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Florida recruit driven by personal loss

Editor's Note: This story appears in the November 2009 South Florida issue of ESPN RISE Magazine.

After making a big play in practice, Dwyer (West Palm Beach, Fla.) senior Matt Elam often tries to celebrate with a front flip. "Tries" being the key word, because Elam has never been able to complete one.

Senior tight end/linebacker Gerald Christian remembers Elam landing on his head during one attempt. On another, his helmet came off in the air and nailed him on the chin.

The flips have left Dwyer coaches holding their breath watching their star player fly through the air. But they also show how much fun Elam is having.

"I like to play around," he says.

Come game time, however, football is no laughing matter for the 6-foot, 210-pounder. Rated the nation's No. 13 recruit in the ESPNU 150, the Florida commit plays with an unmatched intensity whether he's lined up at running back, linebacker or safety for Dwyer.

The source of Elam's passion is family. Football is a way for him to make his mom, Addie Lewis, happy. He looks up to his older brother, Abram, a safety with the Cleveland Browns who offers advice on how to become a better person and player.
And the memory of his late sister, Christina, and brother, Donald, inspires him to utilize all the gifts he's been given, whether it's pushing through a grueling summer workout or playing each down like it's his last.

Christina was only 12 when she was killed by a stray bullet at a local playground in January 1999. Elam, then 8, and Abram rushed from their home to discover their dying sister.

Elam struggled to suppress the pain. The loss of a sister he looked up to made him angry and caused him to act out of character. Little things set him off, and he started getting into fights in school.

"It was hard for me," says Elam. "I felt like I had nothing left."

It took time, but eventually he came to the realization that getting in trouble wasn't the right way to honor his sister or help out his mom. Playing football was. And it helped him channel all of his aggression in a positive way.

"He competes so hard," says Dwyer head coach Jack Daniels. "Obviously he's gifted and his body is like a machine. He plays with a lot of anger. The football field seems like his safe place. When he puts his helmet on, everything stops around him."

"I think football is just an outlet and it's helped him get away from the stuff he's had to endure," adds Abram. "I think it's his safe haven."

Elam agrees.

"When I'm playing football, I can take the anger out," he says. "Football takes my mind off that. I feel like if I wasn't playing football, I'd be out there making bad decisions."

The pain resurfaced in May 2008 when Donald was shot and killed at age 33. This time, Elam dealt with the pain in a positive way. He resolved to honor his siblings by striving for success both on the gridiron and in the classroom. He also tries to portray himself as a role model for his nephew -- Donald's son -- a freshman at Arlington Country Day (Jacksonville, Fla.).

So far, Elam has delivered on his goal. In the classroom, he has a 3.0 GPA. And he's become a dominant force on the gridiron, where he wears No. 22, the same one used by Christina when she competed in track and softball.

"I know she'd be so proud of me," Elam says. "Me and her were so close. It pushes me more."

Elam transferred from Palm Beach Lakes to Dwyer prior to his junior year and was determined to use the summer to his advantage. For six hours a day, he worked out with teammates in the hopes of a dominant junior season.

He had already displayed terrific talent as a freshman and sophomore at Palm Beach Lakes. Daniels recalls a game during Elam's sophomore season in which he seemingly tackled Dwyer running back Donald Russell (now at Kentucky) every time he burst through the line.

But last year Elam took it to another level. Lining up at receiver, running back, linebacker and safety, Elam earned Player of the Year honors from the Palm Beach Post and the Sun-Sentinel. Offensively, he caught 39 passes for 758 yards and nine touchdowns and ran for 435 yards and four scores. He also finished with 91 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and nine sacks on defense. Dwyer finished the year 12-2 and lost to eventual state champion Plant in the Class 4A state semifinals.

"He brings a big impact to the team," says Christian, who has also committed to Florida. "He does so many things for us."

"If we put him on the offensive line, he'd be one of our better offensive linemen," adds Daniels, who's in his 14th season. "He's joked about playing center."

Elam is certainly no joke when it comes to crushing opponents on defense. Nicknamed "The Elaminator", he relishes using his strength to level unsuspecting ball carriers and prides himself on being an intimidating presence. Opponents even complained about how physical Elam was this past summer at Champion Gridiron Kings, a one-hand touch, seven-on-seven competition that was part of the ESPN RISE Games presented by Target.

"I'm not a person with a lot of moves. I'm just physical," says Elam. "I like to show people I'm here. I like to get my hits in early just to let them know, 'Yeah, this is going to happen all game.'"

Elam plans on graduating in December to get a head start on his career at Florida. He'll leave Dwyer as one of the best all-around athletes to suit up for the Panthers -- and one who's impressed his peers with his perseverance off the field.
"If a lot of people were in his situation, they wouldn't have handled it well," says Christian. "I think he takes what he's been through and brings it to the game as motivation."

Which is why when it comes to football, Elam isn't playing around.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.