Elam succeeds in the wake of tragedy

Matt Elam has always been able to run hard and fast, but only upon slowing down did he become a truly fabulous high school football player, and a more promising person.

Blessed with golden DNA, the same mix of genes that has landed brother Abram Elam with the NFL's Browns, ESPNU's No. 13-ranked senior in the nation has otherwise been doubly cursed.

If your 12-year-old sister had been murdered when you were 8 and your oldest brother murdered last year in the very same park of your neighborhood, chances are you'd be a flight risk, too.

But the running back-safety is not running now unless he's playing. Dwyer High (Palm Beach Gardens) won its first Florida state title Saturday in the Class 4A championship game against Niceville, 42-14, in large measure because Matt Elam has carried the Panthers.

A young man who could have slithered into the margins of the hard-knocks suburbs north of Palm Beach, Fla., where crime and dropout rates are high, and chances for success are disproportionately low -- he was on the way down, in fact -- instead has been driven by watching his mother go twice to hell and back.

He was a bad kid. Mean. A fighter. Addie Lewis helped change some of that, a mother mandating that her son change schools several years ago. Most of the rest of the rehab credit goes to Elam, a high-B/low-A student ready to graduate early, and -- presumably -- enroll next month at the University of Florida.

Changes have been made.

Elam still has an edge and remains a skeptic. He's tuned in, though; he seems to get it.

"I'm more mature, and I handle situations better," he said. "I felt like I had to make a difference with my mom because she was losing her kids. It wouldn't make her feel good [if he continued on a crooked path]."

ESPNU ranks the 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior as the No. 2 athlete in the nation, and Elam's athleticism has always been bountiful. Before transferring from Palm Beach Gardens High before his junior year, he was (and remains) a starter on the basketball and football teams. He has run track, and he played on a state championship lacrosse team last season at Dwyer.

For a long time, however, he was a mess off the field.

He was just 8 when his sister Christina, then 12, was shot and killed on a playground. "She was fighting a girl [earlier that day], and her [fellow combatant's] brother came back," Matt said. "I wear her number; 22 was her favorite number."

Abram Elam rushed from home to hold his fallen sister, but it was too late. Christina's killer is now in prison.

A couple of years after his sister was murdered, Elam's mother moved him to another school to help him avoid the trouble he was routinely finding.

But this is not a story about an angry youth turning soft. It's about a recalibration.

"I wouldn't say it helped me a lot, but it slowed me down, got me out of a crowd," Elam said. "I would lose my temper a lot, fighting and stuff like that."

There was anger-management counseling, too.

"I don't think it helped at all," Elam said. "All you did was sit down and talk about things you did, things you should have done."

The tough skin is still there. Over time, though, messages began sinking in that previously did not.

Several suburbs north of Palm Beach are tough -- and are talent hotbeds. Kansas City Chiefs safety DaJuan Morgan and Bears return ace/wide receiver Devin Hester are from the area, and so are former NFL players Anthony Carter and Barrett Green and high-profile basketball players Richard Rellford and Anthony Goldwire, among others.

Soon after older brother Donald Elam was killed in a still unsolved murder in the spring of 2008, Matt transferred from Palm Beach Lakes High to Dwyer via No Child Left Behind guidelines that allow students to change schools if theirs are underperforming academically.

He arrived with a reputation that wasn't perfect.

"Since he's been here, I definitely haven't seen that side," said Reggie Stanley, the running backs coach at Dwyer. "He was in the weight room every day in the summer, been at every practice. It's amazing how this kid picks up things. He wants to get better and make people around him better."

Matt speaks with his big brother every day. Abram, a safety who has registered 77 combined tackles and assists for the Browns, has hit a bump or two himself on his path to Notre Dame and then Kent State. He was undrafted and has done stints with the Cowboys and Jets. He tells Matt, "Be better than me."

Abram said: "His work ethic from sophomore to junior and senior year has been great. Matt's one you don't have to hit over the head to get him to do his homework or anything. He's a top scholar. He helps my family with my nieces and nephews, and he's becoming more responsible.

"I think he's still maturing, but it's been more evident the last year or two. Since his transfer, he hasn't had any negative attention drawn to him. He's been honorable. I commend him."

Elam's also chosen a more deliberate pace on the field.

"When he came in, he was a defensive player that played offense," Stanley said. "I've been here 14 years, and the biggest thing I've noticed that you can do to help them in high school is slow them down. [Running backs] run full speed, run past holes. He was running full speed. If it wasn't there, he'd just slam into somebody.

"But it's amazing how fast he picked things up. And all the things I'd been hearing about this kid … I saw none of that. In the first few games [in '08], he wasn't getting a lot of carries like he had been. I saw a play where he went down sideline for a pass and we threw to another receiver, and the kid scored. Matt kind of starting jumping up and down looking frustrated, and I grabbed him when he came to the sideline. He said, 'I can't believe I missed that block.'"

The murder last year of Donald, who had been in and out of prison multiple times -- at 14, he was the youngest person in Palm Beach County ever charged with murder before being acquitted -- may have turned Matt once and for all. Donald was 33 when he died.

"We were getting close; that's all I can tell you," Matt said. "Nobody knows who killed him, or why."

There is no debate about Matt's impact.

The Panthers lost their first game and have won 14 straight since. Elam's rushed 193 times for 1,897 yards (a 9.8-yard average) for 29 touchdowns, and he's relentless on defense.

In last week's state semifinal win over Armwood, he rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns, returned an interception 55 yards for a score, recovered a fumble to set up a touchdown, and set up another score with another interception. He followed that up with a 188-yard, three-touchdown performance in the championship game.

His abilities -- and his improved countenance -- afford him opportunities.

Elam committed to Florida in the fall of 2008, embracing Gators coach Urban Meyer, who as an assistant had helped recruit Abram to Notre Dame.

"Since that day [Meyer] came to my house, we've have had a good relationship," Elam said. "He looks outside of football, and he feels like his job is to make a person better."

There are other windows of opportunity, though, and they can be found on Internet rumor mills.

Elam has said he's intrigued by the possibility of playing with Jeff Luc, ESPNU's No. 1-rated middle linebacker. The Port St. Lucie star recently committed to Florida State.

Lane Kiffin has been around on behalf of Tennessee. Georgia and West Virginia remain under consideration. There have even been suggestions that Elam is considering Ohio State so that he might be closer to Abram.

If Elam is going to change his mind, he'll have to do it soon.

He and Abram visited Florida last weekend (the Browns played Pittsburgh on a Thursday), and Stanley and Dwyer head coach Jack Daniels were Gators teammates in the late 1980s. Elam's Dwyer teammates Gerald Christian (TE) and Robert Clark (WR-CB) also have committed to Florida.

So Matt Elam is standing in the Gators' doorway, but with options, as his mother and a younger sister may move wherever he goes.

"Urban Meyer is a genuine person," Abram said. "But I was one of the ones that told Matt even though he committed to take his other visits and see what's out there. He's not obligated to anyone yet, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

"I think location doesn't matter. Matt wants to go to a place where he's comfortable, and he can win. He's competitive, and wherever he ends up he's going to fight to play."

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.