball games. When their sister Mary was in the hospital with a pituitary tumor, Dukes was by her side whenever he wasn't playing baseball, he said.

"Since my dad's been gone, he's told me he's my daddy, " Evans said. "If I need something he tells me to call him because he's my daddy."

But just two years after his father was sent to prison, Dukes started making bad decisions, court records show. His first run-in with the law came at age 13, when he was arrested and charged with battery. He was arrested again the following year on another battery charge.

Over the next decade, he would receive more than a dozen traffic tickets and be arrested several more times, including a battery charge stemming from a fight with his older sister, Katrina Evans.

Dukes also fathered at least five children with four women between 2003 and 2006.

Evans said his brother's rap sheet doesn't tell the whole story.

"Elijah has made some mistakes, but I'm the same guy who witnesses him break down every time something goes wrong with one of his friends," Evans said. "If anything happened, he would be there for them. And I'm the same person who, at his graduation party, witnessed him crying. He has a big heart and he's very emotional."

Evans said Elijah would push him. Even though Evans got better grades, Dukes still found a way to motivate him in school.

"He would always say, 'You go to the next grade and it's going to be harder,'" said Evans, who was a year behind Dukes in school. "That's how he pushed me. And sometimes his way of motivating seemed like it was mean, but actually it wasn't. I look back on it now and I see what he was doing."

Dukes, who attended four high schools in four years, received a scholarship to play linebacker at N.C. State. But he decided to pursue professional baseball when the Devil Rays made him their third-round selection in the 2003 player draft. Evans received a basketball scholarship to Albany State.

But while Evans has quietly gone on to success, Dukes has drawn headlines wherever he goes for his temper -- throughout his time in the minor leagues (drawing several suspensions) and now at the major league level.

"I've seen him at his low points, and this is supposed to be one of the high times in his life, but he's so emotionally charged," Evans said. "All that he did in the past, I know he'd give anything in the world to get rid of it because that's never the person he wanted to be."

Evans said he doesn't think his brother needs help, but he needs to avoid situations where his anger could flare up. He said Dukes needs to stay close to his teammates and the Devil Rays organization, which can provide him with support and structure.

"If it means him not coming back (to Tampa) and just stay in the St. Pete area, then that's what he needs to do," Evans said. "Right now he needs to stay away and get himself together. He just needs to chill."

Evans said he hasn't talked to his brother since the media firestorm erupted. Because of Dukes' hectic schedule, the two don't talk frequently, although Evans sends text messages.

Evans said he doesn't know what's going to happen next. But he hopes his brother is listening.

"We all had that one person we used to look up to," Evans said. "Elijah, I used to follow his lead. ... It hurts me to see how it all turned out. It wasn't supposed to be this way."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8683.