Darius Holland had nowhere to go but down.
Just two years into his NFL career Holland had already achieved the pinnacle of success. As an NFL sophomore he landed the single piece of jewelry that most professional football players spend their entire careers coveting — the Super Bowl ring.
During his rookie season in 1995, Holland and the Packers advanced to the NFC Championship, where they lost to Dallas. A season later, Holland and the Packers got beyond the NFC Championship, advancing to Super Bowl XXXI, where they beat the New England Patriots to capture the Lombardi Trophy. The Packers returned to the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season but lost to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII.
Getting selected in the third round of the 1995 draft by the Packers opened more doors than Holland could have ever imagined. Three years, three NFC Championship game appearances, two trips to the Super Bowl and one NFL championship.
But was starting in Green Bay a football blessing or the curse of his career?
"There's good and bad to being in Green Bay the first couple of years," Holland said. "In my first three years there I lost 12 games total. I went to championships and Super Bowls. I was with Brett Favre and Reggie White. … All we did was win."
Holland knew no other outcome.
At Colorado, Holland played in four bowl games with the Buffaloes. In his first three NFL seasons in Green Bay, Holland played in nine postseason games; his Packers were 7-2 in those games. Add it up and Holland played in four college bowl games, three NFC Championships and two Super Bowls from 1991-1997.
Holland was playing football games in his Mecca. "One of the best things about Green Bay is that when you left the stadium you could not go anywhere else except be among the people that just watched you play," Holland said. "It's hard to come out of a situation like that and not play hard, or you would look people in the eye and they'd be like, ‘Man, you just quit.' You could do nothing else but win and do your best for the fans."
He knew it then and he knows it now. His time spent playing for the Packers — the postseason success, the storied tradition, the heartfelt relationship with their fans — was the exception in professional football, not the rule.
"I never have been a person not to appreciate the blessings I receive," Holland said. "I think they were appreciated, although they were greater appreciated when I got out."
When he first "got out" was after the 1997 season, when he left Green Bay. Holland started the 1998 season with Kansas City, then finished it in Detroit. He spent the following two seasons with the expansion Cleveland Browns, where the team's compass rarely was clear and direct.
"Once I left Green Bay the education level went up 10-fold because not every team is a Green Bay," Holland said. "Not everyone was going to compete like they did. You just don't have that type of teamwork the way it was those few years. They had some great players, great leaders. Brett Favre has been there for a long time. Look at William Henderson. He was there when it all started and he's still there."
Holland saw the recipe for success. He also was part of some recipes gone bad. Including his own.
After registering 51 tackles with the Browns in 1999 and 45 in 2000, Holland slowly began to read the writing on the training-camp wall. Last season there were four experienced interior linemen battling for two spots. On a team with no Super Bowl hopes, simply holding on to dreams of establishing a rock-solid foundation under a new coaching regime, Holland did the simple math.
"You were looking at me getting paid $1.2 million," he said. "You cannot tie up five or six million dollars on four guys rotating in two positions. The toughest thing about last year is you're going through training camp and you know it's not looking good. I saw it coming."
But the roster guillotine's blade wasn't dropped until late in training camp. Because of that, Holland had little time to shop himself around to other NFL teams. "That didn't give me an opportunity somewhere else," he said. "That's the toughest part."
Holland spent the entire 2001 regular season out of professional football.
"There was a lot of animosity of what had happened on my part," Holland said. "That's not the way I wanted to go out.
"In my particular situation, I was third-string. The preceding year I was a backup. But you really don't have the clout of a Randy Moss, who's been in the league and started for five years. I learned over time that you really have to be touch-and-go with how you face issues. You have to play your cards right.
"You really have to tell yourself that you have to move on and stay focused on what's next."
What was next for Holland was a successful life outside of football.
"What really occurred to me was that I had a strong family foundation and my dad was behind me whatever I did," Holland said. "I had been in the league five or six years and it was not the way I wanted to go, but luckily I had that experience. I figured I was ahead of most 28-year-olds, so there was no reason to sulk. So I just had to grow."
What Holland and his dad, Edger Lopez, grew was a business.
Holland owns Holland Management and Investment, a limited liability company in New Mexico. Holland's firm assists clients with commercial real estate investments. HM&I guarantees between a 10-15 percent financial return and investment education at a minimum risk.
"It's like playing Monopoly," Holland said. "The only thing is, it's real life. Property rarely devalues. The benefits are tremendous. I'm excited about where it can lead to, but football is my first love."
That's what made last year so challenging. Off the field, his business lot in life was improving; he was building HM&I. Meanwhile, his professional football life was fading.
"Being out of the league last year was a humbling factor," Holland said.
Holland, who signed with Minnesota in the offseason as a free agent, has spent little time on the field so far for the Vikings. Listed on the depth chart as a backup to defensive tackle Fred Robbins, Holland has bounced between the inactive list and playing sparingly on Sunday afternoons. Obviously, he hopes that will eventually change.
"Any player that is at all competitive cannot accept the role that I'm in," Holland said. "That's probably one of the toughest things. It's disheartening. The only thing I can think is, ‘I can do this.' You just hope to get an opportunity to show what you can do. If you're going to be prepared, you have to be a positive individual."
Holland knows no other way.
Note: If interested, Holland Management and Investment's phone number is (505) 524-7756.
Favorite movie: A Few Good Men
Favorite actor: Morgan Freeman
Favorite actress: Meg Ryan
Favorite TV show: ER
Favorite music: Country to classic, rap to R&B
Currect vehicle: Ford Excursion
Favorite vehicle: 1990 Lincoln Continental (his first car)
If I wasn't playing football: I'd be in criminal justice
Getting To Know: NT Darius Holland
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