Rows and rows of tanks filled to the brim with clear water and occupied by vibrant motions allowed him to clear his head.
Mack Hollins marveled at the sight of the colorful fish.
Fifteen-minute visits to watch them swim quickly doubled in length of time. Up and down the rows he’d walk. Soon he’d be there for an hour, sometimes even two.
He’d go to Congressional Aquarium and a place simply called Aquarium, where he’d find refuge in the exotic.
Mack always made sure he checked out each store’s non-sale tank, which featured the shop owner’s own fish that no one could take away, no matter the price.
Congressional had a saltwater, non-sale take tank that provided a home for an eel, the whole Finding Nemo crew and a fish that had two front teeth, he remembers. Aquarium’s was freshwater, featuring pike and 60-pound catfish.
His fascination with fish has persisted throughout the years after taking shape when his parents bought him his first tank. The purchase came right around the time he developed a noticeable passion for football.
Mack remembers returning home from a 7-on-7 football camp at West Virginia University in the seventh grade to the surprise of a completely redesigned bedroom. And there it was right next to his brand new bed: a fish tank with sand at the bottom and a square coliseum in the front.
Lights out didn’t mean lights out in the tank. He’d stay up and fish gaze until he reached the edge of drifting off to sleep. Only then would he cut the tank’s light off.
“Watch them swim around. Watch them fight with each other for territory, dig holes and stuff in the sand,” recalls Mack, a 21-year old junior wide receiver on the North Carolina football team. “I’ve always been fascinated with animals because the only thing they worry about is survival. So everything they do is for a purpose.”
That’s how Mack was raised, how he strives to live and certainly how he plays football. Mack — the kid who led UNC in receiving touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014 though he’s only had a scholarship for about a year now — surely has a purpose. He dreams of a world in which his parents don’t have to pay any more bills. One in which he can have his own fish store and a tank big enough for him to swim in.
Yet unlike the fish behind the glass of the tanks in his favorite pet stores, Mack has been overlooked. His quest for survival has been far from easy, molded through a sea of doubt that is often inconceivable of overcoming.
But go ahead. Tell Mack Hollins that he can’t do something. I dare you.
THERE’S A REASON why a 12-year-old Mack was shipped off to a 7-on-7 camp in Morgantown, West Virginia: a 190-mile, three-hour drive from his hometown of Rockville, Maryland.
Way back when, Mack’s father, Richard, was known quite well around Morgantown. But at that time, he wasn’t Richard Hollins the personal trainer. He was Rich Hollins the West Virginia University wide receiver.
Richard played for the Mountaineers from 1980-1983 before the Detroit Lions selected him with the 246th overall pick in the ninth round of the 1984 NFL Draft. But his career ended before it even began, with a torn ACL.
Richard’s legacy, though, remains intact at West Virginia, where he’s eighth all-time in school history for career receiving yards with 1,968 and holds the single-season record for yards per catch with 27.1. It was also at West Virginia where Richard met his wife, Karyn.
Together, Richard and Karyn have three sons. Brian’s the oldest, Drew’s the baby and Mack holds the oft-dreaded spot in between. Karyn says Mack puts on the hardest act of the three, and the evidence is in his face, where childhood scars can serve as conversation starters.
They’re gateways into memories, including those of frequent fights the three brothers would get into. Brian knew he could get the best of the youngest, Drew, so he didn’t waste his time. Instead, he’d beat up on Mack who channeled his own frustration by pounding on Drew.
“I think Mack just kinda has that middle child flair, like I don’t really know what it is,” says a 24-year-old Brian. “Being that middle child of three boys, I think he kinda always felt like he was in that situation where he was kinda of fighting the demons of those two sides.”
Richard refers to Mack as a “knucklehead” — his perfect summation of his second son’s persona that the family first noticed when he was a kid. It also wasn’t hard to notice something else.
Boy, could that knucklehead play some football.
“All of ‘em played football, but Mack just right of the bat, you could tell just from his speed, his toughness that he was gonna be the one to carry it the furthest,” Richard says.
Richard has a favorite play from Mack’s pee-wee days. He’s at running back on this snap, and carries the ball 85 yards for a touchdown. Not so fast. Flag on the play: holding on the offense, five-yard penalty, repeat previous down.
“The very next play, they toss it to him again and he goes 90 yards for the touchdown.”
That memory could serve as the preface to Mack’s Survival Guide, a definite New York Times bestseller if he ever finds the time to write it.
“I think that’s why he became the football player he is,” Brian says. “He’s got sort of a resistance, an inability to quit.
“He’s always been a knucklehead, especially growing up and in high school. He was difficult. He wasn’t the best student, but on the football field it was always something special. To see him play football, that was the one thing I knew no one could take away from him.”
“He’s got sort of a resistance, an inability to quit.”
Still, they — the powers that be, whomever — sure as hell tried to take away everything.
THERE’S ONE RULE Richard always had for his boys when it came to fighting outside of the house.
“If anyone gets within arm’s distance of you, give him three chances to get out of your face,” Richard advised. “Tell them, ‘Get out of my face or I’m gonna punch you.’”
Mack abided by his father’s rule on that day, four weeks into his junior season on the Wootton High School varsity football team. The afternoon brought about a dispute between Mack and an older lineman, who accused Mack of taking his pads.
“No,” Mack says he told him. “And he just kept staying in my face. I tried to walk away and he followed up behind me.”
Then came the warning, the last part of Richard’s rule. “Yo, you gotta get out my face,” Mack demanded. “And he wouldn’t, so I hit him a couple times.”
Mack didn’t practice that day.
Three weeks later, he received a letter from the school issuing him a three-day, out-of-school suspension on top of the half-day in-school suspension he already served. Another letter came from the court, where Mack had been summoned on assault charges. His junior football season was over.
“You just would’ve thought once the fight’s over, it’s over. That’s the end of it,” he says. “But that’s not how it is.”
About 10 trips to court, thousands of dollars in legal fees and a months-long absence from the football field — none of these toils of his experience came even close to hurting Mack as much as one frequent sight.
“Seeing my mom cry over it all the time,” he says. “That’s something I hate — seeing her cry over something that I had a part in makes me feel like I am the sole reason she’s crying. That just gets me more than anything.”
The judge ruled that Mack’s actions were in self-defense and the charges were dropped.
Then came the flip-flopping of those around him. Coaches, who at first questioned his actions and took the side of his adversary, changed their opinions when Mack’s court dates vanished. “You did this, you did that,” they’d originally say. “What up, Mack? Glad to hear it,” the non-guilty ruling eventually brought out of the inconsistent voices.
Mack also had to tussle with his pride. Could he return to a team full of those he felt had betrayed him? Would he play football again?
“He felt like he had to redeem himself,” Karyn says. “He felt like he had to sort of earn his respect back.”
Watching Drew play football delivered Mack clarity as lucid as the water circulating in the tanks he spent countless hours surveying.
Football is a game of survival of the fittest, and Mack came to peace with that notion.
“It was just something in my head saying, ‘I gotta play,’” he says.
Football is a game of survival of the fittest, and Mack came to peace with that notion.
He emailed his coach. Wait, no. Maybe he called. “Somehow I got in contact with him,” he eventually says.
The message was simple.
“Listen, just give me a chance to play.”
THERE ARE TWO OPTIONS, Richard would tell all three of his boys.
“You’re gonna go to college or you’re gonna go to the military.”
Brian, the brainiac of the family, attended Stanford. Drew, who’s 19, enlisted in The Marine Corps after high school. And just like always, Mack was stuck at a middle ground, a crossroads, unsure of which path he’d follow.
He had his sights on playing collegiate football, but with only one full year of varsity football experience, the offer letters didn’t reach the Hollins’ mailbox.
“I’m telling you, he didn’t get a Division III letter,” Brian says. “I mean, nothing. That’s how I knew that something was wrong. If he had gotten some D-III letters and a couple scholarships to play at clown schools, I would’ve been like, ‘OK, maybe he’s not as good as he thought he was.’ But the fact that he got absolutely nothing, I was like, ‘This just means that nobody even knows about him.’
Not many players made it out of Wootton.
“They just were not a good team so no one ever came to look at them,” Karyn says. “Never would a head coach come look at them.”
But Mack pushed aside the folder of military information his father brought home one day, and conducted his own research. He’d heard about Fork Union Military Academy, where players with Division I scholarship offers would take a postgraduate year after high school to get their grades up. He also heard Division I schools recruited out of Fork Union, including his dream school, North Carolina.
Mack went to the middle-of-nowhere Virginia to attend Fork Union, where there are no girls, cellphones are prohibited and everything is within 100 yards of each other. How fitting for the wide receiver, who made the most out of everything the place many cadets call “Hell.”
Students had to wake up at 6 a.m. every morning to march, but Mack woke up at 4:30 to work out beforehand. He only took a math class while he was there but earned the nickname “Google” after gaining the reputation as the smartest kid on campus. Some extra SAT prep at Fork Union allowed him to raise his score to 1900 and better his chances to get into UNC.
Mack spent his free time each day either eating or catching tennis balls shot out of a baseball pitching machine he found. Nightly eating contests with teammates led him to gain about 20 pounds that he chiseled in the weight room to assure that Division I defensive backs wouldn’t push him around. Through tennis ball drills, he fine-tuned his ability to catch a football with his fingertips, taking a step toward being that sure-handed college wide receiver Richard once was.
At Fork Union, Mack also polished another one of his crafts: trash-talking.
“He’s not scared of anything,” says UNC backup quarterback Kanler Coker, Mack’s roommate and best friend. “He’ll talk a little trash, but he backs it up all the time.”
Mack likes when people fire back at him. He feeds off of it and fires back himself. Only once can he recall a time when someone’s trash talk rendered him speechless without one of his classic rebuttals. That moment came at Fork Union.
“He’s not scared of anything.”
He can’t remember the argument. He can’t remember the kid who said it, or even picture his face. All he remembers is they were in a room in the barracks. And he remembers the words, of course.
That’s why nobody’s giving you a scholarship.
“I just kinda sat there,” Mack recalls. “That was probably the worst thing anybody’s ever said to me, and it doesn’t even seem that bad. It’s just something that’s just like, ‘How do you know how hard I work?’
“Somebody that doesn’t know anything about how hard I worked or what I’ve done to get where I’ve been to say something like that…”
He stops himself.
Mack only stayed at Fork Union for four months. His dream school came calling, guaranteeing him a spot on the football team. But still, no scholarship.
THERE’S ONE QUOTE on the desktop of Brian’s laptop. He sees it every day in his office on the 41st floor of the Goldman Sachs Building in San Francisco, where he serves as a senior financial analyst in the private wealth management division.
I do it because I can. I can because I want to. I want to because you said I couldn’t.
It’s Brian’s favorite quote, and also happens to be his perfect summation of Mack’s persona.
“He loves that adversity,” Karyn says. “He loves for someone to tell him that he can’t do something or in this case that he can’t make the team or be something on the team. It’s just been his work ethic forever.”
So go ahead. Tell him he can’t make an impact at UNC as a walk-on. Be my guest.
He’ll arrive in Chapel Hill in 2012 listed as a safety, not a wide receiver, with an all-or-nothing objective. “I said I’m leaving in two years if I don’t have a scholarship,” Mack recalls.
“When he first got there, they had 11 receivers on the team,” Richard says. “I always told Mack, ‘You’re not always gonna be the biggest, strongest, fastest or even smartest guy on the field. But the one thing you can always do no matter what is you can always outwork everybody. And if you do that, they’re gonna take notice.’”
He’ll do just that, without a meal plan, surviving on ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly.
“Ever since we got here, he worked harder than everybody else on the team,” Coker says, “but it wasn’t even close.”
Tell him he can’t earn a scholarship.
He’ll somehow, some way, make it onto the field. He’ll carve out a spot for himself on special teams and appear in all 13 games in 2013 as the team’s special teams captain.
And so he’ll force UNC head coach Larry Fedora to give him a scholarship. Fedora will call him into his office during the spring of 2014 and say, “I’m gonna put you on scholarship. Don’t mess it up. If you slack off in the summer and don’t want to play hard, I’ll take it away.”
The news will reach Karyn who will drop to her knees at the side of their bed and cry. The mascara from her eyes stains their sheets, but she doesn’t wash them. Instead, she cuts out the section of the sheet and laminates it to remember the moment.
“It was almost surreal,” she says. “It was like a slow-motion dream coming true.”
Tell him he can’t be a wide receiver.
“It was like a slow-motion dream coming true.”
He’ll respond with 35 catches for 613 receiving yards and a team-high eight touchdowns in 2014. He’ll catch at least one pass in each of UNC’s 13 games, including the third-longest touchdown catch in school history — a 91-yard grab against San Diego State.
Mack the walk-on safety will blossom into Mack the All-ACC Honorable Mention wide receiver.
“He’s worked for things he’s gotten,” says wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer. “He’s earned what he’s gotten. He’s earned that respect.”
So tell him he can’t do something, and it’ll get done. Yet in the back on his mind, doubt isn’t exactly what keeps him ticking.
Really, it’s the man whose single-season yards per catch record he desperately wants to beat and the woman he can’t stand to see cry.
“In my mind, I’ve always had this thing where I’m in debt to my parents. It probably doesn’t make sense, but that I owe them money,” he says. “Or I owe them what they gave me and my brothers. So everyday when I do something, it’s, ‘I gotta pay them back for everything … for raising us and giving us everything we could ask for.’”
So family is his purpose and playing in the National Football League is his dream.
“For obviously as long as I can, for as long as they’ll pay me,” he says. “Hopefully, it’s at least five years. If I can do more than that, that’ll be great and obviously I’ll work for that.”
He wants that fish store with his own non-sale tank. If he goes freshwater, it’ll pay homage to his first tank, complete with African cichlids in every color imaginable. Maybe he’ll go saltwater so he can reunite Finding Nemo and the gang.
Mack has one rule for the tanks in his store: no dead fish.
He’ll make sure they all survive. Just like he did.