Wineka column: Former NFL star Elam lived quietly in Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 20, 2012

SALISBURY — For the past 30 years, Cleveland Elam lived a quiet life in Salisbury focused on family, work and his luscious lawn.
Elam was a lot like war veterans who return home and seldom talk about the war again.
Outside his family, unless the conversation turned to sports, Elam said little about his five seasons in the National Football League, including his two Pro Bowl years as a defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers.
He filled a key role in the 49ers’ celebrated “Gold Rush” defensive line and led the team with 17.5 sacks in 1976. But injuries forced Elam out of football for good after the 1979 season.
Elam died last Thursday at his Salisbury home from a massive heart attack. He was only 60 and still working for Rack Room Shoes and as head of his own business, Zola Cleaning Service, which was named for his late mother.
“People would ask, of course (about football),” son Cleveland Elam Jr. says. “He kind of shied away from it.”
Elam was more likely to ask how people were doing or seek information on their children and grandchildren.
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Still, there were times when Elam wanted people to know about his football past.
Post sportswriter Mike London recalls that Elam sometimes dropped into his sports card shop in the 1990s. Elam was there to pick up a few of his own football cards — just to prove to new acquaintances that he once starred in the NFL.
Tameka Cuthbertson, one of Elam’s four daughters, remembers how her father used to set up a two-reel movie projector and a white sheet on the wall to show his children the grainy, black-and-white highlights from his playing days.
“We’d say, ‘We haven’t ever seen you run that fast, Daddy,’ ” Cuthbertson recalls.
Elam Jr. says his father sometimes smiled at the thought of how much money he would have earned as a professional football player in today’s world.
“But he was never bitter about it,” the son adds. “It was something to laugh about, joke about.”
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Elam Jr., a director at WSOC-TV in Charlotte, says the main things he will always remember about his father were the life lessons he taught — what it took to be a man and how to overcome life’s obstacles.
“He never sugar-coated anything,” Elam Jr. says. “He kind of told you to embrace the struggle, how you couldn’t let any of those things stop you.”
Elam Jr. says everything his father did after football was to support his family and make sure his children went to college.
“That was important to him,” Elam Jr. says.
Cuthbertson listened to many of her father’s long lectures on life and how he always had a personal story to go with them. To his children, he always stressed staying positive and spending as much time as possible with their own kids, Cuthbertson says.
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A native of Memphis, Tenn., Elam went on to star in football at Tennessee State University, where he played alongside Ed “Too Tall” Jones.
The 49ers drafted Elam in the fourth round in 1975. As a rookie, he distinguished himself on special teams and as a third-down pass rusher.
By 1976, he was starting every game, joining Cedrick Hardman, Jimmy Webb and Tommy Hart to make up the vaunted Gold Rush line, which led the NFL in sacks in 1976.
He went to the Pro Bowl in 1976 and 1977 and was a first-team All-Pro in 1977. Surgeries on a knee and his neck cut Elam’s career short in 1979, when he played only eight games for the Detroit Lions.
During his pro career, Elam had occasion to visit here with former Lions player James Teal, who was from Salisbury. He decided to relocate to Salisbury, and while attending classes at Rowan Technical College, met his future wife, Blanche Stevenson.
Elam Jr. says the family first lived in an apartment off Standish Street, followed by homes on Old Wilkesboro Road and Brookmont Avenue.
Meanwhile, Elam started the cleaning business and worked in the mailroom at Rack Room Shoes.
Mort Lerner, the head of Rack Room, eventually awarded Elam the cleaning contract for the shoe company’s distribution center in Salisbury and the corporate offices in Charlotte.
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Elam usually traveled west to see his family in Memphis at least twice a year. Every four years, he would be host for the family reunion at Dan Nicholas Park.
“He was my hero,” Cuthbertson says. “He was a proud man, and he never wanted any of us to see him in any kind of pain.”
Growing up, she could always depend on Elam to attend any activity in which she was involved, Cuthbertson said.
And he was the kind of father who checked in daily with grandchildren or would call her at least five times on her way to the beach to make sure her trip was going safely.
Elam liked to golf and, appropriately, played with equipment from the Cleveland company.
Otherwise, his chief hobby was taking care of his Brookmont Avenue lawn.
“His grass looked like carpet,” Cuthbertson says. “You were not to be caught stepping on his grass.”
Qiana Elam, a daughter who lives in Lewisville, Texas, says her father always emphasized “doing right by people and staying honest.” As a youngster, she adds, “I challenged my dad a lot.”
She remembers getting in trouble and trying to run, thinking she was too quick and fast for him.
Then his long arms would appear out of nowhere to catch her as she tried to head up the stairs.
Even as a father, Elam lived up to a description written on the back of one of his football cards: “Very strong and exceptionally quick.”
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In his playing days, Elam was 6-4, 253 pounds.
A Tennessee State University blog site posted a tribute to Elam this week, and it includes a video of Elam picking up Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s fumble in a 1976 game and running it back for a touchdown.
The next highlight in the same video shows Elam sacking Namath’s replacement, Richard Todd, as the announcer claims he was all over Todd like a bad case of poison ivy.
Elam Jr. says his father’s allegiances as a fan always leaned toward the 49ers. Elam Sr. was honored to attend a Gold Rush reunion last October in San Francisco.
Qiana Elam says her father also was a good high school basketball player — something else he didn’t talk about much.
It was only within the last year or so that she learned he had made the Pro Bowl as an NFL player.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “I didn’t even realize he had this scrapbook I was looking through.”
Former teammates from the 49ers and Lions are expected to attend Elam’s visitation (11 a.m.) and funeral (noon) Saturday at Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or