Fourth and Long

He was bound for football stardom until that night at Notre Dame. Now Abram Elam struggles for redemption.

Abram's only memories of the funeral are the tears shed by his father. He looked up at the man and thought: "Don't worry. I won't let you down. I will carry on the family name."

But the hardships continued for the boy, whom friends took to calling "Father Abe."

Two years later, in March 1989, Abram's older brother, Donald C. Elam Jr., was charged with the murder of a 23-year-old drug dealer, allegedly over a wayward deal. At 14, he was the youngest person in Palm Beach County ever to be accused of murder. The police had witnesses; there was talk of the death penalty.

Abram lives a quiet life at Kent State.
Walter Novak
Abram lives a quiet life at Kent State.
New Kent coach Doug Martin inherits a 5-7 team and "a hundred new children."
Walter Novak
New Kent coach Doug Martin inherits a 5-7 team and "a hundred new children."

But Abram's family insisted the boy was framed. And after being held for nearly a year, Donald was found not guilty after only three hours of jury deliberation. Abram sat in the courtroom alongside his mother, boiling over an imperfect justice system.

The stress, meanwhile, had started eating away at his parents; when Abram was in seventh grade, they divorced.

By high school, Abram figured he had finally outmaneuvered his trail of tragedies. He settled comfortably into a routine of school, practice, and work. Then one afternoon, as he sat down to do homework, a friend ran to his house yelling, "Your sister's just been shot!"

When Abram arrived at the scene -- the same park where his brother had been gunned down -- he saw ambulances and flashing lights. He ripped through police tape to find his 12-year-old sister lying motionless in a puddle of her own blood. He curled to the ground, cradled her limp body, then sat with her in the ambulance. She was pronounced dead at the hospital. Christina, it turned out, had been arguing with a schoolmate for days. The other girl's 20-year-old brother, getting wind of the argument, decided to settle it with a shotgun.

When Abram was not mourning the deaths of family members, he was busy creating new life. By the time he was 20, "Father Abe" had three kids of his own: a boy and a girl with his childhood sweetheart and another boy with a woman a few years his senior.

Throughout his adolescence, Abram used football as a way to deal with tragedy, pounding his pain into the ground with his rubber-soled cleats. He was a remarkable player, with the focus of a person twice his age.

"The first time I saw him, I thought, now there's an athlete," says Abram's former coach, Bob Schwenger. "It wasn't just his agility or coordination. It was the fact that he could look at a kid and know what he was going to do, without being taught."

Adds coach Everett Mitchell: "He was like a doctor going in to operate. He was all professional."

They are talking about Pee Wee Football.

By the time he reached middle school, Abram's skills sparked a bidding war between two Palm Beach high schools. Suncoast High, the local public school, had wanted him since elementary school. But Abram opted for Cardinal Newman, a private Catholic school. His father, a Baptist preacher, and his mother, a missionary, approved of its religious influence. Riviera Beach was less approving. Resentful residents talked about how the rich white school "stole" all their talent, and Abram was harassed by neighborhood friends for attending private school.

Forgiveness eventually came with his many accolades. As a senior, Abram was named Palm Beach County Player of the Year, the Sun-Sentinel newspaper's Offensive Player of the Year, and first-team all-state. On the football field, the boy could switch from quarterback to defensive back with the ease of a car changing lanes. "You never saw a more selfless player with the ball," Newman Coach Sam Budnyk says.

By his senior year, Abram had a 3.0 grade-point average and was recruited by such football powerhouses as Georgia Tech, Miami, Florida, and Notre Dame. "Other than who you marry," Coach Budnyk cautioned, "this is the biggest decision you'll ever make in your life."

The boy took this advice seriously. He was leaning toward the University of Miami, where he would be able to play both basketball and football. But his parents were pushing hard for the Fighting Irish. "How could you let go of a chance to play Notre Dame football?" Abram remembers his father saying.

Mother and son took out the Bible and turned to Genesis. "Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father's house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation.

"Thus said the Lord." The two smiled. The decision was made.

In South Bend, Indiana, religion comes in the dual forms of Catholicism and football. When you drive onto the Notre Dame campus, the first sights are the bowl-shaped football stadium and the golden-domed administration building, adorned with a branch-like cross. The juxtaposition is jarring.

Here, stuck between the confines of church, school, and gridiron, Abram struggled. Life in South Bend moved faster than in Riviera Beach, and his grades suffered. Football too was not what he had expected. On the second day of practice, he told his coach he no longer had any desire to play quarterback. He couldn't handle it. "It's so difficult," he says. "You have to know everything everyone's doing. It's a lot of information to keep in your head."

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