BRIDGEPORT, Ill. -- Eli Evans doesn't dwell on the horrific violence that surrounded his birth 16 years ago.
He has known the unfathomable details for years since he and his older brother came to live with their grandfather in this rural southeastern Illinois community. Sam Evans still encourages the boys to come to him whenever they feel the need to discuss what happened.
"I always think God has a plan for me since he kept me here," Eli said. "I was put on this earth for a reason, and I'm still trying to figure out what the reason is. I know it's going to be something good because not many people could have survived what I did."
Elijah "Eli" James Evans, who cherishes his brother, Jordan, and grandfather, seems to be thriving now as a high school football player who dreams of an NFL career. He is keenly aware that the story of his birth shocked the nation.
He hasn't publicly shared the story of his life since. But not long after his 16th birthday, Eli agreed to a Chicago Tribune request to speak about his remarkable path to adulthood.
Late on the night of Nov. 16, 1995, his mother, Debra Evans, was fatally shot in her Addison apartment. Eli, a full-term baby, was cut from her womb with a pair of shears.
Also slain were her 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, and 7-year-old son, Joshua, whose body was later discovered in a Maywood alley. Jordan, then 22 months old, was found in the apartment, sobbing, "Mommy hurt."
Eli was whisked away by the killers but was rescued within hours after police closed in on three suspects who were later convicted of the slayings.
Jacqueline Annette Williams knew about Evans' pregnancy and concocted the kidnapping plot because she couldn't have a child with her boyfriend, Fedell Caffey, prosecutors said.
Also charged were Caffey and Williams' cousin, Levern Ward, the biological father of Eli and Jordan.
Ward was sentenced to life in prison. The other two received death sentences, but Gov. George Ryan commuted all death row sentences to life without parole in 2003.
Sam Evans said he wasn't allowed to see the baby until three days after the murders. Authorities carried Eli into the funeral home where Evans was attending the wake for his slain daughter and two grandchildren.
Following the wishes of the boy's mother, relatives named him Elijah, the Biblical name of a prophet who raised the dead.
"I didn't think there was a prayer he could have lived," said Evans, 63, who testified at all three trials, telling jurors he thanked God each day that Eli survived his birth.
After a five-month struggle to become the boys' legal guardian, the Vietnam veteran brought them home with him. They lived in the country outside Bridgeport for the first several years, but Evans later bought a home within blocks of their school so the boys could be close to friends.
Evans said he immediately felt responsible for the two brothers. They were all he had left of Debra, 28, the oldest of his five children.
Evans recalled that one evening, he overheard Jordan whisper to Eli, who was still in a crib, that they were safe now because their grandfather promised to protect them from "those bad guys."
"From that point on," Evans said, "there was no doubt we were together, and it was going to be for keeps."
His life is a promise fulfilled, Eli said.
"I never honestly said thank you," he told his grandfather recently. "It's special what he did for me. He's always wanted what was best for me, even when I wouldn't listen."
Eli is a sophomore at Red Hill Junior Senior High School in this tight-knit community, nestled near the Indiana border 200 miles southeast of Chicago. The city of 1,900 residents once was a booming oil center, but never recovered after a Texaco refinery closed in the mid-1980s.
In many respects, Eli is a typical teenager. He just got a driver's license and has been trying to coax his disapproving grandfather into letting him pierce his ear. He raps to Lil Wayne songs. One of his favorite movies is "The Blind Side," based on pro football player Michael Oher's life story.
An average student, Eli likes U.S. history and chemistry, isn't so fond of Spanish and would rather run track or walk Beast, his Rottweiler, than be cooped up playing video games.
Elected freshman class president last year, the teen resigned after he realized the commitment would cut into his athletics, he said. He and Jordan began playing varsity football as freshmen. They are focused on getting college scholarships. Eli wears No. 43, Jordan, No. 34.
The brothers were separated for the first time this fall. Jordan moved in with an uncle in Kentucky so he could play football for a larger high school in the hope of being noticed by college recruiters.
The distance separating them has been tough on Eli, who idolizes his older brother. They talk on the phone most nights and will reunite over Christmas break.
Eli's athletic attention during winter is on basketball. After a grueling practice, the players huddled around coach Bryan Havill, who told the Salukis they have to work harder. How they react to adversity will speak volumes about their character, he said.
That evening at dinner, Eli repeated those words. He knows about adversity, he said, about giving your all to work through it with the help of others.
Many in the town are aware of the boys' story. So are most of the 295 students at school, said principal Clarence Gross, who described Eli as bright, honest and mature for his age.
On a recent afternoon, the teen found himself telling the story to a teacher in the cafeteria. When he finished, he noticed other students had gathered to listen.
"I'm OK with telling them what happened," he said. "It doesn't hurt me. ... I've been telling people my whole life."
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