Elijah Holyfield brings a champion spirit to UGA

READY TO ROLL: Elijah Holyfield poses between some dump-truck tires after a workout at Woodward Academy shortly before reporting to UGA for summer semester.

The resemblance is striking. Elijah Holyfield looks remarkably like his famous father, Evander Holyfield, only more handsome without the ravages of a prizefighting career.

He has the same sloping eyes, the bushy brows, the chiseled cheeks and chin, a wide and gleaming smile and, of course, that stocky, muscular build. Those close to them point to some intangible similarities as well, things like work ethic and commitment and the drive to be the best. There is no mistaking that these two extraordinary athletes, one a retired world champion boxer and the other just embarking on his college football career as a tailback at the University of Georgia, are related.

Elijah and Evander Holyfield pose for cameras at The Opening in Oregon last summer. FAMILY PHOTO

Everybody can see that. What is unseen is what is on the interior of Elijah Holyfield. His heart, his mind, his sensibilities, much of that can be attributed to his mother, Tamie Pettaway.

She and her husband Chris Pettaway are the parents with whom Elijah spent most of his time growing up in and around Atlanta. He lived with them along with his sister Eden and step brothers, Chris Jr. and Tashawn, for most of these last 17 years.

Which is meant as no slight to The Champ. Everybody around lauds Evander for his involvement in his son’s life and the support, both financial and otherwise, that he has always provided. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to be present in their lives.

Elijah Holyfield and his mother Tamie Pettaway pose before his graduation from Woodward Academy last month. FAMILY PHOTO

But, to be clear, it was Pettaway who was waking him up in the morning, getting him back and forth to school and extracurricular activities, making sure he did his homework, brushed his teeth and ate like he was supposed to. If you’re looking for a person of profound influence in Elijah’s life, that starts and ends with Mom.

“With Evander being who he is and all the things going on around him, my house was always the one where it was, ‘make up your bed before you go to school, you have to do this, you have to do that,’” says Pettaway, who works as an Atlanta real estate agent. “I kept him constantly in activities. There was no time for foolishness.”

At Dad’s house, things were different.

“There were maids and there were cooks, there were nannies, there were people everywhere,” Pettaway said with a laugh. “They didn’t have to do as much there, not because Evander didn’t make them do it, but because the people he hired didn’t make them do it. They were looking out for their job security I’m sure.”

Elijah talked about the differences in his parents in a recent interview at his high school, Woodward Academy in College Park. He has since reported to UGA along with 15 other signees that just enrolled for summer semester.

“My mom, she’s the one always asking questions: Are you hungry, are you doing this, are you doing that?” he said. “My Dad, he’s more laid back. We’d go stay with him and whatever we needed, it was always there.”

Staying with Dad was different, but that didn’t make it bad. Elijah and his sister Eden spent as much time as possible with their father. And he made it to their activities whenever he could, which has been more often in recent years. But for most of the formative years, Evander was still traveling the globe making money in the ring.

Over time, though, the families that are the Pettaways and the Holyfields blended nicely and were able to strike a balance. They have meshed together to form a strong net of support for Elijah, as well as their other children.

Rarely now is there a sporting event or major occasion that you won’t see a large group of them together.

“We have a good relationship,” Evander Holyfield said in a telephone interview from his new home in Fort Lauderdale. “We really do. Sometimes it can get a little shaky just by me being Evander Holyfield and everything. But I understand that. We all get along real well.”

It’s a complicated situation

Elijah was a year old and his sister 3 when Evander and his mother split up. They’d been engaged but “never made it down the aisle,” Tamie said. Evander was at the height of his boxing career, still fighting all over the world when Elijah was born. Conversely, Tamie was in settle-down, raise-a-family mode.

So they went there separate ways as a couple. But they have maintained a partnership when it came to raising their children.

Elijah (R) never lacked for companionship thanks to all his siblings. FAMILY PHOTO

“I would never take anything away from him, because Evander has always done the best the he can with what all he does,” said Tamie, who has always worked, first as a flight attendant, then a banker, now a realtor. “Evander considers himself a financial provider, and that’s not going to happen if he’s at home. So he’s always got to go out there and do things. He’s always made a way for me to do whatever I needed to do for the kids and provided for them financially. I never had an issue with that. He was there when he could be.”

Holyfield has other children. Including Elijah and his sister Eden, there are 11 in all.

“So you’re talking about one person trying to be in all these places at one time,” Tamie said. “He did the very best that he could. He was there as often as he could be. He went from one event to the next event to the next event.”

Even now that he’s a 50-something and finally retired from a sport in which he competed far longer than most thought he could or should, Holyfield is still on the move. He now resides in Fort Lauderdale, where he jettisons to points all over the world to serve as a motivational speaker or liaison for products or services.

Most recently, Evander was all over radio and television waves talking about the death of the man who inspired him to become a champion boxer, Muhammad Ali.

“I’m always traveling,” Evander said. “It’s almost like what Ali did when boxing was over. Eventually he became a guy that everybody knew when he went places. I’m doing those types of things.”

Despite now residing more than 600 miles away, Evander still plans to make it to all of Elijah’s games.

“I have a lot of friends who have planes,” he quipped. “I should be at all the games.”

Football beats out boxing

Evander was himself quite the football player in his day. He played running back and linebacker for the Warren Boys Club and later at Fulton High. But it was actually Elijah’s step father, Chris, who introduced him to football.

Tamie describes her husband as “a football maniac.” She said he used to dress up Elijah in New England Patriots’ gear when he was still a toddler. And Chris coached Elijah his very first season in football, and pretty much in every sport every year from kindergarten until middle school.

Football has always been the first love for Elijah, who boxed until he was 14. AJC / CHIP TOWERS

“I remember the very first game Elijah played,” Tamie says, laughing even before sharing the thought. “It was in College Park, at Old National, and Chris was coaching him. Elijah scored a touchdown and he cried because he didn’t know what was going on. He couldn’t figure out why everybody was screaming and it scared him. Chris was, like, ‘it’s because you scored; you scored a touchdown; everybody’s happy!’ Elijah had tears just streaming down his face holding onto the football.

“But from that moment on, that kid would sleep with that football. We’d have to take that helmet off him at night.”

Sports has always played a big role in the Pettaway household. It was part of the foundation they used for raising their children.

From the time was Elijah was 3, Pettaway said her son was involved in some sort of organized athletic activity. He went from Taekwondo to swimming to track to football to basketball and back. It was the same way with Eden and Chris and Tashawn, now all in their 20s and college graduates.

“When they got done with track practice or football practice or whatever, it was time to do homework, to have dinner, to say their prayers, to go to bed,” Tamie said. “They’ve always been on a dictated schedule like that. They never had time to think about just hanging out.”

And, of course, there was boxing.

Along with his half-brother Evan, Elijah was introduced to boxing at an early age and was actually very good at it. He boxed competitively from age 8 to 14 before giving it up. Evan, 18, still boxes today and is expected to turn pro soon.

“He loved it when we boxed,” Elijah said of his father. “I liked it, too. But I just kind of realized I’ve got to pick boxing or football. It’s kind of too much getting hit in the head to do both. Boxing, there were just too many reasons I didn’t want to do it.”

Chief among them was the fact that Elijah was exceptional in football. He was big and fast and the game just came natural to him. And he really, really enjoyed it.

That was never more evident than these last three years at Woodward Academy. He broke out and established himself as a major college prospect as a junior when he rushed for 1,735 yards and 25 touchdowns in 14 games. Even last year, when an ankle injury limited his participation to nine games and he played hurt in several of those, he averaged 7.1 yards a carry and scored 21 times.

“You can tell his competitive spirit and work ethic in everything he does,” Woodward coach John Hunt said. “He just grinds. And if you challenge him, you can’t beat this guy. He’s going to do everything he can to beat you. He’s got that sort of mental approach, like the Champ.”

Making moves

In fact, it was Elijah’s desire to play football at a high level that resulted in him living with his father full time for the first time in his life. A family decision was made when Elijah was 13 that he should move in with his father so he could attend Fayette County schools. He transferred to Flat Rock Middle School in Tyrone in anticipation of eventually playing at Sandy Creek High.

“Sandy Creek has always been really good in football, so I wanted to go there,” Elijah said. “Driving from my mom’s house (in College Park) was too much.”

Elijah Holyfield spent a year living with his father Evander in this 44,000-square foot mansion in Fayette County five years ago. AJC / JOHN SPINK

The fact that Elijah would reside in his father’s 44,000-square-foot, 109-room mansion was an added bonus.

“Yeah, that was fun,” Elijah said with a big grin. “But actually I think that’s when I realized the importance of hard work. That’s the year I got into lifting weights. Every morning before school, me and my father and Evan would lift. I think that’s where hard work was really in instilled in me, at that age.”

Alas, it wouldn’t last. Elijah lived with his father for one full year, from summer to summer. But various circumstances – including the lack of structure to which Elijah had become accustomed at his mother’s house — dictated a change.

Evander suggested that Elijah should follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Ewin, who had attended Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville and graduated from there. Mom wasn’t thrilled about it, being a boarding school and all. But after they checked it out and Elijah said he liked it, she reluctantly agreed.

“Elijah said, ‘I’ve decided this is where I want to go,’” Tamie recounted. “He’s always said if he didn’t play football he’d want to go into the military. But it was rough for me. I’d drive up there two or three times a week just so I could see him.”

It was rough for Elijah as well. He quickly tired of the regimented lifestyle, not to mention it being an all-male student population.

“Yeah, I hated it,” he said. “You’re always doing stuff like marching. You had to practice for parades on Wednesdays, in full uniform in the hot sun. … Looking back on it, I’m glad I had that experience. I met so many people I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t went. But it was rough.”

If nothing else, it put the rigors of more traditional schools into perspective. Holyfield transferred to Woodward Academy, just a few miles from his mother’s home, before the 10th grade. There he flourished, both academically and athletically.

“I got to go to school with girls again; that’s one thing,” Elijah joked. “School was just so much easier. People here complain about all the work, but I just sit back and laugh and say, ‘you have no idea; do a day at Riverside.’ It changed my perception of what hard work is. Coming back, I loved it. I love Woodward.”

Said Mom: “He excelled while he was there. Woodward was similar, with its rules and regulations and uniforms, but he was close to home. He just soared like an eagle when he got there.”

Look out Classic City

Elijah’s success at Woodward brought recruiters out of the woodwork. From the 10th grade on he entertained offers from all over the country.

Early on, he favored the Big Ten and visited Michigan and Ohio State often. For a long while he was certain he was going to become a Buckeye and almost committed the beginning of his junior year. By the end, though, both he and his father were leaning toward Auburn.

When things got serious toward the end of junior year, Evander, a longtime Georgia fan, was actually nudging his son toward Notre Dame.

“He liked Notre Dame a lot. That was his big thing,” Elijah said. “He liked Georgia as a football program but he liked Notre Dame’s academics and sort of after football. He was big on that. He was worried about all the distractions at Georgia.”

But Evander visited UGA regularly and fell for the school more and more each time he came. He admits now that he actually gave them a silent commitment during Dawg Night in July of 2015. The tailback tradition of the school coupled with the academic possibilities were too much to overlook.

“No doubt,” Elijah says. “I was a big Knowshon fan. I used to try to dress like him, do everything like him. I was always a big fan of him. And ‘T.G. (Todd Gurley), I got a chance to get to know him a little bit. I’m a huge fan of him. Obviously, now Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will be like my big brothers. I just have to work with them and try to get on everything they do and hopefully I can be as good as them.”

Tamie Pettaway could not be more thrilled with the decision. Now living in a condominium in Midtown, she relishes the fact she can jump on the Interstate and see Elijah in person on an hour’s notice.

And Evander’s pretty pumped about it, too.

“I feel good about it,” he said. “I’m excited about seeing his development being a Bulldog. I’ve always been a Georgia Bulldogs fan. I wanted him to go to Georgia. When I came out of the Olympics, I wanted to go to Georgia myself. It was just my manager at the time, he said my education was the Olympic team and I needed to go make some money.”

Now the Pettaways and Holyfields must deal with a whole new set of issues. Elijah’s family circle numbers 15, and that’s not including his Granny, Dorothy Johnson, or his Aunt Eloise, Evander’s sister. All of them reside in Atlanta and have been a big part of Elijah’s life.

It’s their intention to get to every game. How in the world they will come up with tickets for everybody is another matter altogether.

One way or another, they’ll all get there, Tamie Pettaway assures.

“That’s our life and we’re accustomed to it,” she said. “It makes sense to us. A lot of people look at us and say, ‘you guys are all over the place, you guys are crazy.’ But that’s our world and it works for us and we’re happy with it.”

Elijah hopes to give them something to cheer about.

“It’s always been a childhood dream to play at Georgia, especially playing running back,” he said. “Now having a chance to play, that’s a big thing for me.”

Next Generation is a series of profiles on the individuals who have signed on with the Georgia Bulldogs and will join the team this summer.

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