Former? There is nothing former about the University of Southern California, for this young man. "If anyone has learned the meaning of The Trojan Family, it's me. My time here has been a blessing."
It's Friday night – pre-NFL draft night. Most are asleep, but for Alex Holmes, and a collection of his senior compatriots, the night is young – so young it's like the dawn of a new beginning.
Born Michael Alexander Holmes, August 22, 1981 in San Diego California, number 81 came to Trojan Football as a man among boys – 6'2" 300lbs – his High school hi-light resembled a train reck – young Michael Alexander crushing smaller, normal sized high school boys on impact. Trojan recruiting fans were in awe – number 81 was just pursuing a journey. Those that got in the way, were… in the way.
Who brought you to USC? Who were the players that helped you become a Trojan? "Two: Petros Papadakis and Carson Palmer. I was like, here are these two big time guys talking to me... it made an impression."
I heard your time at Papadakis' restaurant made an impression? "I don't remember it all but I think Mr. Papadakis pretty much told me that if I wanted to be an All-American and play football where the greatest football players every had played, I had to play at USC. Somthing like that." He laughs.
Fans didn't laugh. They couldn't wait for Holmes to hit the field – and as a freshmen he didn't disappoint. Backing up Antoine Harris in 2000, his rookie season, Holmes averaged over seven yards per catch. Most of those gained after contact. The writing was on the wall – Holmes was the future of Trojan football from the Tight End position.
In 2001, his sophomore season, working along side Kori Dickerson, Holmes upped his productivity to nearly eight yards per catch. Everything thrown his way was a completion and every completion seemed to equal a first down. Alex Holmes was money and at that time, with so few solid offensive weapons, the Trojans needed to cash in. Alex Holmes was that back account.
The 2001 season saw a change at Tight End. Pete Carroll and Norm Chow had a new prototype – Kori Dickerson, a pass catching, wheel route running hybrid, to fill this essential offensive role. Holmes was the anti-thesis of anything the new Trojan coaches could dream up. And despite position change requests, the 2001 season did not cast a shadow on things to come. In fact, the future was nothing less than bright for Alex Holmes.
2002 saw Alex grow into the level of college player his high school reels could only begin to describe. Sure handed Holmes literally carried the growing pains of Norm Chow's USC offense his back – 29 receptions, 320 yards, 11 plus per catch, literally every reception resulting in a first down. Holmes became the lifeblood of that season – all the way to it's glorious climax in the '03 Orange Bowl.
Carson Palmer has won the Heisman, the Trojans are the new kids on the block – despite the national championships and Heisman Trophies, the men in Cardinal and Gold are new-comers to the national spotlight. Iowa is the marquee matchup and the Trojans are ready to ball – ready to shut all the naysayers up, permanently. Holmes is a major factor in this game plan. Dinks and dunks for first downs to keep drives alive, as the other elements to Norm Chow's offensive scheme goes to work, Fargas, Mackenzie, Palmer and so on – all of it, a work in progress. All of it needing the steady sure hands of men like number 81 to keep drives alive.
Alive he did. Holmes had a record breaking night – a back breaking night, as well. USC came out on top but not without its casualties – one being Michael Alexander Holmes, trimmed down to 285, his football career nearly cut down to zero.
"Nobody knows the meaning of the Trojan Family like I do." That meaning found it's way to Alex Holmes – the launch of 2003 and football perhaps a fleeting memory. Holmes was embraced by that myth – the Trojan Family – now a ringing clear reality.
"Who's your most influential person outside of football?" "My parents." "Since USC?" " Brian Kennedy. No one has opened their lives up, or offered more guidance than Brian Kennedy. He is everything I could imagine when people described, the Trojan Family. I am so blessed to have met him." "Really, why?" "Do you know how much he has accomplished in his life or the sort of quality person he is?" "No, I've met him once or twice and heard…" "Hearing won't get you there. You have to talk with him, listen. He is…amazing. Anyway, he taught me there is life way beyond football. That my degree has value. That how I treat people and how I present myself, matters – everyday."
I smile. "Is this why you've become this legendary recruiter for the program?" "Legendary. C'mon. I just do what they ask me and I just say what I believe in – but yeah, the meaning of that all comes from Brian. It's hard to describe."
"You know, Alex, you are as equal in accomplishment off the field, as a recruiter, as you are on the field, as a player." He laughs, yeah, I seem to have the ability to show guys a good time – make them want to come back for more."
"Speaking of those good times, how have you survived the moral wars – the wars in the trenches?" "I was raised right. My parents, no disrespect to any of the parents to our current players, taught me how to behave. They showed me, by example, the meaning of right and wrong. It kind of made the choices to be made, in certain specific occasions, obvious."
So when we see the media reporting on issue after issue… "We are no different than any other program, winner or loser. We have, overall, a great collection of players but we are put in tough spots sometimes. It's at those times, no matter what our coaches have told us, that what we have learned at home will be what we lean on. You can't expect the coaches to be there 100% of the time. It's who we are as people, prior to getting to USC that will give us the guidance to stay out of trouble. It's hard though, we are targeted by people and when we get here, we're just kids... I doubt any normal person would do a whole lot better.
I'm sorry to have brought it up – it's just been such a topic of late. I think it's more important to talk about what USC football has accomplished since your arrival, then the latest gossip. When you arrived at SC, the program was nothing near National Championship fame. What do you think helped the Trojans turn the corner?
"So many things – coaching, the fans, the parents. That barbeque the parents started after the games – win or lose, you were out there at 10:00 o'clock at night waiting for us after every game. I think we were like 6-5 my first year but there they were – Troy's family, the Vandermade's, Torres', and so many others cooking, setting things up, like we were winners… it kind of defined it all for me – the family thing. I knew it was special and I… I don't know, I just decided to give back and that came through in recruiting, playing…just everywhere. It was awesome. I love winning but I realized we were building something – a program and guys like me, Matt, Lenny, Eric, Carson, Fo, Troy… we were the beginning. But we had the opportunity to be a lot more – builders. That was an awesome time."
So, you recruited, played… "I got hurt. That changed everything." Oh yeah, the Orange Bowl, I saw you in the hotel lobby after the game, tight, sore, scared. "I wasn't scared. I just knew I was hurt – I got hit in the back catching a pass play. I knew it was bad the second it happened. It sucked." Two years later, how are you now and did you think about it at this year's game – same field and all? "You know, I did. I walked out before the game, to where it happened, that spot on the field and I got a chill. It was a moment that changed my life. I got lucky cause I walked away. People don't know how close I came. I'm 100 percent now, though. I have been since the beginning of '04."
Despite that injury, you had a really good game that year – like 7 catches for 90 yards? "I don't remember but it was good." How do you compare your performance in this most recent Orange Bowl? "It sucked." "I didn't, but the whole thing, for me… I just didn't get the looks…It's hard to describe but it would've been great to have made ‘the play,' you know what I'm saying?" You won the National Championship. "Yep, and I wouldn't trade it for a thousand catches." So, you're cool? "Very cool. Like I said, no one has experienced that concept of the Trojan Family more than me. If football were to end today, because of what I've gotten here, I'd be fine, better…I'd be great. It's hard to describe but there are so many opportunities available to me because of you guys. It just means so much – way beyond football."
I think, Alex, that's the greatest thing any alumni can hear, that we made as much a difference to you as you did to us. "You did. Believe me."
Should we hug? (Alex looks around…) "Nah." We both laugh. Okay, back to a few last thoughts: Recruiting, who's the guy you brought in that has had the greatest impact? "That's tough. What do you think, Shaun Cody, Big Mike… Williams, Lendale…Me, haha, I don't know. I'd like to think they all made a difference."
Can you compare today's team with the one you helped build? "Well, I think the most obvious thing is that we started with nothing – no offense, Trojan fans but it wasn't great when I got here. But we worked hard and the coaches talked to us, constantly, about winning. We built it. Now the guys coming in… I think they are better athletes than us but I don't know if they can appreciate what it takes to make something like this. We'll find out."
Yeah. Can you talk about the best players you've been around during your time at SC? "The best? There are two. Troy Polamalu and Mike Williams. Troy is just crazy. He's way beyond anybody I've ever known. I can't describe it, but look at him, he's a pro-bowler and it's like his second year. The guy is amazing. And Big Mike… I don't think people realize how smart he was. He was so far beyond the rest of us, playing was just a game. He is going to be the most amazing wide receiver in the pros – people have no idea. They talk about him being ready to go pro after his second year, I think you could say that after his second game. He has such an amazing work ethic and understanding of the game. He is going to amaze people."
What about Alex Holmes, how are people going to react to him as a pro? I'm not going to blow people away with my forty time (although I'm rated like 4th on the NFL list for Tight Ends coming out and I ran just as fast as Gregg did), I will catch on to a team. I know if I get a shot, I'll make a team. And if I make a team, I'll make a difference."
Speed has always been an issue with you, what do you think about that? "I'm a a lot faster than people think. People say I lumber. I guess because I'm big but they never use that term for Gregg Guenther or say Lofa, but I ran as fast as them. Nobody says, they lumber. Whatever, I don't really care. I know that nearly every time I caught a pass, I got a first down and I had to fight for it. That means a lot to me. I hope people don't forget…"
They won't, Alex – not those who saw your high school reels and followed you ever since. They won't forget. So, speaking of not forgetting, who are the coaches you will remember most? "Politics. Laughs. Okay, honestly, they're all great. Really. But I guess the coaches that I clicked with, at least this last year, would have to be Coach Davis and T-Mac. Everybody has their guy, but those are the ones that kept me going through last season. Coach Carroll and Chow, too. They taught us how to win."
Alright, I've bugged you enough. Thank you for an amazing journey. I still remember seeing you during frosh workouts five years ago… "I was fat." No you weren't, young, maybe. Anyway, tomorrow's a big day and I know lots of Trojan fans will be watching for you to go early. Anything you'd like to say to the faithful? "Thank you. It's been way more than I thought it could be. I really do feel the Trojan for life, thing. I'm not just saying that, Tom." I know. I get it too. "Anyway, thanks and Fight On! I'll be around. I feel so blessed to have this opportunity. I'm not happy I got hurt but I'm glad it kept me around for another year. I needed it. It helped me appreciate how great this whole thing is. I have my degree and that's awesome. I've got opportunities beyond football and I have a shot at that – my dream since I was a kid. My dad signed with the first Tampa Bay Buccaneers team, Mckay's guys, but took a job overseas. I have the chance to complete what he didn't. I have my little brother, who's already bigger than me and my brother-in-law, Troy (for those who didn't know, Troy and Alex's sister Theodora were married this Spring) to motivate me. It's all been so amazing."
Kind of exhausting…? "Very." Okay, we're done. Thank you Alex. By the way, what's your weight now? I came in at 305 and I'm outta here at 273. Lean baby."
Right on. We'll see you soon? "Every year you'll have me back. You know that. Fight On!"
That draft is in a few hours and a handful of young men who gave Trojan fans everything they had for the last 4 plus years are about to reap their reward. Few make it this far, only 3 high school recruits ever see a college playing field and only 4 out of every 80 on a college team have a professional career. Let's remember that the next time we think they get too much for their 70 hour work weeks during their college careers. Let's cheer them on, those few who get to cash a check and live the dream. Fight On to Alex Holmes, John Drake, Matt Grootegoed, Jason Leach, Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Mike William, Lofa Tatupu, Gregg Guenther, Ryan Killeen, Kevin Arbet, Ronald Nunn, Lee Webb, and all the others before them, as well as those who never see the field or hear their names cheered from the stands – Fight On to these former Trojan football players, who will forever be, like us, Trojans for life. Fight On!