GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Matt Elam finished his workout on his old campus on Wednesday and tears streamed down his face.
This is the place where he cemented his status as a first-round draft pick five years ago, a model for everyone who looked up to him.
“I let a lot of people down,” he said.
Wednesday was Elam’s second Pro Day. His first came amid tons of fanfare in 2013. He had just ran a 4.54 40 at the combine and was amid a bumper crop of Gators draft prospects. He was on his way to replacing the legendary Ed Reed in the Baltimore Ravens’ secondary.
Wednesday, though, he was a curiosity, a guy who had been washed out of the league after injuries and arrests. Five years ago, everything was ahead of him. Now, he worked out as a long shot, staring down the possibility that his career was over.
“Not being out there, playing the game I love,” Elam said after composing himself. “Seeing guys I played in college with, guys that were under me, seeing them ballin’ out. It hurt me. I know they looked up to me. Not being out there with my guys, playing the game I love, it’s tough.”
Elam was already a bust when he was pulled over early last year in Miami and hit with multiple drug charges. He had only started 26 NFL games, due to a combination of injury and underperformance. He was suspended for a game in 2015 for a substance abuse violation. He has only one interception and one forced fumble in his pro career. His contract expired a few weeks after his arrest and the Ravens didn’t pick up his option. He was soon booked again on a theft and battery complaint after a dispute with his girlfriend over an iPhone.
By the end of 2017, he was working at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The charges were dropped. No one seemed to notice or care. The phone didn’t ring.
So if nothing else, he cherished the chance to work out on Wednesday. He said he watched NFL Network constantly, unable to turn off the TV.
“It’s been a year off for me,” he said. “Trying to get myself right mentally, for my family. Show these people I deserve a second chance – to do this [sport] that I love.”
New Gators coach Dan Mullen said Elam was still a part of the Gators family, but there are no guarantees he’ll find an NFL family. He’s 26. There are plenty of younger safeties, including in the same building where he stood.
Elam offered no rationalizations, and cast no blame. He said he got complacent. He said he made “childish” mistakes. He didn’t even use the injuries as an excuse, saying the time off “helped me get right mentally.”
There are two questions here: 1) Is Elam “right mentally”? 2) Was he good enough to begin with? He did have a rash of injuries, but it’s impossible to tell if he would have done better if healthy. Was it a bad fit in Baltimore? Or was it something no team could fix?
On Wednesday he spoke not as a big shot but as a fringe player – a guy who was just trying to get a look, or maybe a camp invite. He said he’d do whatever is asked, whatever is needed.
“I’m still young,” he said. “I can move. I can do special teams. I can be a great teammate. I can lead guys. I can do a lot of stuff.”
He said it was time to “grow up and be a man.”
He had the look of someone who had confronted his football mortality. He knew no one owed him a thing. He was asked bluntly why anyone should trust him with another shot.
“People make mistakes,” he said. “People make mistakes in life. One mistake doesn’t define a person. It’s what you do with that second chance. That’s what kind of person you really are.”
He’s certainly right in a philosophical sense. He has a long life to carve out a truer identity for himself. But in football, a single chance is hard to come by. A second chance is saved for the very few.
When asked how he would react to another shot, his entire face brightened.
“I’m gonna take advantage of it,” he said. “I’m gonna embrace it and love ’em like family. If I get a second chance I’m definitely going to take advantage of it.”
After a few more minutes, his morning was done. He was done with the field drills, done with the press interviews, done with his second Pro Day. The people in attendance turned to other players.
Elam walked to the far corner of the training complex, dressing slowly and watching from afar. He was once a star on these grounds, a player everyone wanted to watch and celebrate. It was only the beginning.
Now he cut a lonely figure. A couple of friends came to say hi, but he was mostly left alone.
Then Elam was gone, leaving football for perhaps the final time, not to cheers but to silence.
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