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Heavy weight: Elijah Holyfield trying to break from dad's shadow

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ATLANTA -- Tamie Pettaway was snapping a photo of a T-Mobile billboard in Chicago, featuring Evander Holyfield Jr., when her phone flipped from camera mode to ring mode. Incoming: a call from Flat Rock Middle School back in Tyrone, Georgia, where her eighth-grade son, Elijah Holyfield, in his first year in a public school, had just been attacked in the boys bathroom by three classmates.

The power in the name reverberated from both the ad and the call, simultaneously demonstrating why being a Holyfield can be great at times, and difficult at others.

Elijah is the eighth of boxing legend Evander Holyfield's 11 children, and at just 21 years old, he's done a lot to establish his own name, his own identity, his own path. Yet even as a 1,000-yard rusher at the University of Georgia last year, even as a 2019 NFL Draft prospect, he's still chipping away at the public's penchant for identifying him not as Elijah or for what he's become, but as "Evander's son," for who his father was in the ring.

When you're the only fighter in boxing history to be the undisputed world champion in two different weight classes, fame is evergreen. When you're that fighter's son, the notoriety can come from unexpected or awkward angles, creating a spectrum of recognition that can be unwanted or disrespectful in one situation, and genuine admiration in another. A different kid, cornered in a school bathroom by three older boys who told him they were going to "do you like Tyson did your dad," might've grown to resent it.

Elijah hasn't.

A different kid, growing up around crass whispers that his achievements rode the privilege of his father's broad shoulders, might've forsaken independence and ambition to see just how far a father's legacy can carry a son.

Elijah didn't.

"I told Elijah years ago," Pettaway said, 'Now people are saying you're Evander's son. It won't be long before they'll be saying, 'There's Elijah's dad.' "

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ELIJAH HAD THE SAME INSTINCT to flee a 3-on-1 attack that anyone else would have. He also had an instinct, even in a frightening, adrenalin-filled moment, to consider two possible outcomes. Word of the fight would spread all over the school, and that word would either end this bullying for good or invite the same thing to happen again.

"If you run out and tell a teacher, you're looked at a certain way," Elijah said. "Evander Holyfield's son ran away from a fight? No, that can't happen. You've got to stand your ground. It was a lose-lose situation."

If Elijah's assailants had known they'd cornered a two-time taekwondo champion and a well-trained young boxer, maybe they'd have thought twice. Or maybe, with a 3-to-1 numbers advantage, they'd have been undeterred. They only knew the last name, and that they wanted a piece of it.

They got it.

When Evander arrived at the school to pick up his son -- school policy mandated that all four be sent home because punches went both ways -- Elijah's face didn't have a mark on it. The instigators, on the other hand, had absorbed all the punishment.

"Everybody in school used to wonder what Elijah was all about, what he was made of, so you kind of knew something like that would happen sooner or later," said Duke safety Javon Jackson, one of Elijah's closest childhood friends. "But afterward, nobody messed with him."

Tamie wanted her son to be disciplined at home, because she was concerned Elijah would be the one saddled with a bad reputation. Elijah rightly considered how the champ's son would look by fleeing the bullies; Tamie rightly considered how the champ's son would look by flattening them.

But the principal had told Evander that witnesses confirmed Elijah's story of self-defense, and Evander felt the circumstances rendered Elijah blameless. When Tamie called from Chicago as the champ and his son drove home, expecting to participate in a stern talking-to via speakerphone, she heard the two singing in the car.

"I got a get-out-of-jail-free card on that one," Elijah said.

Although it marked one moment where Evander and Tamie were at odds over Elijah's upbringing, she and her husband, Chris, get along well with the former champ and, in fact, gladly open their home to Evander's other children. They raised Elijah since his infancy -- Chris married Tamie with children of his own -- and the two are now approaching their 20th wedding anniversary.

"We're a blended family," Tamie said, sitting in the Atlanta Midtown condo unit the couple shares. "We've been doing this a long time. We're here to support the kids no matter what. Evander does what he can while he can -- he still travels a lot -- but at the end of the day it's all about Elijah and the kids."

Chris saw hurdles similar to the Flat Rock Middle incident ahead of his stepson from a younger age. The bathroom brawl happened to fall in a one-year window in which Elijah spent weekdays at his famous father's Atlanta mansion, hence it was Evander who went to Flat Rock that day. But it was Chris who provided him day-to-day fatherly guidance. It was Chris who wore the whistle as Elijah's first youth football coach, and, at the time, he considered giving his son a jersey with no last name on the back. Kids on the opposing teams wanted to notch a tackle on the champ's kid even more than they wanted to win; some of their parents clamored for the same. More than a decade later when Elijah's private high school, Woodward Academy, faced Sandy Creek High, the public school he was zoned to attend, it was no different.

Flat Rock Middle, after all, was one of Sandy Creek's feeder schools.

It was even worse, of course, when Elijah picked up boxing for a few years. Tamie heard the chatter --"That's Holyfield's kid ��� my son is ready for him" -- and it bothered her that it was loud enough for her 8-year-old child to hear.

Elijah absorbs it all in perhaps the only way a young man can while maintaining a healthy self-image: as a sign of respect for his father, not of disrespect to a son. He takes pride in the last name, always seeking to uplift it, but with an undercurrent of determination to establish his first name.

"I've never tried to compete against my dad. It's never been like that for me," he said. "But at the same time, I don't know anyone who wants to be recognized because of someone else. I just want to be the best Elijah possible."

At the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month, Holyfield stepped to a podium for a media session to discuss his future in pro football with reporters, and in a mere 15 minutes, he was instead peppered with half a dozen questions about his father.

He answered them all without even a trace of frustration.

One trait Elijah clearly has in common with his biological father is the way both handle public recognition with a certain grace -- approachable in any circumstance and, in most, even affable. Whatever popularity an NFL career adds to Elijah's profile, he won't mind the demands. After all, strangers still need to have to meet Elijah and hear his last name to make the connection.

Evander, on the other hand, is known the world over just by his face.

"Some people are famous in their town, famous in their state or even famous in their country. But his fame is world-wide, and that's a different thing," Elijah said. "I'm known all over Athens and a lot of people know me in Atlanta, but I can go to another state and nobody knows who I am."

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THE DAY BEFORE Elijah Holyfield's first football game, Chris Pettaway handed the 4-year-old a youth-sized uniform and quickly realized which sport held his stepson's heart. Elijah was so excited, he slept in full Old National Knights gear -- helmet and all -- in anticipation of the next day's game.

Football has been his greatest sporting passion ever since, although he also committed to intense training for several years in both taekwondo and boxing. Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd was his taekwondo instructor; the five-time Pro Bowler had taken up the Korean martial arts discipline during his playing career and achieved black-belt status. They traveled all over to compete -- Florida, Texas, D.C., North Carolina -- and Elijah became a two-time national champion. At 6, he took a gold in his age division at the 2004 Junior National AAU Tae Kwon Do tournament in Ft. Lauderdale, coming from behind in three bouts to do so.

Around the same time Evander was making a comeback in the ring at age 43, following a layoff of nearly two years, Elijah -- at 8 years old in 2006 -- decided to take his fighting skills into the boxing ring. He excelled, but eventually found himself matched against older and more experienced boxers because the muscle mass he was gaining pushed him into heavier weight classes.

But Chris Pettaway knew his stepson's love for football would win out.

"I didn't personally see the vision for it with him. But I don't ever tell him he can't do something," Pettaway said. "He wanted to experience it, I said, 'Go ahead, be the best at it,' but I didn't see (boxing) in his cards."

Elijah's final match, at age 14, against a highly skilled 16-year-old, ended in a disqualification because he incurred a nose bleed that couldn't be controlled. Elijah did plenty of damage himself -- Chris believes he was winning the fight on points -- in what was a brutal exchange of blows landed.

"I was ready to throw in the towel from the stands," Tamie said. "That's how physical it was."

Elijah insists the loss didn't spur him to give up the sport and commit fully to football, but acknowledges being highly upset the fight was stopped, and never got in the ring again.

"They rang that bell and my son went right at him, but Elijah always fought with his head up," Evander said. "I had told his mom his nose would get bloodied because he wouldn't keep his head down. You want to show them the forehead so it's hard to hit the face straight on."

With boxing behind him, Holyfield committed full-time to football with the same relentless work ethic the Pettaways instilled in him from an early age. That's when he moved into Evander's palatial Atlanta estate -- a 44,000-square foot mansion now occupied by rapper Rick Ross -- for about a year before entering high school. There, he would awake at 5 a.m. for grueling workouts with Evander and a personal trainer. But by that point, he was readying for football, not fighting.

Strangely enough, Evander abandoned football for his greater passion, boxing, at the same age Elijah dumped boxing for football. Evander was a 115-pound freshman at now-defunct Fulton High in Atlanta in the late 1970s when his coach placed him at cornerback because of his size -- too far away from the action for Evander. More than 40 years later, he had no issue with Elijah leaving boxing behind. He was just thrilled Elijah wanted to work out with him daily.

"My momma said loving what you do is what success is all about," Evander said.

At Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia, where Elijah played his last three years of high school ball, team rules required that players make 16 of 24 scheduled summer workouts. The rule's flexibility helped players hold a job, or go on a family vacation, while maintaining good standing with the football program. Holyfield made it to all 24, setting an example that made him Woodward's undisputed leader in short order.

He's never lacked for training equipment or knowledgeable instruction to unlock his athletic potential, but he's also never taken for granted the hard work required to reach it. Woodward coaches once visited him at a Georgia practice, only to have to wait until he'd caught 100 passes on his own, after practice, to talk to him. At the combine in Indianapolis, he squeezed in midnight workouts during the week because the combine's notoriously tight schedule for draft prospects prevented him from doing so during the day.

"Anyone who thinks he was given his place in life because he's Evander's son, they're wrong," Chris said. "He's worked for it all."

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WITH THE BACKGROUND of a defensive assistant, Georgia's Kirby Smart spends most of his time in the ears of his defensive players in practice. But during the Bulldogs' 2016 fall camp -- his first as head coach -- he took immediate notice of Holyfield for the true freshman's fearless style. In pass protection, typically the first practice test freshman running backs fail at the college level, Holyfield thrived.

"We blitzed a linebacker up the middle on him, and he just stoned the guy right in the A-gap," Smart recalled. "I walked over to him and jabbed him, told him I bet he couldn't do that again. The next time, he buries the guy again. He jogged by and smiled at me and said, 'I told you.' There's no fear with him.

He sticks his face right in the fan."

An impressive fall camp was about all Holyfield had to show for a freshman year lost to a high ankle sprain that hampered him all season. An arrest for marijuana possession marred his freshman year at Georgia even more. The headlines, of course, skipped his first name once again: "Evander Holyfield's son arrested," they blared.

"That was the hardest time I've ever had carrying the (Holyfield) name. It was embarrassing," Elijah said. "It was like what I had done was worse than the next person doing the same thing. I learned that everybody is not in your corner."

Matt Brennan, a former assistant at Woodward who is close to Holyfield, suggested he tighten his circle of friends, which he did.

Evander, as a young man, had to tighten his own circle.

Sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Indigo in Tuscaloosa, last month, a day after welcoming a new induction class into the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame, Evander eats breakfast and, of course, handles the daily interruptions of a celebrity in his always-gracious, easy-going way. Two women at the breakfast bar are riveted by his story-telling, and a few more strangers stop him just to say they're big fans. Even as he smiles and accommodates them, he's reminded of the perils of keeping the wrong company.

"When I was a kid, my friends one time were throwing rocks at cars, and a guy got out and started shooting at everybody. He started shooting at me," he says. "I knew not to go around those kids anymore. You are the company you keep. Bad things could've happened to me because I was around some clowns."

For the balance of Elijah's college career, he stayed out of any more trouble. Nevertheless, every team he interviewed with at the combine asked him extensively about it.

As a sophomore, Holyfield found himself stuck behind two future NFL running backs -- Nick Chubb and Sony Michel -- who both decided to return to college for their senior seasons. It was a test of patience for a player who wasn't used to sitting the bench for one year, much less two, but Holyfield never gave a thought to leaving the school he'd always wanted to play for. When he finally reached the top of the depth chart last year as a junior, splitting carries with dynamic sophomore D'Andre Swift, he took full advantage: 1,018 yards on just 159 carries for a 6.4-yard average, showing the impressive power that intrigues NFL scouts most.

"He's no fun to tackle," said former UGA defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, an NFL Draft prospect himself and Holyfield's roommate for three semesters. "If he has to go into a pile to get a yard we need, he attacks it."

Smart believes the consistency with which NFL defenses stop the run make Holyfield's power-over-speed style well-suited for the Sunday game.

"In the NFL, defenses set the edges the right way consistently. The run fits are right all the time, so you're not going to see a lot of breakaways anyway," said Smart, who served as a Miami Dolphins assistant coach under Nick Saban. "It's the guy who can get the 4- and 5-yard runs consistently who plays. Elijah's not a run-away-from-the-defense guy, but he'll get positive yards again and again."

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IT���S HARD TO SAY EXACTLY what was going through Holyfield's mind as he boarded a plane to Indianapolis for the combine. By all accounts, he tends not to display his feelings and can hold some deeper thoughts to himself.

His maternal grandfather, Kelly Johnson, died the morning Elijah left.

Days earlier, with Johnson in hospice care, Elijah stood beside him silently for more than an hour after the family had been called in. When Elijah was a kid, Johnson sometimes picked him up and drove him to practices. For as long as his health allowed, he a was regular at Georgia home games, hoping to see his grandson play.

Holyfield's sudden challenge was to compartmentalize his grandfather's passing to focus on the combine testing he'd spent months training for.

"I'm not a very emotional person, but I didn't like seeing him how he was. I was happy to see him be out of pain," Elijah said. "I felt bad for my parents, and my grandmother, because I know how much she's going to miss him."

The plane out of Indianapolis four days later got him back to Atlanta just in time to attend Johnson's wake, followed by the funeral the next morning. On his last day in Indy, Holyfield clocked a sluggish 4.78 40-yard dash that was one of the combine's most talked about times for all the wrong reasons. Only a fullback from Wisconsin, Alec Ingold, ran slower in his position group.

Holyfield insists on owning the time. In fact, he believes errors in speed techniques he'd learned in combine training -- which he also called inexcusable -- affected his time more than any grieving process. He had trained for the 40 with John Lewis, the older brother of former Baltimore Ravens star RB Jamal Lewis, and track star Christian Coleman, the 60-meter dash world-record holder.

"A lot of what Christian taught me, I didn't use. I was upset with myself because I did all this training for three straight months, then I got out there and it was like I forgot everything," he said. "None of it's an excuse. I ran what I ran. But I also know I can run faster."

He'll get that chance Wednesday at Georgia's pro day, where NFL scouts will want to see more than just an improved 40 time. Holyfield wasn't happy with his vertical and broad jumps at the combine, either, and skipped agility drills altogether. His 26 reps on the bench press in Indianapolis, perhaps the only combine testing result he'll stand on at pro day, were third-best among running backs.

But it's his 40-yard dash that will be most important on pro day. For some NFL clubs, a 4.78 at that position can be disqualifying where the draft is concerned. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein expects Holyfield to be selected on the draft's final day, perhaps as low as Round 6.

"He's got some elusiveness to go with good power, and any time you add some wiggle to power, that's a combination you like to see. But he's missing the speed component," Zierlein said. "He cuts it back into the field a lot when he's headed to the perimeter. Sometimes that's the sign of a guy who knows he won't win the race to the corner. He needs to get into the mid-4.6's (at his pro day). If he does, it could bump him up a full round. But that's a lot to shave off."

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JUST DAYS AFTER returning home to Atlanta from the combine, a restaurant waiter spots Elijah as soon as he walks in the door, tells him so, and exclaims "Go Dawgs" while escorting him to instant table service. An obvious Georgia fan, it's clear he appreciates Elijah for the touchdowns he's scored between Sanford Stadium's fabled hedges, not for his bloodlines.

But if Elijah's last name were Jones or Smith, not Holyfield, would the waiter have known his face?

He stopped asking himself that question long ago.

It's the night before his first paid autograph session, scheduled to be at the Sports Addiction memorabilia shop in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta. It will be a chance for Bulldogs fans to thank him for a big junior year, wish him well in the draft, and take an Elijah Holyfield autograph back home to their Georgia-themed mantels and man caves.

Questioned if he expects to be asked to autograph a boxing glove, Holyfield puts the odds at a robust 20 percent.

"I've never done an autograph session," Holyfield said. "You never know with people."

The first guy to arrive shows up at 8 a.m. for a 1 p.m. event, intent on being first in line. By 8:30 a.m., before the shop even opens, a mob of diehard Bulldogs fans form behind him. The line snakes through a maze of stanchions that would make a busy airport security line look like a breeze. Serving everyone on hand -- 149 people -- pushes the session a half hour past its scheduled end. One at a time, they approach Elijah for a quick photo and a paid signature on all manner of memorabilia: footballs, helmets, jerseys, photos, an iPhone, a couple of end zone pylons and even a shirt on a woman's back.

Not one boxing glove comes across the table.

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