By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Pierre Wilson and Abram Elam spent their childhoods at each other's homes, playing video games, shooting hoops, recounting stories of Pee Wee Football games. The year Abram went off to Notre Dame, Pierre transferred to Kent State.
Right: His senior year, Abram was named Palm Beach County Player of the Year.
Dean Pees looks a lot like a sophomore English professor. He has a pale, soft face, wire-rimmed glasses, and graying hair. He wears polo shirts tucked into khakis. His reputation is as pure as Ivory soap. At 54, Pees says he has not received so much as a traffic ticket in more than 15 years.
He is a strict disciplinarian, known more for his morality than for winning football games: By the end of last season, his Kent teams had amassed a woeful 17-51 record, but his players' graduation rate hovered around 88 percent -- among the best in the nation. More than 40-yard-dash times or vertical leaps, Pees probes the character of prospective players. Two years ago, he benched the team captain for missing class. He refused to admit a highly touted recruit when he learned that the boy had lied to him. "I can work with character," he says. "I can't work with arrogance."
Coach was in his office last December when Abram called. He listened sympathetically, but he said there was nothing he could do to help. Sorry.
But over the next few days, Pees started getting unexpected phone calls and letters: one from the mayor of Riviera Beach, another from a Riviera Beach council member, another from Abram's minister. All of them were endorsing the boy, and they earned Pees' attention.
But he had another reason to listen -- one that gnawed at him even more: When Pees was a freshman at Bowling Green, he had spent too much time hitting the bars and not enough time hitting the books; he flunked out of college. If not for the BG dean who took Pees under his wing, he'd probably be working at a factory in Dunkirk, his rural hometown in western Ohio.
"I made a poor choice then, and I thank God there was someone there who was willing to set me straight again," Pees says. "That's why I believe in second chances."
The following week, Pees arrived at Abram's doorstep and was shocked by the paucity of the boy's existence. The small, one-floor ranch had the features of an old woman: The windows sagged, the hardwood floors were soft, and the white exterior was tinged gray. But he saw, inside the house, a family filled with hope.
Pees sat silently on the couch as Abram told his story. He took in the boy's words, but he was studying the face of Abram's mother, the sadness etched there. Has anyone ever given this woman a second chance? he thought.
And Pees looked into Abram's eyes. "I saw a boy who made a mistake and was truly sorry," he says.
During his visit, Pees talked on the phone with Abram's probation officer, former coaches, and city councilmen. From Coach Budnyk, he was assured that the Notre Dame incident was "totally out of character." From the school secretary, he learned that Abram was "a sweet kid. Never in any trouble." From his junior high coach, he was told that "if Abram needed a character witness, I'd be the first one there."
When Pees left, he told the family he'd submit Abram's application to Kent State's admissions council. If they decided to let him in, he'd let Abram play football.
That night, Pees called his own family to the kitchen table, where he shared Abram Elam's tale with his wife, five daughters, and son. If we admit the boy, Pees said, it is not just Abram's life on the line; it is also mine. My reputation, my neck. Is it worth the risk? If you were in my place, what would you do? he asked his daughters.
Admit him, every one of them said.
Kent's admissions council made the same determination.
But there was a catch: There would be no scholarship, and the boy could not afford Kent. He was still paying off legal bills from the trial, so Riviera Beach banded together, raising $20,000 to send him off to college. Residents are not forthcoming about where they got the money, saying only that it came from a wealthy businessman and other caring people.
"You need to understand," Councilman Don Wilson says, "Abram was a well-respected young man in the community. He had a name here, and he still does. I don't know who raised the money or even who organized it, and I suspect it's like that for a reason."
Adds William Wilkins, the city manager: "The effort came from a group of individuals who were supportive of the school's decision to give Abe a second chance. We hope that if we support these athletes now, they'll eventually come back here and be contributing members of our community."
Pees and Laing Kennedy, Kent State's athletic director, worried that the money would look suspect to the NCAA -- as though the town were trying to bribe the university. So they gave the boy an athletic scholarship. It rewarded a worthy talent, and it gave them insurance: If Abram screwed up, the money could be rescinded.