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Baltimore City

Mervo football player Elijah Gorham, who died last year after a traumatic brain injury, honored at graduation ceremony

As elated graduates of Baltimore’s Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School lined up to receive their diplomas Sunday afternoon, the absence of one student was palpable.

Students danced, waved and took selfies as they crossed a stage at Coppin State University’s athletic complex and passed a framed photo of Elijah Gorham, a beloved senior and talented football player who died in October after suffering a traumatic brain injury during a football game.

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Gorham had long talked about his plans for graduation day; the clothes he would wear and the moves he would rock dancing across the stage. So when graduation arrived, Gorham’s mother, Shantres Shaw, donned a blue robe and graduation cap to dance across the stage and receive the 17-year-old’s diploma in his memory.

“When I came home with it I said ‘Elijah, you are now a graduate of Mergenthaler Vocational school,’” Shaw said. “I took his medallion and put it across his bed and let him know ‘Here you go. It’s done. You’re a graduate.’”

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Gorham was honored in photos and speeches throughout the graduation ceremony, including by commencement speaker Mayor Brandon Scott, an alumnus of Mervo. Scott praised the Class of 2022 for overcoming hardships associated with learning through a coronavirus pandemic and grappling with grief after Gorham died.

Gorham, a wide receiver, was tackled and injured in an endzone during a Sept. 18 football game against Paul Laurence Dunbar High School at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. City school personnel treated Gorham for nearly 45 minutes after he was injured before he was taken by ambulance to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center for brain surgery. He died in the hospital nearly a month later.

The magnetic and hard-working teenager continues to be influential for those who knew and loved him, and for athletes throughout Maryland.

Gov. Larry Hogan signed in April a law named after Gorham, called the Elijah Gorham Act, which requires all middle and high schools in Maryland to have emergency action plans in place for each of their athletic venues and have medical equipment, such as a defibrillator, stored near all school athletic fields.

Hogan passed the law a day after Baltimore’s spending board approved a $345,000 settlement payment to his family and promised to hire more athletic trainers, improve emergency response training for students and school employees and shorten paramedic response times at school athletic events. Shaw also started a foundation called 7STRONG, because Gorham wore the number 7 on uniforms for all his sports teams, to teach student athletes about health and safety and purchase new equipment for youth football players.

“It gives me joy that I would assure that young men, going forward, will be safe and that this won’t happen again,” Shaw said.

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Two months after his death, the Mervo football team won its first state title and took home the Class 4A/3A championship trophy in Gorham’s honor.

Sunday marked another milestone for Gorham’s legacy.

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On a day meant to celebrate the accomplishments of high schoolers as they start the next chapter of their lives, Shaw was happy for Gorham’s classmates as they held up their diplomas to show their cheering families seated in the stands.

Although her son was not physically by her side, she felt his presence at the ceremony, as she does every day. Sitting on stage next to Gorham’s class president and class valedictorian, Shaw thought of his goals for the future: going to a college, playing football for his university, starting a mechanic shop and a photography business. Gorham had recently signed up to be a volunteer firefighter before his death and considered joining the Navy or Army. He studied hard to get good grades in school.

“He already had a vision,” Shaw said. “He always had a plan A or [plan] B, but his number one passion was football.”

The excited crowd at the Coppin athletic complex fell silent for seven seconds to remember Gorham. Shaw then rose to the crowd’s standing ovation. Wearing a graduation cap decorated with photos of Gorham at his kindergarten graduation, she walked down the stage in a robe and Nike Air Force 1s customized with a painting of Gorham in his Mustang football uniform and the phrase “7 Strong.”

Thunderous applause met Shaw as she reached the end of the stage. As each student in blue and yellow robes stood to turn the tassel of their caps from right to left, signifying the transition from student to graduate, Shaw lifted and turned hers, too.


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