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From a Division II walk-on to Big Ten football: Taishan Holmes is the ultimate underdog

Northwestern became the fifth stop of the defensive tackle’s collegiate career.

Daily Hampshire Gazette

At age 6, Taishan Holmes sat by himself on his couch Monday morning before school. Yet the Tappahannock, Va. native never felt alone. Joined alongside him on the TV was Rich Eisen, highlighting the electrifying play of Washington’s safety Sean Taylor and wide receiver Santana Moss. Because, while most kids opted to turn the TV to Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, Holmes grabbed the remote and turned to channel 212: The NFL Network.

Even at an early age, he was entranced by the game of football. Holmes’ after-school routine involved rushing home, immediately grabbing his ball and sprinting right back out the door to find a pick-up game down the block. Each Sunday became his own personal gameday on his grandma’s lawn. He was often picked last because he was the youngest, but it never discouraged him. As Holmes puts it, he thought about football 24/7. The only problem: He wasn’t allowed to put on the pads.

Holmes was always a big kid. At one point in high school, he weighed in at 430 lbs. Weight troubles ultimately made Holmes ineligible to play for the Essex County Youth Football League — Essex enforced weight limits throughout the program, capping out at 150 pounds for the 10-12 age group. So, while Holmes had a burning passion for the game, he was forced to watch from the stands.

“It was devastating, to be honest,” Holmes said. “To see all the kids I went to school with come with their Essex Titans or Bulldogs jerseys on when I couldn’t play was hard.”

He finally got the opportunity to debut at age 12 in a start-up, no weight limit youth league in neighboring King William County. It was a 30-minute drive to a team fielding just 13 players — but he didn’t care. It was football.

The Virginia native has always jumped at the opportunity to travel for the betterment of his football career. When the now-6-foot-3, 315-pound senior transferred from UMass to Northwestern in January, Evanston became the fifth stop in his collegiate career. From Bluefield, Va., to Garden City, Kan., to Amherst, Mass., Holmes fought continuously in hopes of recreating the scenes at grandma’s house to play on Sundays once again.

“Everything I do revolves around me just chasing my ultimate goal and dream of trying to make it to the NFL,” he said.

Holmes first enrolled at Bluefield College in Virginia, an NAIA program, in the spring of 2018. While practicing for the Rams, he sent his tape around to other schools in the area and caught the attention of Division II Virginia State University. The freshman decided to transfer as a walk-on to the HBCU for the 2018 season before ever suiting up at Bluefield.

The young Holmes “fell in love” with VSU. The program has a strong football history and it was close to home, but, though he was in love, he wasn’t satisfied. The then 20-year-old bet on himself and decided to travel close to 1,500 miles away to the Garden City Broncbusters, a junior college team (one you might be familiar with from Netflix’s Last Chance U) in the middle of Kansas, for the 2019 season.

“It definitely took some getting used to. Going out to Garden City was my first time ever being on a plane, which was an experience,” said Holmes. “It was a bit of a culture shock.”

His journey over entailed a 90-minute flight from Dallas to western Kansas. To make matters worse, the then-350-pound defensive tackle rode that 50-seat plane over an active thunderstorm, all to come to a town of just 26,000 people where the best way to pass the time is going to Walmart. Once he touched down, Holmes began to work almost exclusively at perfecting his game.

“He watches so much film. There are 24 hours in a day, and he might spend 15 of them watching film,” said Ellis Merriweather, Holmes’ former teammate at both Garden City and UMass. “We would sit in the car after practice for an hour or two watching film and talking about each play.”

However, this tireless work ethic lacked prior to college. At Essex High School, Holmes still struggled with his weight, said then defensive coordinator Steve Young. Though he always labeled Holmes as having a high “football IQ,” and in his four years at Essex and the the kid only missed one practice, it was going that extra mile past practice that was absent from Holmes’ psyche early on. It took being trapped in the cornfields of Kansas to light that fire.

“Taishan lived 500 yards from the high school weight room — that is no exaggeration. In high school, we rarely saw him in there,” Young said. “He called me one day out of the blue when he was at Garden City and he said ‘I finally got it, and I’m working hard.’ Him going to Garden City did it. His shift was complete.”

From that point on, nobody was going to outwork Holmes. He traded in the soda for water. When the TV turned to commercials, he dropped to the ground to hit push-ups and crunches. Once Holmes paired his power with finesse, his highlight tape began to jump off the screen.

Just three games into the 2019 season, the once D-II walk-on was garnering interest from the Division I Minutemen at UMass. He was truly understanding what it took if he wanted to be great, and those long hours in the weight room, coined “The Dungeon” at Garden City, were bearing fruit.

“There have been long nights where I dreamed and prayed, and I didn’t see it right then and there, but I kept working,” Holmes said. “[The offer from UMass] felt surreal, but at the same time it just locked me in even more. Knowing that you made it to the first step, now you gotta keep going. There’s more building and getting better to do.”

Holmes committed to play for the UMass in January of 2020 and spent two years in Amherst. His 17 tackles over 11 games may not jump off the page, but his ability to crash into running lanes is something not tracked on the box score. That same massive frame that left the Tappahannock native ineligible to play was giving him a leg up and attention from the Big Ten.

When Pat Fitzgerald called to offer Holmes a scholarship on New Year’s Eve of 2021, it only took the senior 10 days to commit to playing in Evanston. He didn’t need to see the campus and facilities — he knew Northwestern was where he needed to be. Once he came to campus and stepped into Ryan Fieldhouse, all he could feel was blessed.

Through his journey across four states and five programs, Holmes’ passion for football has remained consistent. Along the way, he has only further developed a chip on his shoulder. With the weight of 4,500 miles traveled, he can make a name for himself in one of the largest conferences in college football at Northwestern and move one step closer to his dream of playing in the NFL.

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