Matt Elam Tested By Family Tragedy


Matt Elam's favorite part of being drafted in the first round Thursday night was seeing the smiles on the faces of his mother and family members.

"They seemed more excited than I was," Elam said Friday after holding up a Ravens jersey for the first time. "It put a smile on my face and melted my heart."

Elam and his family have undergone tremendous tragedy. Two of his siblings, Christina and Donald, were murdered in their Florida hometown as kids.

Christina, 12, was shot in a park by a schoolmate's brother, who came to get the final word after a scuffle earlier that day. Matt, just 8 years old at the time, ran to hold his dying sister.

One of his older brothers, Donald, was killed* *nine years later, in 2008, in the very same park. Elam's father, Donald C., died of cancer days after his sophomore season ended at the University of Florda.

Every draft pick goes through adversity simply adjusting to the NFL. But Elam arrives in Baltimore already thoroughly tested, giving him unrookie-like maturity and a drive to make his family proud.

"Matt has been through some tough times, there is no question," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "I think that part of the growing process is handling adversity, and he has been able to do that."

Elam grew up in a rough part of southern Florida, just outside Riviera Beach. It's a short drive from the area called "The Muck" in Pahokee and Belle Glade, Fla. Elam said there were a lot of kids his age who also lost loved ones.

"It was very tough," he said of growing up in the area.

Not everybody handles family loss well, and Elam didn't at first either. He struggled somewhat in high school. Despite getting good grades, the fiery young man was getting into fights. His mother, Addie Lewis, transferred him from Palm Beach Gardens High School to Dwyer High School.

That forced some change, and Elam also took it upon himself to alter his course. Elam decided he couldn't put his mother through any more pain.

"It was me knowing that I was tired of the frowns and the tears and funerals," Elam said.

"I was like, 'I'm going to turn this around. I'm going to do this the right way. I'm going to turn the frowns into smiles. I'm going to make sure my family is happy, make sure the happiness overcomes the tragedy and adversity.' That's why I go out and work every day."

Despite his family losses, Elam was lucky enough to have a strong support system at home. There was his mother, and also 10-year older brother Abram.

Abram played football at Notre Dame and Kent State and was an undrafted free agent in 2005. He has played seven seasons in the NFL, bouncing between five different teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs last season.

Abe took Matt under his wing, always telling him to be an even better football player. Matt, a star running back, safety, basketball and lacrosse player in high school, became one of the nation's top prep players, then went to college football powerhouse Florida.

He used his turmoil as fuel to become one of the country's top safeties and a first-team All-American last season.

His style of play seems to reflect what burns inside, an aggression to prove himself even though he stands at just 5-foot-10 inches. He flies around the field laying crushing hits on opponents. Muschamp called Elam a "violent tackler" and a different person on the field from the humble person off it.

"I think football was my release," Elam said. "Being able to use my energy and use it the right way, instead of a negative. It gave me an edge."

Now Elam's the Ravens' top draft pick of 2013, the first safety Baltimore has taken in the first round since 2002 when they snagged future Hall of Famer Ed Reed.

He has written down lofty personal goals, from becoming an immediate starter in the Ravens secondary, to a Pro Bowler and ultimately among the best to play the game just like Reed. It all started Thursday night when his name was called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at pick No. 32.

Elam had an opportunity to go to New York City for the live NFL Draft. His brother and friends wanted him to host a draft party Thursday night. He declined both, saying he just wanted his family around him to share the moment.

"Tears of joy, that's all I think about," Elam said. "Giving them tears of joy."

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