That left Holmes' mother to raise Norvell and his younger brother, who has cerebral palsy, alone.
Holmes' first love was basketball. But after he determined football offered the better chance for a college scholarship, Holmes dedicated himself to the gridiron, putting on 30 pounds in one year at St. John Bosco High School and blossoming into a star on both sides of the line.
HOLMES SIGNED WITH the Cougars in 2000 but delayed his enrollment until January 2001. As a redshirt freshman at WSU, he played mostly special teams on a Rose bowl bound Cougar team.
The next year, just as he was set to make his move up their depth chart, Holmes suffered a herniated disk in his back. (Note: The NCAA requires players to lose two years to injury to be eligible to get back one on a medical hardship waiver. Since Holmes' first redshirt year was for development reasons rather than due to injury, his eligibility runs out after this season.)
He sat out the season and the back injury cast serious doubt on whether or not Holmes could ever play football again. Holmes said he considered quitting the sport, but recovered well enough to earn a starting spot midway through the 2004 season.
"We had almost given up on him and he just kept plugging along and had a great desire to play," offensive line coach George Yarno told The Seattle Times recently. "He's worked and made himself the player he is now."
Norvell Holmes and the Cougar offensive line have helped Jerome Harrison rush for more yards than any other back in the country this year
But despite lesser talent on paper according to many, the line — Holmes, Mihlhauser, junior guard Sean O'Connor, junior tackle Charles Harris and sophomore tackle Bobby Byrd — have fueled a Cougars offense that ranks third in the Pac-10 in rushing and opened plenty of holes for running back Harrison, who has more rushing yards than any other Div-IA back in the nation.
FOR HIS PART, Holmes has had a banner year, oft-seen delivering crushing blocks and tossing around would-be pass rushers like rag dolls. The Cougars o-line has also given up just 14 sacks all season, second-best in the conference.
"As a unit, we've played pretty good," Holmes said.
Individually, Holmes said he is pleased with how he's played this year, despite the team's losing record.
"I'm most happy that I've played in every game and haven't missed a snap," he said. "Being able to be on the field is the biggest thing."