Baltimore Ravens

Matt Elam's path to the NFL is marked by tragedy, perseverance

Long before Isaiah 54:17 became a rallying cry during the Ravens' Super Bowl run and a fixture in Ray Lewis' speeches, an angry and withdrawn young boy heard the words and decided to put them over his bedroom door.

"No weapon formed against me shall prosper."


Yet to celebrate his 10th birthday and already burdened by a lifetime's worth of tragedy, Matt Elam felt that the whole world was against him when he displayed the verse to give him a daily reminder of what mattered.

His half brother had been shot and killed four years before he was even born. His parents divorced when he was 5. Already acquainted with death and departure, Elam then had to deal with the murder of his older sister, Christina, who was at a local park when shots rang out.


Elam, just 8 years old, got the news from his neighbor and sprinted to the park to see his 12-year-old sister one final time.

"We were really close and when I lost her, I felt like everybody was against me," Elam said Friday. "I felt like there was nobody on my team. I blamed my older sister for a couple of years. I felt like it was her fault. I wouldn't open up to people, I would turn my back on people."

A little after 11:30 Thursday night, Elam got the call he had dreamed about. He had been selected by the Ravens with the 32nd and final pick of the first round of the NFL draft. After a standout career at the University of Florida, the hard-hitting safety was moving on to the Super Bowl champs.

He hung up the phone and pulled on a Ravens hat. Elam then looked around his mother's Riviera Beach, Fla., home to take in the scene. He planned on having a small draft party with his mother, Addie Elam-Lewis, other family members and a few friends, but there were people everywhere he looked.

After all the trials and tribulations, which later included the shooting death of his older brother, the death of his father and his older sister getting diagnosed with breast cancer, he had made it.

"I was more happy just to see my family happy and smiling," Elam said. "They've always had my back, they've always supported me, they've pushed me, they've challenged me. They've made me who I am today."

When announcing the selection of Elam late Thursday night, director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said that the 21-year-old plays like a Raven. Team officials use that expression often when describing a player who competes with an edge and loves to fly around the field chasing the ball and making punishing hits.

One of the newest Ravens has fit the profile for a long time, if you ask Jack Daniels, the head coach at William T. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. It's a tradition in high school for players to walk across the field with their parents before their final home game as a senior, but Elam was denied that privilege when his mother was late to the game.


"He was so angry and he just stopped talking," Daniels recalled. "So on the first play, a kid ran a quick slant and he knocked the kid out and caused the fumble. It seems like when he puts the helmet on, he gets some kind of superpower."

Said Elam: "I use negativity that comes at me off the field. I play with a lot of passion, a lot of emotion, a lot of energy."

Loss of a sister

Growing up in an area north of West Palm Beach, Fla., where trouble and despair were easy to find, Elam was a quiet kid who loved spending time with his siblings. That included his older brother Abram, who would go on to a long career as an NFL defensive back.

Football and other sports provided him with an outlet for his unlimited energy. However, after learning of his sister's death in January 1999, he didn't want to do much of anything except brood and make life difficult for others who challenged him.

According to reports, Christina was in a car with two friends when a 20-year-old man whose younger sister had gotten into a fight earlier in the day came to the park looking for revenge. It's unclear if the man's sister had feuded with Christina or someone else. Either way, Christina was killed and the man who did it was sentenced to 30 years in prison.


"When I lost my sister, I was in a situation where I was letting small things antagonize me," Elam said. "I had a lot of negative energy. I feel like I had to stop letting things like that destroy me. It was not helping me. I was going down the wrong path."

Elam managed to avoid getting into serious trouble, but he certainly flirted with it and didn't shy away from a neighborhood scrap. He had difficulty trusting others and his mother even made sure he got anger-management treatment.

"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.'"

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."

Baltimore Ravens Insider

Baltimore Ravens Insider


Want the inside scoop on the Ravens? Become a Ravens Insider and you'll have access to news, notes and analysis from The Sun.

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.