Released from the heavy weight of being the son of boxing champion Evander Holyfield, Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield is attempting to carve his own path
By Chase Goodbread | Published March 19, 2019
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.
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.
"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.' "
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.
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. BUT AFTERWARD, NOBODY MESSED WITH HIM. JAVON JACKSON
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."