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Abe Elam: The Whole Story


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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Abram Elam looked at teenager Shaquille Perry and saw himself.


Perry was still trying to come to grips with the death of his brother, who had been gunned down in a Cleveland neighborhood last fall. He had arrived in a world where Elam, unfortunately, is an expert. Two brothers and a younger sister of his have been murdered.


Elam, a safety for the Browns, took 15 children from Mental Health Services Inc.'s "Children who Witness Violence" program school shopping at Cleveland's Tower City earlier this fall. Elam spent time with each child, especially Perry.


For Perry, Elam provided more than a shopping spree.


For Elam, Perry provided a peek into his own past.


"Before Abe, I felt like all hope was lost," Perry said. "But he remained dedicated despite the murder of his sister and brothers. And it kind of hit me, just because bad things happen, you can still make some good out of it."


Finding and providing joy for youths is what drives Elam. Not even the murders of three of his siblings, nor a decision in college that led to a felony conviction can stop Elam's push to find miracles among the gloom.


"My life has a happy ending because God has done so much for me," Elam said. "He's allowed dreams to come true, and put me in a position so I can do things for my family that has been through so much. I'm also in position to do things for my community in Florida and here in Cleveland."


Elam, with the assistance of executive director Wayne Govan, runs T.E.A.M Elam, a foundation created in 2007 that brings positive experiences to young people. T.E.A.M Elam not only assists children with school clothes, and school supplies, but also has mentor programs and life skills camps.


"When I was down and out, others helped support me," Elam said. "So the foundation was a way for me to give back, and I felt I had a great testimony. God has given me a platform to touch and help others."


Which includes helping Perry cope with the death of his brother. Last year, while Perry and his brother, 17-year-old Brandon Young, walked from school on East 186th Street near St. Clair Avenue, a car rolled up filled with four teenagers, one of whom opened fire. Perry and his brother were hit. Perry, now 17, survived. His brother died three days later.


The trial for Young's alleged killer begins on Nov. 8. Elam said he will attend the trial to support Perry.


"I could see Shaquille was still dealing with the pain," Elam said of his first encounter with Perry. "He admired his older brother, but [shaquille] lost some direction since his brother was gone. But I told him his brother would want him to pick up where he left off. I told him he was on to great things and his brother only wanted the best for him."


Growing up in Florida


Addie Elam-Lewis and Donald Elam Sr. only wanted the best for their family when Abe was born 29 years ago in Riviera Beach, Fla., a mid-size harbor city located along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in southeast Florida. It's about 70 miles north of Miami. The area around Riviera Beach offers amazing waterfront views and beaches. According to the city's visitor's bureau, Riviera Beach is the "Gateway to the Caribbean" or the "Riviera of America."


There's also muck among the majestic beauty of the city. Riviera Beach has one of the highest crime and unemployment rates in Florida, and it didn't take long for Elam to experience some of the pain. He was 5 when his half-brother, a senior in high school, was gunned down at a local park. Donald Runner was a star athlete and a good student who was on his way to college. His big dreams were shattered when members of a local gang shot Runner under circumstances that a judge called senseless in his ruling.


Two teenagers were convicted of his murder.


"He was my hero," said Elam of Runner. "He lived on the next street over from me. I remember he was one of the best athletes in the area. Later in life, people compared me to him. I remember playing catch with him in the yard. ... Donald's death was very hard for my family. It was very hard for my parents and for Donald's mother."


Although he was too young to fully understand death, Elam did get a lesson in some of the other realities of life. Several relatives were either in jail or in prison for various crimes. While most young kids spent Saturdays playing in the park or watching cartoons, Elam's time was spent visiting the local jails.


"Every Saturday it was like a field trip," Elam said. "We were going to visit someone in jail. I told myself then that I didn't want my parents to have to go through that with me. That's why I tried to do the right thing. I've always wanted to make my parents proud."


A star is born


Elam did make his parents proud when he began to play organized sports. But before he took the Little League diamond and the pee-wee football field, Elam was motivated by his dreams. He clipped out newspaper articles about some of the best athletes in the area. The exploits of these players provided inspiration, and sports gave Elam another outlet besides what the streets had to offer.


"At age 6 or 7, I'd write down goals of what I wanted to become," Elam said. "I'd go through the newspaper each year to see who the Palm Beach Post player of the year was in each sport. I'd save the clippings because I'd tell myself that this would be me one day."


Elam's talents on the football field developed early. It didn't take long for the coaches to see they had something special.


"Abe was about 5 or 6 years old when he started playing for us," said John Williams, director of parks and recreation for the city of Riviera Beach. "And when he first showed up, he showed out. He was very aggressive, and he understood the game at an early age."


Williams beams with pride when he describes one particular game when Elam was matched against one of the NFL's current playmakers -- Chicago Bears wide receiver Devin Hester, who was from the same area. Elam locked him down.


Elam earned a scholarship to Cardinal Newman High School, a private Catholic school, and one of the area's prep powers. A quarterback and defensive back, he won several awards, including the Lou Groza Outstanding High School Player of the Year Award for Palm Beach County. As a basketball player, Elam helped Cardinal Newman win consecutive state titles.


Knock on the door


There was nothing out of the ordinary when he left school one day and went home following basketball practice. He entered his home, joked around with his 12-year-old sister, Christina, and went into the family room to do his homework. Elam was so involved in his studies that he barely noticed his sister had left for the park. Forty-five minutes later, he was startled when someone frantically banged on the front door.


"I answered the door and one of my friends said my sister had been shot in the park," Elam said.


Elam bolted out of the door, without any shoes, and ran to the same Monroe Heights Park where his half-brother had been killed. Elam ran past the police, and he ran past the yellow tape.


"And there was my little sister," Elam said. "She was laying on the concrete with a hole in her chest."


Elam, sobbing, held her motionless body. She died later at the hospital.


"She had so much life," Elam said. "She was the jokester of the family. She was the baby girl. She made us all happy."


Earlier in the day Christina had been involved in an altercation with another student. The student's 20-year-old brother sought revenge. When he found Christina sitting in a car with three girl friends, he opened fire. The killer was sentenced to 30 years.


The next day, Elam led his third-ranked basketball team to a blowout victory over the No.1 team in the state. He played because he wanted to provide his family with some relief.


"My motivation to play was to bring my family closer together, and I wanted to help get rid of some of the pain," Elam said. "I've always been moved to take care of my family. I wanted to give them something positive. My motivation has always been to make a negative into a positive."


On trial


Elam and his family would be tested again following his sophomore season at Notre Dame. The reputation of the good kid who suffered so much took a major hit. And it almost cost him even more.


On March 28, 2002, a 20-year-old female Notre Dame student accused Elam and teammates Donald Dykes, Justin Smith and Lorenzo Crawford of rape. The men claimed the woman consented to the sex acts.


Following the charge, Elam had to make the most difficult phone call of his life.


"With all my mother had been through with my sister being murdered and all of those relatives involved in the legal system, here I put myself in a situation where I had to be judged," Elam said.


Notre Dame expelled all four men. After a disciplinary investigation, the school determined they violated the university's sexual misconduct policy.


The trial didn't start for a year. Elam went back home, got a job as an office assistant in a pediatric dentist office, kept in shape and earned his associates degree. Once the trial started, Elam, who maintains his innocence, was convicted of sexual battery and placed on probation for two years. He was acquitted of the more serious charges against him -- criminal deviate conduct and conspiracy to commit rape. Dykes was tried and acquitted. Charges were dismissed against Smith and Crawford before either went to trial.


Talking about Abe Elam


“I knew several people in Florida that had known Abe and spoke highly of him and vouched very strongly for his character — they turned out to be right and I recognized that very quickly.” — Bill Parcells, former NFL coach


“There was never a doubt that Abe would be successful given the opportunity.” — Urban Meyer, Florida coach, and former assistant at Notre Dame.


“When he left school, there was so much uncertainty because you didn’t know what was going to happen. I was happy when he got back in school. He had one opportunity taken away from him and Kent State gave him another chance to fulfill his dream.” — Tony Fisher, Euclid native and Notre Dame teammate.


“I’m not sure he knows how much of an impact he has on the children. We are so grateful for Abe. He’s gone to great lengths to impact the community in a very positive way.” — Susan Neth, executive director of Mental Health Services Inc.


“You see a great person in Abe and you wonder how could something like that can happen to a good person. We all have trials and tribulations, but he got through it all, and that says a lot about him.” — Mike Adams, Browns safety


“He’s a great young man. My family and I are better people by knowing Abe Elam. I’m glad he’s a part of my life.” — Casey Wolf, assistant AD for football operations at Kent State


“We hope Abe will put himself in this community and preach loud and clear to those who will listen. ... Mistakes are made, but not enough where people can’t learn and move to higher heights.” — Donald Wilson, former Riviera Beach, Fla. councilman


“I tip my cap to the guy because he’s giving back, and that’s exactly what is needed in our community. Lot of guys who make it, you never see them giving back. What he’s doing is priceless.” — Chuck Smith, mayor of Woodmere Villageine


“When I found out what happened at Notre Dame, I was like, ‘not Abe.’ It was total disbelief. I didn’t have to ask him what happened because I know what can happen when you hang out with the wrong people, and when your friends get jammed up, and if you’re around, you get jammed up too.” — Josh Cribbs, teammate on the Browns and at Kent State


According to court testimony reported by The South Bend Tribune, Elam and his lawyer emphasized that when the woman turned Elam down, he left and did not attempt to engage in sexual intercourse. Elam's South Bend lawyer, Mark Lenyo, declined to comment for this story.


"Abe Elam walked away with a slap on the wrist," said Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. "He wasn't the main instigator, or the main participant, however, the remainder of them got nothing, and that's a sad commentary. Hopefully [Elam] has learned a lesson, and hopefully it was just bad judgment on his part."


Elam rejected a plea arrangement that would have resulted in all charges being dropped if he testified that the other three men committed rape.


"I didn't because it wasn't the truth," Elam said recently. "When [the court] asked me to do that, I told them I could only tell them the truth."


The verdict also meant that Elam has to register as a sex offender. He'll have to register a maximum of 10 years in Ohio. By law, he'll have to register for the rest of his life if he decides to retire in his home state of Florida.


"I'm disappointed in myself for what happened at Notre Dame, because I had a lot of people counting on me and I let them down," Elam said. "It was a situation that no one should allow themselves in, because it can affect you and your loved ones for the rest of your life."


Elam recently resolved a civil suit with the woman just before the start of this NFL season.


Moving on


Enter Tucker Fredrickson, the first overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. Fredrickson, now involved in real estate in Florida, watched Elam's high school and brief career at Notre Dame from afar. Fredrickson developed a relationship with Elam when Elam worked at a Florida golf course. Elam is also friends with Fredrickson's son, Jon Erik, who also played at Kent State. On Tucker Fredrickson's insistence, KSU offered Elam a scholarship in 2004.


"I called [former coach] Dean Pees," Fredrickson said. "I told him there's a kid you should take a chance on. To Pees' credit, he stood up for the kid."


Pees stood up, and so did Elam's new teammates. He had only been at school for a short time, but the team voted Elam as team captain. Despite a past sprinkled with despair, Elam never gave anyone the impression that his life was filled with gloom.


"All the guys realized there was something special about Abe," said former Kent State quarterback Darryl Poe, who backed up Josh Cribbs. "Guys gravitated toward him."

Elam played one year at Kent, but did not get drafted by the NFL. Elam said he was overlooked because of the incident at Notre Dame. He signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins, but was cut. He went back to Kent and earned his degree, then signed with the Dallas Cowboys the following year. Dallas released him after one season, but he signed with the Jets when former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells recommended him to then-Jets coach Eric Mangini.


It was a good move. Elam made his first start with the Jets, and scored his first professional touchdown in 2008 when he returned an interception 92 yards. Elam also won the 2008 Kyle Clifton Good Guy Award, voted on by the Jets staff.


Elam's play and reputation moved Mangini to bring Elam to Cleveland. On April 25, 2009, Elam was traded from the Jets to the Browns as part of a draft day deal.


"When I heard he was being traded to us I was excited," said Cribbs. "I called people at Kent telling them that me and Abe were going to play together again."

Mangini shares Cribbs' excitement.


"Abe is a fantastic guy," said Mangini. "I have so much respect for him. When he became available, Bill Parcells actually called and said, 'Hey, this guy is out there. You should really take a look at him.' We [New York Jets] picked him up within a half hour, I understood exactly why."


History repeats itself


But before Elam arrived, misfortune repeated itself in 2008.


"I was just at home in Florida a week prior, then I get a phone call that my older brother [33-year-old Donald Elam II] had been shot," Elam said.


Donald Elam II was shot in the lower back while talking to a man in a car not far from the park where his other siblings had been murdered. A passenger in the car reportedly opened fire. Elam II, who had a history of trouble with the law, later died at a local hospital. His killer remains at large.


"I couldn't imagine going through all of this without God," said Elam, describing the anguish he and his family have suffered. "Without God, I don't think we'd be able to stand. I wouldn't be where I am. Just to remain sane after experiencing all of that stuff. It's been like a horror movie."


Those horrors, however, do not define Elam. His inner strength helps him maintain his focus on the bright side of life. It's something his mother saw in her son at an early age.


"The deaths of my children were hard on Abe ... he didn't really show it because he wanted to be strong for me and the other family members," Elam-Lewis said. "But I'm not surprised at how he remains strong despite all that has happened. I figure God must have given me Abram."

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