Tragic childhood won't keep UF football recruit Matt Elam down

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RIVIERA BEACH — The Bible verse is written in bold letters on laminated paper and hangs above Matt Elam's bedroom doorway.

Positioned just low enough to touch, it has become common for Addie Elam-Lewis to see her son run his fingers across it before the Palm Beach Dwyer High senior leaves for school.

"No weapon formed against me shall prosper," it reads.

Elam, one of the nation's highest-ranked football players in the Class of 2010 and a University of Florida oral commitment, will make his college choice officially in February.

It will end a process that coaches often say is the most important moment for sought-after athletes such as Elam.

But for an 18-year-old who has seen two siblings murdered, it will be just another step in moving away from memories of a painful past.

"It's going to be a big day, but I've definitely seen things in my life that weighed on my mind a lot more," Elam said. "When you lose family like that, it makes everything else seem small."

•••

Elam-Lewis' voice grows soft when she talks about that Monday afternoon in January 1999 that changed her family forever.

Everything around her Riviera Beach home was normal. Matt's brother Abram, then 17, was doing homework. Matt, 8, and Christina, 12, huddled next to the television.

Christina later left the house to go to Monroe Heights Park, barely two blocks away.

About 30 minutes later, a neighbor pounded hysterically on the front door. He said a girl had been shot at the park.

Abram and Matt sprinted out the front door.

When they arrived at the park, they saw their sister's body bloodied from a bullet that pierced her arm and stomach.

Christina was a victim of random violence. She had been shot while she sat in a car with two friends, after a 20-year-old man opened fire to seek retribution for an after-school fight between his sister and another girl, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

Though Christina's killer later would be sentenced to 30 years in prison, it did not give Matt any comfort. Her loss would not be the only tragedy he experienced in his young life.

•••

The youngest of five children born to Addie and Donald Elam, Matt took advantage of being the baby in the family.

"He got away with more than the other kids," Elam-Lewis said of the son she described as stubborn and strong-willed. "I was 42 when I had him, and I don't mind saying I was a little tired by then."

Matt had a close relationship with Christina, who always showed him a special tenderness.

She helped him deal with their parents' divorce at age 5, their mother's remarriage two years later and their oldest brother Donald Jr.'s repeated run-ins with the law. He forged a bond with her so strong that he often watched her compete in track meets instead of going to see Abram, who was a star football player at West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman High, play.

Matt struggled after Christina's death, misbehaving at school and being labeled a bully by his principal, Matt's mother said. "It was hard because her death was all I thought about," Elam said. "To be honest, when it happened, I felt like I had nothing else to live for. We were so close and did everything together."

Elam-Lewis put Matt in anger-management classes and involved him in church activities.

Matt started to cope with the loss and began excelling at sports, especially football, basketball and lacrosse.

He became the first freshman to start for Palm Beach Lakes' then-coach Dan Sanso, who now calls Elam "one of the best athletes I've ever coached."

Matt had a strong sophomore year in 2007, . but something else would test his faith.

•••

Last May, Matt picked up his phone and heard a message from a friend that brought back feelings he had buried with his sister nine years earlier.

Donald, Jr., 33, who had just been released from prison after serving eight years for an assault conviction, had been shot and killed near the park where Christina died. The murder remains unsolved.

"I was just thinking, 'Not again,' you know?'" Elam said. "All I could think about was my mom. All the memories of before came back. It was still hard, but I knew how to deal with it this time."

Instead of retreating from his emotions as he did with Christina's death, Elam relied on them for strength.

He spent the rest of that summer in the weight room, adding muscle to what has become a 6-foot, 200-pound chiseled frame that made him Scout.com's top-ranked safety.

Elam transferred to Dwyer before last season and changed his jersey number to 22, in honor of Christina, who wore the same number when she ran track. He also wrote messages on his cleats and wrist bands like "4 Christyboo #22" and "RIP Don II."

The gestures kept them with him last season as he earned the Palm Beach Sports Commission's Lou Groza Player of the Year Award. This season, playing linebacker and running back for the Panthers, he has run for 407 yards and three touchdowns. Dwyer is ranked third in the state in Class 4A.

Elam's versatility "will allow him to play many positions" in college, Scout.com's Chad Simmons said.

"Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't see him having any problem succeeding," said Sanso, now coaching at Cardinal Newman. "But with what he's been through, you just have to sit back and marvel at it. I've watched him attack the tragedies in his life head-on, and [he] does it on the field as well."

Although he has given an oral commitment to Florida for a year, he recently voiced his displeasure about being "pushed away" by their recruitment of multiple defensive backs.

He since has reaffirmed his commitment, but only after receiving an explanation from Gators Coach Urban Meyer, Matt said.

This summer Matt spent time in Cleveland working out with Abram, who now plays for the Browns. Abram said he can see resilience in his brother's eyes that he never noticed before.

"Matt's seen things that you don't expect anybody to see in their life," Abram said. "If you let it, it's the kind of thing that can defeat you. He hasn't."

It's why Matt will never be alone no matter where he goes from here.

"I put a note [to them] in my book bag every time I go to a game," Elam said. "I bring them on the field with me. And every time I score, I look up to them, and I can smile."

Kyle Hightower's Varsity blog can be read at SentinelVarsity.com, and he can be reached at khightower@orlandosentinel.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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