LINCOLN PARK — By his second birthday, Evan Brandon already had gone under the knife nine times.
The surgeries were to correct the complications from Hirschsprung's disease, which results in missing nerve cells in a baby's large intestine.
"It was a lot of poking and prodding and a lot of pain for him," said Brandon's mother, Karen. "And we certainly didn't think he would end up being able to do what he does now."
What Brandon does is dominate on the soccer pitch, where the 18-year-old midfielder and Lincoln Park High School senior signed a National Letter of Intent to play for two-time national champion University of Connecticut, one of the country's elite programs.
UConn coach Ray Reid, a four-time national coach of the year, said Brandon was a "diamond in the rough" with a "huge upside." Kevin Wickart, a former two-time All-Conference USA player who has coached or trained Brandon since he was 9 years old, said Brandon "definitely has the foundation to make it as a pro."
Yet, for the most part, Brandon has flown under the soccer radar. Perhaps that's because he hasn't suited up for a high school team since his freshman year — instead competing for the Chicago Magic. The Magic are part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy — which grooms superior players to obtain potential spots on the U.S. National Team but doesn't get the media coverage or fan attendance that traditional prep programs receive.
The lack of attention has suited Brandon just fine. He said only his family, girlfriend Alexxis Gentil and a few close friends knew he had committed to UConn. At Lincoln Park High School's Decision Day on May 1 — where seniors revealed where they would be attending college — Brandon said Gentil had to goad him into wearing UConn letters so others would know his intentions.
"I don't really like to talk about what I've done or what I'm doing," said Brandon, a former Beverly and current South Loop resident. "I guess I like to surprise people with what I do."
Brandon has been amazing Karen, an attorney Downtown, and his father, Ron, an architect, since he was born. Karen said each of her son's surgeries — some of which consisted of removing part of the large intestine — took several hours. They also impacted his ability to eat, and Karen said he was an "extremely skinny" toddler.
"Just to get him through surgeries and now be healthy and have a good physique is a godsend," Karen said.
Brandon's only remnant of the surgeries is a long scar across his abdomen that he and his family jokingly call the "Smiley Face." He is now 5 feet, 8 inches tall and a muscular 160 pounds, and he uses his frame to power past defenders.
"His first touch is very good," said Wickart, owner of Technical Soccer Solutions, a soccer player training company. "He's got a lot of flair and a lot of creativity."
Brandon has felt imaginative ever since first stepping onto a soccer field as a 7-year-old. He said the sport has been his one consistent love, a place where he "can escape."
It's also been a way for him to bond with his brother Kyle, 9, who already has been kicking the ball around for seven years.
"It's where I can get away from issues that are around me," Brandon said. "And other than school, hanging out with my brother and girlfriend, my life is just soccer. That's all I do."
His dream school for years has been UConn. Both his parents are from the Nutmeg State, and Ron is a huge Huskies men's basketball backer.
Brandon has been on UConn's radar since Reid's staff saw him a few years ago during a national tournament with the Magic. Brandon committed to the Huskies after attending a soccer camp on campus and officially signed earlier this school year.
"We offered him a spot because we think he's talented," Reid said. "We're excited. He's coming from a good pedigree."
Brandon, who scored a 27 on his ACT and earned a 4.2 grade-point average, will major in kinesiology. If soccer doesn't work out, he plans to become a trainer for a soccer or basketball team.
Of course, Brandon fully intends to make a go at a professional career.
He said heading to Storrs is the perfect way to start.
"Being able to to go Connecticut is a really big deal for me," Brandon said. "I think it's going to be a big step up, but I think I'll be able to handle it."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: