"He was frustrated," Addie Elam-Lewis said. "He was the kind of person that if you pushed certain buttons, he was going to react. He was just strong-willed and he was an introvert."
Dan Sanso, the football coach at Palm Beach Lakes High, where Elam went as a freshman and sophomore, admitted that it was tough to help his player because he often didn't know what was wrong.
"He's gone through a lot of turmoil," Sanso said. "For a while, it seemed like he had a death in the family every year he played football. He had anger issues, but he wasn't a kid who'd sit and talk about his problems; you had to learn about the shootings from someone else. He'd say, 'I'm OK,' but it was hard for me to see him sad. Balling it all up inside him caused some issues — he'd get mad at practice sometimes — but he matured through it. I told him, 'The only person who can stop Matt is Matt.'"
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Nine years after Christina's death, Elam was again dealing with the tragic loss of a sibling. His older brother Donald had just been recently released from prison when he was gunned down in the same area where Christina was killed. Donald was 33 and his 2008 killing was never solved.
Tragedy and maturity
Elam had bonded with his brother after his release from prison. However, this time, he was much better equipped to deal with the loss of a loved one.
"I was way more mature," Elam said. "By that time, I realized what I wanted to do in my life. I had my mind made up that my mom can't cry anymore."
Shortly after Donald's death, Elam's fortunes started to change. His grades sagged at Palm Beach Lakes High but he transferred to Dwyer for his junior year and improved academically while continuing to thrive athletically, playing football, basketball and lacrosse.
Daniels had heard stories about a kid who could be difficult to be around and lashed out at teammates and coaches. However, he never saw that version of Elam at Dwyer.
"Some days he would come out and shut down completely, but Matt usually had a beautiful smile on his face," Daniels said. "There is not one time you could ever talk to anybody on our campus that would ever tell you that he bullied or harassed anybody or disrespected anybody. You can call anybody at the school. I can't believe we're talking about the same kid."
Elam made more than 200 tackles and 15 sacks in his last two seasons in high school. He was also a star running back who scored four touchdowns on the ground in the state championship game his senior season. But he loved to hit, and when he committed to Florida, he was considered one of the top prep safeties in the country.
The big picture
Elam started 13 games for Florida in his sophomore season and ranked seventh on the team with 78 tackles. He responded to a challenge by new head coach Will Muschamp, who sensed the hard-hitting safety had more to give.
"The big thing I tried to emphasize to Matt is, 'Let's look at the big picture here. Let's get out of just your realm at the University of Florida. Let's compare ourselves to other programs, to other players at other places,'" Muschamp said. "As much as anything, he understood what I was talking about. It's not just about being the best player at Florida. Let's be the best player in the country."
Muschamp watched Elam mature on and off the field and once again handle himself amid tragedy. In 2011, Elam, the youngest of Addie and Donald's five kids, learned that his father had died at age 64. A minister and Vietnam veteran, Donald Elam had long battled mental illness.
"He allowed [the tragedies] to work together for his good," Addie Elam-Lewis said of her son. "He allowed it to make him stronger, to make him more humble, to make him more focused, to make him more determined to work toward fulfilling the dream that he had as a kid. I'm glad that he didn't allow all the turbulence in our lives to walk contrary to the desire and dream he had before him."
Elam has talked with his brother Abram, a seven-year NFL safety who is currently a free agent, for years about what to expect when he gets to the NFL.
Today at the Ravens' Under Armour Performance Facility in his introductory news conference, Elam held up a purple No. 1 Ravens jersey with his name on the back. He'll eventually have No. 31 because the number he wore in college in honor of his sister — Christina Elam's favorite number was 22 — is taken by Jimmy Smith.
He had officially made it, but he already set his goals on bigger and better things.
"I want to be legendary," Elam said. "I want to be remembered as one of the greatest to ever do it."
Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app