Special to the Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There is no time to turn back and look at the clutter of the past. What has happened has happened and Matt Elam recognizes the urgency required in his current station in life.
Elam hasn’t always seen this clearly. Certainly not while growing up in hardscrabble neighborhoods near Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach. Elam was a feisty and moody kid prone to getting into a scrape or two. His grades weren’t always the best. He turned to football to stay out of trouble and off the streets like his older brother Abram before him.
Those mean streets in South Florida have caused the Elam brothers a lot of pain over the years.
When Matt was 8 his 12-year-old sister Christina was murdered by the brother of a rival. It happened in a neighborhood park near their house. Christina’s favorite number was 22, the same number Matt now wears for the Gators. In the spring of 2008, in a sad and cruel twist like something out of “The Wire,” Elam’s older brother Donald was murdered in the same park that Christina’s life was taken.
The darkness in his personal life threatened to derail Elam’s promising football career.
A ray of sunshine splashed across Elam’s horror story shortly after Donald’s death when he was permitted to transfer from Palm Beach Lakes High to football powerhouse Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens. His mom Addie Lewis did her best to keep Matt away from danger by pushing for the transfer.
Elam refocused and became a two-way star at Dwyer, playing his way onto the recruiting radar of nearly every major school in the country. He chose Florida and as a true freshman safety in 2010, Elam made 22 tackles and played in all 13 games. He became a starter last year in Will Muschamp’s first season and finished second on the team with 78 tackles.
As Elam prepares for the start of his junior season, he continues to distance himself from even more loss, this one coming at the end of his sophomore season.
In December, only days after the Gators’ season ended with a home loss to Florida State, a list of death notices in the Palm Beach Post read:
Dallegro, Joseph, 81, of Boynton Beach
Elam, Donald C., 64, of West Palm Beach
Faircloth, Kathleen, 64, of Boynton Beach
Donald C. Elam was Abram and Matt’s father. He was a Vietnam veteran, a former nurse at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., a college graduate and a reverend. He was also a father in and out of his sons’ lives because of a sickness he was never able to overcome.
“He was like a legend in my hometown,’’ Matt said. “He was a coach when I was growing up. He was good at sports growing up. He was mentally ill from the Vietnam War and then he was on medication for a long time. He came down with cancer.”
Matt may have left the old neighborhood but another family loss had to be endured. While Matt wasn’t always that close to his father, the pain was familiar.
The one person who understood perhaps more than anyone else is Abram. He quickly reached out to the little brother whom he remembers with the football posters on his wall at home and all his football equipment spread out on the floor the night before a game.
A safety in his first season with the Kansas City Chiefs and in his seventh season in the NFL, Abram Elam has become even a greater influence in Matt’s life over the past several months.
“We’ve always been close,’’ Abram said. “I’ve always been like a father figure, and then when we lost our father last year, I tried to take on that role permanently, helping to take care of Matt and get everything situated going forward.”
The brotherly love has helped Matt, a budding star for the Gators who has the potential to follow Abram’s footsteps to the NFL.
“I’m a family guy,’’ Matt said. “[Abram] is my total inspiration. He helps me with everything.”
With a transformed focus on football and the future, Matt has made some lifestyle changes since he walked off the field after making six tackles and recording a sack in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. The team and fulfilling his promise are his top priority.
Shortly after his father passed, Matt often posted scripture or whatever else popped into his mind for public consumption on Twitter, some of it drawing the wrong kind of attention. The Twitter account @dopest_hitter22 has been silent since April.
“I gave up Twitter,’’ he said.
He changed his diet to eat healthier. He made sure not to miss rehab appointments when a groin injury sidelined him during spring practice. He met with head coach Will Muschamp about his goals, his attitude and his potential.
Muschamp has noticed a difference in Elam in the months since their heart-to-heart meeting. It’s hard not to if you have a before-and-after image. Elam often projects a closed-off front to the public. However, lately it’s not unusual to see him smiling in the locker room or joking around with teammates at practice.
His body looks different, too. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, Elam appears more lean and agile. That probably isn’t exactly what SEC receivers want to hear.
“He’s matured,’’ Muschamp said. “Matt has changed his body in the offseason just from totally dedicating himself from the weight room to other areas. There were times when it was not prescribed workout times and he’s down there working out. He’s watching extra film.
“He’s really put an awful lot into this year and some things that I have challenged him with as far as what he needs to do to take the next step as a player. He has certainly answered the call on all of those.”
Elam was rarely healthy a season ago. He played in every game, but he said one nagging injury after another made him realize he needed to adjust his approach to the game.
“I overdosed on my workouts,’’ Elam said. “I knew with the time off [in the spring] I lost a step, so I worked extra hard this summer. It was brutal.
“Basically I’m trying to do everything right – eating right, living right and just trying to stay healthy. I was pretty much hurt for six games [last year]. It was learning from a situation like getting hurt, knowing playing in the SEC is going to be physical all year. I had to find out the hard way. I grew up. I have a different focus. I know what it takes now.”
Elam’s quest to become a better player is matched by a private quest to become a better person.
Don Mauldin serves as one of Florida’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes representatives. When Elam’s father passed away, he represented the Gators at the memorial service in West Palm Beach.
Mauldin saw a tough football player on the outside hurting on the inside.
“I just talked with him whenever he wanted to,’’ Mauldin said. “I felt like he was hurting and that somebody needed to be there to represent the team and school so he could see that he wasn’t out there by himself. He said it meant a lot. When you are going through grief, just a friendly face usually is encouragement.”
Elam still talks occasionally to Mauldin about life or whatever else is on his mind. Like Muschamp, Mauldin has seen some changes in Elam for the better.
“He is still not a very open person,’’ Mauldin said. “I think he’s learned to be proud of who his daddy was. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
Ask Elam about his personal goals this season, and he quickly answers that he wants to be a better leader and teammate. He repeats that mantra more than once.
“There’s really nothing personal this year. I’m all about the team,’’ he said. “I know I get a lot of attention about entering the draft this year, but that’s not really on my mind. I want to win a national championship. The only thing personal is staying healthy and doing all I can to help my team win the national championship.
“I’ve got a totally different focus. I just love how everyone is sleeping on us because we are going to turn a lot of heads.”
Elam will need to play an integral role for the under-the-radar Gators to turn those heads and rejoin the SEC’s elite. He is considered by many analysts to be the Gators’ most talented player – offense or defense. What does junior receiver Andre Debose, like Elam, one of the nation’s top recruits coming out of high school, think of the perception outsiders have of Elam’s ability?
Well, Debose doesn’t offer to debunk that thought.
“This guy can be amazing,’’ Debose said. “He has the best footwork of anybody I’ve seen at any position. He is just so physical. He doesn’t have the stature of a 6-4 guy, but you’ve seen his body and his tackling ability. I rarely see him miss a tackle. He watches film all the time. He is thinking about the game all the time. We can just be sitting around chilling and he is talking football.
“Whatever he sets his mind to he is going to do it.”
Elam will start at strong safety beside free safety Josh Evans for a defense that finished eighth nationally last year in total defense. What makes Elam so intriguing to NFL scouts is his combination of size, quickness, toughness and ability to defend the run and pass.
Three inches taller and not as compactly built as his younger brother, Abram Elam can easily see Matt joining him in the NFL one day as long he keeps moving forward and away from the pain of their troubled past.
“He is what everyone is looking for now in a safety,’’ Abram said. “He can [move] down and cover the front, cover receivers, he can play the deep part of the field, and he’s very aggressive and is a great tackler.
“I’ve played with and against some of the most talented players in the league and growing up, and I can say Matt is one of only two people I know besides Anquan Boldin that hates to lose as much as he does. He does everything in his power to win. He is very competitive. A lot of people don’t know that about him. He hates to lose more than anything.”
When Abram was with the Jets earlier in his career, he got to know Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, a former Jets assistant. Quinn sees Matt as difference-maker for the Gators who has yet to tap into his full potential.
Quinn said he is getting there.
“I’ve always thought that he could be a good guy who can get his hands on the ball at safety and at nickel. I think the big thing that I’ve seen with him – it may be on the field, it may be off the field – where he can now affect other players with him,’’ Quinn said. “I think that’s a real sign of a leader, when you bring people along with you. That’s one of the things that I’ve noticed from Matt. That part has been impressive from a leadership standpoint.”
Muschamp agrees. That’s why he viewed his meeting with Elam an important one in looking ahead to Year 2 leading the program.
“People gravitate to Matt,’’ Muschamp said. “He’s one of those guys that have that ability to have people want to be a part of what he is doing. That’s very evident to see the respect he has among his teammates.”
With both their seasons quickly approaching, Abram calls and texts Matt at least a few times a week to stay in touch and make sure everything is going well. Abram hopes to make the Gators’ season opener on Sept. 1 the way he has the past two years.
Seeing his brother face-to-face is important. He can tell how Matt is doing by looking at him.
“We had a great talk recently over the summer,’’ Abram said. “I told him that with this opportunity, he is definitely blessed to be in this situation that he is. I just don’t want to see him squander this opportunity. He has a rare opportunity.”
Elam said he gets it. The past has taught him over and over how nothing is guaranteed in life. Not tomorrow. Not a national championship in college. Not an NFL career.
All he can do is look ahead and try to turn some of those losses he has suffered into a productive future.
“I see myself doing this for people who can’t do it,’’ he said. “People like disabled kids who love football but can’t play sports, like the kids who are in the ghetto and the parents don’t have the money for them to get this opportunity. I do it for people like that.
“And then for all the losses I have had. I do it for motivation, knowing that if they were here they would be happy and smiling. My father loved to see me play and for him not to be here … I imagine him coaching me.”