"You know," Abram says now, nestled safe inside his coach's office, "I could sit and listen to that sound all day and never get sick of it." The boy sighs, crosses one beefy arm over another, and settles back into his chair.
Two years ago, Abram Elam was a reserve safety on the Notre Dame football team. At six foot one and 210 pounds, he was an astonishing specimen, built with a body that needed to move. His torso looked as if it were carved by a sculptor's hand; his calves bulged so that when he walked, it seemed as if he was hauling a pair of overinflated balloons with him. He was a highly touted sophomore then, expected to do great things for the Irish.
But doom, like an anxious bride, was about to unveil itself.
The night started out ordinary enough. After spring football practice let out, Abram and a few teammates headed to downtown South Bend for a late-night bar run. By 1 a.m., the State was hopping. Easter break was just around the corner, and it seemed everyone was out that Wednesday. Inside the club, Abram ran into Justin Smith, a former Notre Dame safety who had been a sort of mentor to him. But they soon lost each other in the crowd, and Abram spent the rest of the evening mingling with friends.
At closing time, he and his roommate, football player Lorenzo Crawford, decided to stop by Justin's house. When the two arrived, they found Justin in the basement, watching a movie with Lindsay Charles, a Notre Dame junior and a former football manager. Lindsay had a "reputation" around campus, Abram would later say, though he refused to elaborate.
He settled himself on the floor, a few paces from where Justin and Lindsay sat cuddling in an easy chair. Lorenzo splayed out on a couch, near fellow football player Donald Dykes and another girl. When Lindsay and Justin starting kissing, Abram placed his hand on Lindsay's crotch, and his fingers kneaded into the inseam of her jeans. He says he removed them when she didn't respond. Lindsay said in court that she pushed Abram's hand away. But both agree nothing was said.
A few minutes later, Justin and Lindsay retreated to a bedroom. Abram, thinking Lindsay was "feeling for me," went upstairs too. There, he came up behind Lindsay, put his hand on her hips, and began to run his fingertips along her backside. "Don't you have a girlfriend?" she demanded. Abram says he left the room, and Justin would later confirm this. They also say Lindsay was a willing participant in what was about to happen. But Lindsay tells a much different story.
She would later testify that Abram refused to leave, saying, "Oh, no, baby, I just want to make you have an orgasm, I just want to make you feel good," all the while forcing his fingers inside her. She again pushed him away.
With Abram and Lorenzo watching from the doorway, Justin began to penetrate Lindsay on the bed. She says that Lorenzo tore off his clothes and forced her to perform oral sex. Then Abram stripped down to his shorts and began touching Lindsay's breasts. Lindsay says she struggled the whole time, once more invoking the name of Abram's girlfriend. This time, Abram left the bedroom. On his way downstairs, he passed Donald, who was on his way up to Justin's room.
An hour or so later, Abram arrived back at his dorm, thinking nothing of the incident. When he saw Lindsay in class the next day, they didn't speak a word.
Five days later, she reported that she'd been raped by four football players.
Abram grew up in Riviera Beach, Florida, a compact eight-mile stretch on the southern Atlantic coast. Just five miles from Palm Beach -- one of the ritziest communities in the country -- Riviera Beach is composed of short, squalid one-floor houses pushed together like partners in an unhappy marriage. The residents are mostly poor and mostly black, and the town has a crime rate three times the national average.
But Riviera Beach is also a close-knit town, where it's not unusual for three branches of a single family to live on one street. Even those not related are often referred to as "aunties" and "uncles." And when tragedy befalls one person, everyone else reaches out. Abram knew that touch well. His young life was a succession of tragedies.
When Abram was six, his half-brother Donald was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting near the park where Abram often played. Donald, a star football player who used to fire spirals to Abram in their backyard, was just 17 years old. The two teenagers who killed him got 40 years each.
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 eyewitnesses; there was talk of the death penalty.
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 half-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 dealt with tragedy on the football field, 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 Abe'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 Abram reached middle school, his 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," says Newman coach Sam Budnyk.
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, this is the biggest decision you'll ever make in your life," Coach Budnyk cautioned.
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 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."
He phoned home often. "You would not believe the pace of college ball," he would tell friends. Abram was redshirted his freshman year, went home for the summer, and worked hard to improve his stamina. He came back renewed and ready to start. His sophomore year, he found a girlfriend who ran track. By then he had a few good friends, and he began to find his footing on the field. He appeared in 11 games as a safety, recording 28 tackles and two interceptions. That spring, he also found Lindsay Charles.
An enthusiastic 18-year-old with an infectious laugh, Lindsay was thrilled upon her arrival at the Notre Dame campus. It had been her first-choice college; when her family learned she'd been admitted, they gave her an "I Love Notre Dame" license plate, along with clothing and a keychain.
Lindsay thrived during her first two years. By the time she was 20, she had many more friends than she had in her tiny Maine high school, and she joined the sports management club. She was named a manager of Notre Dame's football team, despite never having seen a football game prior to college. At practices, she worked mostly with the defensive backs, setting up cones and packing bags for them. She was friendly with a few of the players, and was required to memorize all their names. But most of her good friends came from outside the team.
By midway through her junior year, the whole sports management thing was wearing thin. The 50-hour-plus work weeks were killing her social life, and her studies suffered too. She finally quit, though she continued to stress over the decision. On March 27, 2002, she instant-messaged her best friend: We need a girls night out, she typed.
Lindsay met three friends at St. Mary's, an all-girls college in South Bend, and they drove to the State, a converted theater downtown that was popular among students. At the club, Lindsay separated from her friends and sidled over to former safety Justin Smith, an engineering major. They spent the last hour on the dance floor, and at the end of the night, Justin asked her to return to his house with him. Lindsay, thinking she was going to a party, agreed.
When they got there, the house was empty. By the end of the night, she would have sex with four football players, according to her testimony. They called it consensual. She called it rape.
Lindsay admits that, after the incident, she willingly spent the rest of the night in Justin Smith's bed. The next morning, he drove her back to her dorm room. Five days later, at the urging of her parents, Lindsay reported the incident at a hospital. Her parents alerted Notre Dame.
School officials held a hearing to decide the players' fate. Lindsay submitted a seven-page report of the incident to the school's assault committee. All four players were expelled.
But Abram, the first to stand trial, was confident the jury would exonerate him. He denied forcing himself on Lindsay and insisted everything was consensual. Jurors apparently didn't find him convincing: After six days in the courtroom, he was found guilty of sexual battery and given an 18-month sentence (which was later suspended), two years of probation, and 200 hours of community service. He was acquitted on the more serious charges of conspiracy to commit rape and criminal deviant conduct.
Donald Dykes was later found not guilty of rape, and criminal charges against the other two men were dropped. (Last week, Lindsay Charles filed a civil suit against Notre Dame and the four players. She declined comment for this story.)
"We both know what went on that night, and it wasn't rape," Abram says today, though he did not appeal the verdict.
Abram weathered most of his probation back in Riviera Beach, where it seemed all anyone talked about was the golden boy turned sex felon. He tried to ignore the buzz: He got a job as a dental assistant, signed up for classes at Palm Beach Community College, and worked out every day. He threw footballs with his oldest son, and refused to speak to reporters.
When his cousin would call and ask him to hang out, Abram would say, "No man, I have to study."
At workouts with an area rec football team, the other players would try to lift his spirits.
"It will all work out, man," they'd say.
"I know it will," he'd reply, then change the subject.
Abram went to church; he ran suicide sprints up and down the sand on Riviera Beach until he thought he would die.
To parents and friends he could only keep apologizing. "I'm sorry," he would say, "I don't approve of the conduct that was performed that night. It was a situation I regret. I ask God for forgiveness of it."
His mother, hearing his words, rocked back and forth. Her hair grew frazzled, and the loose threads of curls that framed her face began to fray. She was worn, the wrinkles in her forehead so fine they looked like they were etched with a felt-tipped pen.
This is all a conspiracy of the devil, she thought. The devil wants to destroy those whom God has blessed. He wants to distract Abram from his destiny.
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.
One day during his probation, Pierre suggested that Abram give Kent football coach Dean Pees a call. If anyone would listen to Abram's story fairly, Pierre thought, it would be Pees.
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 over 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; I can't work with arrogance," he says.
Coach was in his office last December when Abram called. He listened sympathetically, but said there was nothing he could do to help him. 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's 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.
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 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," says Councilman Don Wilson, "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 he screwed up, the money could be rescinded.
When Abram's mother heard the news, she wept. "It's the best Christmas present I've ever gotten," she says.
The $20,000 was given to the KSU women's center.
When Abram arrived on the Kent State campus in January, he felt like a coma victim who had just awakened from sleep, eternally grateful for everything -- every moment, every step. Anyone who'd listen kept hearing how blessed he felt.
"I've worked hard to bring myself back. I can't take anything for granted now," Abram says, fingering the head of the heavy silver cross that hangs from his neck. "I know that nothing is promised to you. I need to try and turn this all into a positive." The boy, now 22, is dressed in baggy jeans and a loose-collared shirt, but timidity is the outfit he wears best.
"I was concerned that people would judge me from what they heard, without getting the chance to know me," he says quietly. "I knew, though, if they took the time to get to know me, they'd be pleased with the person I am."
(Whether his own children will get to know him is another matter. Despite the miles between Ohio and Florida, and the dueling demands of class and football, Abram claims he's active in the raising of his three children, who live with their respective mothers in Riviera Beach. When he's asked the sex of his youngest child, however, he pauses before answering, as if he can't remember.)
Abram's first few weeks on campus passed quietly. There had been a few articles about him in the local papers, but they'd been mostly tucked away in the sports section. Dana Curcio, editor of The Daily Kent Stater, the campus newspaper, says she "received more letters protesting the fact that a Starbucks opened at Kent than I did about this."
Then came the January 21 letter to the editor written by Shirley Leeman, Lindsay Charles's aunt:
"He [Elam] helped ruin a girl's life, and he should not be rewarded by being given a football scholarship. The reason it is an issue is that he is a football player, and you are telling the women of Kent State that it is more important to win football games than it is to protect them."
In an editorial, the paper's student board sided with the university. "Many people have stood up and put their reputations on the line for Elam. They do so assumably because they care about him and would rather see him rehabilitated than further ostracized from society," it read. "Ultimately, our society must learn to forgive even the toughest to forgive. No positive change will come from holding Elam in cultural contempt."
University staff remained quiet on the issue. Privately, some questioned whether the $20,000 raised by Riviera Beach was intended as "bribe money" all along. (The KSU women's center refused to be quoted for this story.)
Kathy Redmond is more than willing to speak. Head of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes in Colorado, she counseled Lindsay Charles after the incident. Redmond is livid that Kent State would give a convicted sex offender a scholarship. The school is setting itself up for a massive lawsuit, she warns, and she'd love to be the one who files it.
Her threats are not without merit: Title IX, the law designed to ban sexual discrimination in schools, prohibits institutions from creating or maintaining "hostile environments" for women. Redmond says Kent State's placement of Abram in a co-ed residence hall might be construed as a violation of the title IX clause.
"They're taking a huge risk, bringing this boy to campus," Redmond says.
(Abram has since been moved off campus at the behest of the president, according to Pees. Numerous calls to Kent State President Carol Cartwright were not returned.)
But Coach Pees remained resolutely by the boy.
"Look," he says, "it doesn't matter what Abram says -- the court found him guilty of sexual battery. I'm not here to be a judge or a jury. The kid made a mistake, a horrible mistake, but nowhere in the court decision does it say that the kid can't get a college education. Nowhere does it say that he can't be on scholarship. And nowhere does it say that he has to be punished more than the court already did."
At 6:30 on a Tuesday morning, the Kent football team is beginning morning practice, sheltered from the February snow by the confines of the university fieldhouse.
Pees stands at midfield, a whistle dangling from his neck. His players are lined up by position, waiting anxiously like horses at the starting gate. When the whistle blows, they are off, thighs straining, calves bulking. In the second row, along with the other defensive backs, is Abram Elam.
The boy is dressed in a gray T-shirt with the words "stack 'em up" lettered on the back. A ring of sweat has formed around his neck. When the sprint is over, he kneels down, heaving.
Shannon Davis, Abram's roommate and a starting defensive back, places a light hand on his back. That, says assistant coach Scott Booker, is emblematic of how the team reacts to Abram's past: with slight acknowledgment. "The team is aware of Abram's situation," the coach says, "but all they see at practice is Abe working hard every day. They admire him for that."
If Abram should slip up, it will no longer be Pees's problem. He left Kent in February to become the linebackers coach for the New England Patriots. Abram is in the hands of Pees's successor, Doug Martin, who inherits a team that went an encouraging 5-7 last year, as well as an all-conference quarterback, Josh Cribbs, who was charged with marijuana trafficking in January.
"Being head coach is a lonely job," Martin says. "You become solely responsible for a hundred new children."
At an early morning practice a day before spring break, Martin gathers his players like ducklings. He clears his throat.
"Listen," he says. "Spring break is a dangerous time. Stay out of stupid situations. I do not want to hear about any of you getting drunk and making a fool out of yourselves. That's not what this team is about. This team is about trust and commitment and family."
As the players begin to disperse, Martin calls out again. "Remember -- it's easy to get into a bad situation. It is not so easy to get out of it."
Throughout the speech, Abram keeps his head planted firmly downward.
When it's over, he walks off the field with Shannon Davis. Abram is not slated to start this season, and with only one year of eligibility remaining, his future is uncertain. But he remains hopeful, thinking perhaps, of four fat syllables that may one day unfurl themselves, like a flag, above Kent State's Dix Stadium.
A-bram E-lam, the announcer will scream.
He always did like the sound of that.