CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Elijah Holyfield was 14 when he stepped into the boxing ring against a highly ranked 16-year-old. It was a chance to make a name for himself in a world where his father achieved greatness, maybe even carve a path to his own career in the sport.
Evander Holyfield, a four-time heavyweight champion and the only boxer to hold undisputed titles in two weight classes, was confident that his son was up to the challenge.
"I remember saying, 'He can handle that guy. Just don’t tell his momma, because I know she’s going to think about all the fight this guy has,'" the elder Holyfield recalled last week during quarterback Cam Newton’s celebrity kickball tournament, which was held while Elijah participated in a Panthers rookie minicamp.
“He was rugged and hit real hard."
Elijah hit real hard, too. He was holding his own in the match, but unlike his father he had a habit of holding his head up and exposing his face to punches instead of his forehead. That led to a nosebleed and a disqualification.
Elijah never stepped back into the ring competitively.
“I was, 'I don’t want to get hit that much,'" Elijah recalled. “So I just kept with football, and it’s worked out for me."
Whether Elijah becomes the real deal in the NFL the way his father was in boxing remains to be seen. The Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia after a slow 40-yard-dash time of 4.78 seconds at the NFL combine hurt his draft stock.
His undrafted status means he has a lot to prove in the hotly contested battle to back up Christian McCaffrey, who last season fell just shy of becoming the third back in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
Again, Evander believes his son is up to the challenge.
“It’s kind of disappointing he wasn’t drafted," he said. “The fact of the matter is, it’s part of life. If you’re fast enough and score touchdowns, what difference does it make [what your 40 time was]? If it just had to do with how fast you are then they would have all the track stars go in the NFL."
Had it been up to Evander, his son would have stayed at Georgia one more year.
“I felt that was a bad decision," he said. “Didn’t nobody inform me of anything. I read it in the paper. ... You had a lot of people saying, ‘You don’t understand.’ I said, ‘It’s not like I don’t understand. You start something, you finish it.’
“But it has been made already, so you might as well push forward and make the best of it."
“Just trying to figure out the options for me, where I could have the most success at," Elijah said of his decision process. “Would I have had a better season and made myself better or wasted a year?"
He ultimately decided not to risk potential injury. He rushed for 1,018 yards and seven touchdowns last season and averaged 6.4 yards per carry, believing that proved he was ready for the NFL.
“I’m a very hard worker and a very physical runner who does have speed to make people miss at the same time," Elijah said. “So I feel I bring a nice element to this team."
The Panthers believed what they saw on tape made up for his 40 time.
“You really see the explosiveness between the tackles; you see his ability to run between the hashes," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I know he didn’t run a good 40 time, but when you put the tape on ... it was pretty impressive.
“I don’t think [the 40 time] really speaks to who he is as a football player. It’s one of those things, it doesn’t add up."
Finish what you started
Evander gave up football for boxing at about the same age Elijah gave up boxing for football.
It was his 10th-grade year for now-defunct Fulton High School in Atlanta. Evander, then around 110 pounds, told the coach he wanted to play running back and linebacker.
The coach gave him a choice of offense or defense.
“I said, ‘If a guy hits me, I’m going to hit him back,' so I went defense," Evander said. “I wanted to play linebacker. He said I was too small, so they put me at corner. He didn’t like it because I was hurting the good guys.
“He said I wasn’t playing the position right. I said, 'I didn’t ask to play that position.' He picked me up by my shoulder pads and put me on the bench. I didn’t get a chance."
But Evander didn’t quit. His mother mother said, “Go back, you still have to finish."
“She said, 'Son, when you box, you’re the last one to make a decision. Coaches make a decision in football who is the best,'" Evander said. “I was Holyfield then, but nobody knew who I was.
“So I went back."
That mentality is what Evander always tried to instill in Elijah, who before high school moved out of the home of his mother and stepfather and into his father’s 44,234-square-foot mansion, which is now owned by rapper Rick Ross.
Elijah and Evander got up for early-morning runs and workouts with a personal trainer. They spent a lot of time talking about what it took for Evander to succeed in boxing, something Elijah hopes he brings to football.
“Just the mindset," said Elijah, who achieved black-belt status in taekwondo, working with five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Greg Lloyd. “You have to have a very strong mindset with working out in boxing and also fighting, just winning one-on-one.
“I try to bring that to football any time it’s a one-on-one."
Growing up, Elijah never looked at his father as a boxing legend the way many do, including the herd of autograph seekers at Newton’s kickball tournament.
“I just kind of looked at him as dad," he said. “I never looked at him as this big figure until now. I always get asked about him. I realize how big of a figure he was."
A hard worker is what Elijah saw in the man many remember for having his ear bitten off in a 1997 bout against Mike Tyson.
“If you outwork people, you always end up on top," Elijah said of his dad’s life lessons. “That’s what he did. That’s what I plan on doing."
Evander compared his son’s challenge to the one he faced after winning a bronze medal in the 1984 Summer Olympics, when he turned pro.
“It’s a brand new start," he said. “You’ve got to prove it again. You played college ball. You played well. Now that’s behind you. You’ve got to realize you have to take it up another step."
Going undrafted has given Elijah even more motivation “to show what what I can do."
“I just tried to find my own way," Elijah said. “And I found it with football."