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Out of anger springs success for Florida Gators recruit Matt Elam

The ferocity unfolding before Jack Daniels was undistilled.

Daniels, football coach at Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer High, had inserted a second-team running back into the spring scrimmage, and resident force of nature Matt Elam was gradually knocking him into summer.

"It got to the point it looked like (Elam) was going to dismember the kid," recalled Daniels, a former University of Florida walk-on who led Dwyer to 2009's Class 4A state title. "He hit the kid so hard it looked like the kid was going to be dead. I pulled (Elam) out of the scrimmage."

Physically, Elam, a 6-foot, 205-pound package of brute power and breakneck fleetness, is the surest bet of any recruit in the state. At Dwyer, he excelled anywhere Daniels employed him — tailback, inside linebacker, safety, receiver, even kick returner. As a junior, he amassed nearly 800 receiving yards and nearly 100 tackles at linebacker. Last fall, he flourished when moved to the backfield (1,895 rushing yards, 29 touchdowns).

Daniels said his 40-yard dash time has eclipsed 4.5 seconds.

"I never competed against anyone who was so talented on both sides of the line of scrimmage," said Armwood coach Sean Callahan, who watched Elam run for 182 yards, pick off two passes (returning one for a touchdown) and recover a fumble in Dwyer's 41-15 state semifinal win against the Hawks. "He was a playmaker on offense and defense."

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Elam's skills are undisputed, but his psyche is another matter. Physiologically, he is ripped. But emotionally, Elam recently has been torn.

An acquaintance of Urban Meyer for roughly a decade, Elam committed to Florida two autumns ago, before his allegiance climbed aboard a swivel.

Visits to West Virginia and Tennessee prompted second thoughts. Then Meyer announced his sudden resignation as Gators coach just before the Sugar Bowl, and Elam switched to Florida State. Then a phone conversation with Meyer swayed Elam back to Gainesville. Finally, at last weekend's U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Elam reaffirmed his commitment to UF before a national TV audience.

"I'm positive," he said when NBC field reporter Lewis Johnson half-jokingly asked if he was sure.

Maybe Elam was basking in the exposure created by his fickleness, some suggested. Perhaps he didn't understand the concept of commitment, others reckoned. A few "drama queen" references were even flung around.

Hogwash, those closest to him insist. Elam, like legions of others in his situation, was simply struggling with one of the biggest decisions of his life.

"He wanted to be able to see all of the schools that were offering him scholarships," said his mom, Addie Elam-Lewis. "I'm sure in his mind there was some stuff that had him not knowing which way to go because (the schools) were all good. He was overwhelmed with goodness. I think he was a young person indecisive because all this good stuff is before (him)."

Besides, if you're seeking bona fide drama, or real, raw inner turmoil, 18-year-old Matthew David Elam can dish it out in triplicate.

Reared in the hardscrabble neck of Riviera Beach, Elam, the youngest of Addie and Donald Elam's five kids, has had three siblings murdered.

"I guess he's very fragile in some sorts," said older brother Abram, a Cleveland Browns safety coached by Meyer when he was an assistant in 2000 at Notre Dame.

A half-brother, Donald Runner, was shot to death four years before Matt was born. His parents divorced when he was 5. Donald Elam, Abram and Matt's oldest brother, was fatally shot in May 2008, shortly after being released from prison after serving eight years on an assault conviction.

But perhaps the most crushing tragedy occurred in January 1999. As Abram recalls, he had just returned home from a basketball practice while Matt, then 8, watched TV. That's when a routine winter weekday afternoon was disrupted by a hysterical neighbor's pounding on the front door.

Christina Elam, only 12, had been shot and killed at a park roughly two blocks from the family's house. Various media reports indicate Christina had been sitting in a car with two friends when a 20-year-old man, whose younger sister had been involved in a squabble that day with one of the girls in the car, opened fire in apparent retribution. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years.

"To be honest, when it happened, I felt like I had nothing else to live for," Elam told the Orlando Sentinel in October. "We were so close and did everything together."

Anger, and anger management classes, followed. Though he never encountered serious trouble in or out of school, his mom acknowledges he was "mean" at times and "could've very easily been labeled a bully."

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Ultimately, Elam's despair was supplanted by determination. Which is to say, he channeled his grief into a work ethic that marveled coaches.

"That's exactly what he's done," Addie said. "He's taken that anger and it's caused him to be a better person and a better athlete. As a matter of fact, I had put him in an anger management class, and he did very well in the class. His teacher went as far as to say, 'Matt's behavior doesn't even qualify him to be in the class.' "

The result: Elam is the only two-time winner of the Lou Groza Award given annually to Palm Beach County's top player (previous winners include the NFL's Fred Taylor and Anquan Boldin) and is considered the crown jewel of the Gators' 2010 signing class.

"He's one of the most competitive people I've ever been around," Abram said.

"He's really, really compact and strong," Daniels said. "When he runs, he doesn't have any loose parts, everything's working together. We do our tackling charts and sometimes you're thinking it's a defensive tackle making a tackle for a loss, then you put it three times in slo-mo and it's Matt. You're like, 'How did he get from there to there that fast?' "

The same can be asked of Elam's moods. Though often playful and good-natured, Daniels acknowledges occasions where Elam "just shuts down" and utters nary a syllable at practice. Addie calls them his "self moments."

"You've got to kind of develop a mental relationship with Matt to be able to coach him," Daniels said.

Meyer, fully schooled on the Elam family backstory, seems to have that. Perhaps he's the one capable of pushing the right buttons, of helping Elam keep that grief coursing through the proper channels. If he is, Elam, who never has played in an organized league with his brother, just might some day.

"Matt believes he can be a safety in the NFL, and I believe so, too," Abram said. "He has all the tools."

. fast facts

Times' Blue Chip Player of the Year:

Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer's Matt Elam

The blue chip player of the year is the Times' pick for the state's top recruit.

College: Florida

Position: RB/LB/WR/SSize: 6 feet, 205 pounds

Prep career: Arguably the best all-around senior football player in Florida, Elam ran for nearly 2,000 yards and logged more than 70 tackles for Dwyer, which allowed 42 points all season en route to the Class 4A title. In the state championship, a 42-14 win over Niceville, Elam ran for 187 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries, adding two tackles defensively. … As a junior, he collected nearly 800 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. … He is a finalist for the Florida Mr. Football Award and the only two-time winner of the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the top prep football player in Palm Beach County. … He projects as a safety at Florida, where he enrolled last week.

Out of anger springs success for Florida Gators recruit Matt Elam 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 10:35pm]

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