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Football’s Not Over for Me

Oct 16 2019
Photo by
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports
Deion Holliman
Football Free Agent
Oct 16 2019
M

y days would always start at 5 a.m. 

That wasn’t my choice, it’s just the way it is when you’re starting at the bottom of something.  You have to be the first person there. That’s the way it is with a lot of jobs. 

Construction work is no different.

We were building an apartment complex, so I’d have to get to the site before sunrise, open up the gate and unlock all the rooms so the different contractors could get to work. Then for the next 11 hours I’d be doing any kind of job asked of me. Sometimes that meant working with big machines, which wasn’t so bad. It was loud, but once you found a rhythm the time would pass by pretty quickly.

The worst though was landscaping. For real, I’m not sure I can ever look at grass the same way. I’d carry these heavy rolls of sod, then get down in the mud to place them — section by section — for hours. That’s a smell that’s still stuck in my nostrils.

I didn’t take the job thinking it would be easy by any stretch. I needed money and it was an honest way to get it until I figured out my next step. One thing is for damn certain, though: Nothing has ever made me love football more than working in construction.

Nothing has ever made me love football more than working in construction.

Ever since I was a little kid, I had a dream of playing professional football. That hasn’t changed to this day. 

Of course when I was a kid and played it out in my head the process was pretty simple: Ball out in high school, get recruited by a big-time college team and do my thing, and then a few years later hear my name called at the NFL draft.

Now that I’m a little older I know better. For a very fortunate, select few, that is how it goes. But for the vast majority of guys who dream of playing this game for living, the journey is a lot more complicated. 

I broke my foot near the end of the end of my senior season at Missouri State in 2017.

Up until that point, I was an all-conference player and one of the best return specialists in the nation. But even then I still knew that the odds were stacked against me when it came to playing in the pros, especially coming from a smaller school. I worked hard rehabbing my foot, but by the time my pro day rolled around in March 2018, I still hadn’t fully regained all of the quickness and speed I’d had before the injury. 

The Springfield News-Leader

I had a good workout, but it wasn’t the best workout of my life — and that’s what I needed. As a result, I never ended up hearing from any potential agents, and at the NFL draft a few weeks later, my name wasn’t called. 

For a lot of guys — thousands of good players all over the country who have dedicated their lives to the game — that’s the end of the line. Football goes from being everything to being over. 

I was realistic. I knew it might be over for me too. But … I still held on to this hope. 

I’m not exactly sure why. I’m a man of faith, and I prayed on it every night. Of course, I understand that football doesn’t last forever — no matter what. You need to be ready for the future. But I also knew that I still had a genuine love for the game, and that as long as there was any shot left, I wanted to be ready.

For that reason, taking a job in construction made sense for me. I would have focused all on my effort on training if I could have, but unfortunately that doesn’t pay the bills. With construction I had a job that kept me in good shape (those rolls of grass, man) and left me enough hours in the day after work to eat, work out.

I knew it might be over for me too. But … I still held on to this hope.

It was humbling for sure, but one of the things that kept me going day after day was the other guys I worked alongside. We all had difficult jobs, but they dealt with it by trying to lift each other up. Some of them knew that I’d played football, and they’d make it a point to try to motivate me when we saw each other. Usually it would be small stuff like, “Can’t wait to see you on TV one day!” or, “Keep chasing that dream, you got this!” That stuff really lifted me up. And honestly, after working on that site I have more respect for construction work than you can imagine. I was one of the youngest people there, and a lot of my coworkers had been at it for years, even decades. They didn’t want that for me — genuinely. 

After work, I’d always head home to eat and shower before heading out to the gym. Compared to being on the site, working out almost became like a luxury. I still didn’t have an agent or the connections I needed, but the gym was a place where I felt like I was getting better. And if I was getting better, I had to be going at least a little bit in the right direction.

One day I was doing box jumps to work on my vertical. While I was jumping, I sort of noticed a few people around watching, but I didn’t really think much about it. At some point, one of the guys who worked at the gym came up to me and asked if he could record me jumping. At first, I wasn’t interested. It didn’t seem like anything special to me. I was just out there doing my work, same as I would if I was sanding, hammering or laying down sod. 

But the guy was insistent. He said, “Bro, that has to be a 50-inch stack and you’re getting up there effortlessly. Just let me record it for the gym.” I hadn’t stretched or anything, and honestly, this just seemed like a regular, boring workout. But my other friend who was with me just shrugged and told me to let him go ahead. As I kept jumping, the guy eventually started challenging me, seeing if I could keep stacking weights on top of the box to jump even higher. Eventually the stack got up to about 65 inches, and I made the jump. Afterwards he texted me the video. But I still didn’t really think much of it. 

A few days later, I was kind of bored — which means I was on Instagram. I decided to post the jumping video on my story, and to my surprise a lot of people started responding. Realizing the content was lit, I posted the video on my profile page and I tagged House of Highlights, a really popular sports video page. The video started getting more traction, and the next morning I checked my DMs and there was a message from Bleacher Report, asking if they could repost my video.

And that’s when things got kind of interesting. 

I’d never gone viral before. It’s kind of crazy, man. The guys back at the construction site got a kick out of it, that’s for sure. I even had the people from Guinness World Records reach out to see about being included in their book, but it was too much paperwork to fill out.

A few days after the video had posted, one of my old college coaches reached out to me. He said someone named Trip MacCracken had hit him up to ask about me. He worked for a team called the Arizona Hotshots in something called the Alliance of American Football, a new league that was starting up that spring. He had seen the video and was interested in me. 

I hadn’t heard of the league, but it didn’t matter. The word football was involved, so I would do whatever I had to.

After making a few calls and sending more film to the team, the Hotshots invited me to a tryout in Arizona last December. It was a long way from Missouri, and it would take just about all of my savings to pay for the flight there and a place to stay. None of that fazed me, though. I had a shot. That’s all I’d been praying for, and I wasn’t going to let it pass me by.

I knew there were alternatives to the NFL, but what made the AAF very interesting was how organized everything seemed to be. Every major sport but football had an actual minor league system to develop young players, and this seemed like the closest thing there was to a development league for the NFL. Most of the players in the AAF had already put in a stint in the league and were trying to get back, and every game was going to be televised nationally on the NFL Network. 

I killed the tryout. For real, I rocked it. I ended up at training camp with the San Antonio Commanders. Did pretty well but was let go during the final cuts. Fortunately, the Arizona Hotshots already knew about me and brought me in right after.

Only a few weeks after I was working in construction, I signed a three-year contract with Arizona. At that point, I knew it wasn’t a guaranteed deal. Of course, I understood there was a chance I wouldn’t be around for the full length of the contract — there’s always a chance you could get cut or injured. But none of that really bothered me. I had a place to live, some money in my pocket and a season to prepare for. Once I locked down a roster spot, I really couldn’t have been any happier. 

Everything they set up for us was first-class. We were given all the resources we needed — including topflight trainers and coaches — to do what we needed to.  It really did feel like a real stepping-stone to the NFL. 

Once I was settled, it was just about playing football — and that was something I knew I could do. 

Like I said, a lot of the players in the AAF were NFL veterans who were just looking to prove they deserved a second chance. I was one of the few guys who had never made it to that level, so every rep at every practice I was trying to prove myself. I was entirely locked in, and constantly asking questions of those around me about how I could improve. I was around so many people who had made it to the place I was trying to go, and I wanted to drink in all the knowledge and advice they could possible give me. 

Once the season started, I felt like I was getting a little better every week. I proved I belonged, and eventually started to excel. With each game, more and more players started making a point of telling me they thought I was an NFL-caliber player — some were surprised I hadn’t made it yet. The entire time I was also training on my own. I’d always had this little voice in the my back of my head questioning if I actually was good enough — if this was all just a waste of time. What the AAF gave me, which I’m very grateful for, was a certainty that I had been right not to give up. I had been right to keep following my dreams.

What the AAF gave me, which I’m very grateful for, was a certainty that I had been right not to give up.

Six weeks into the season, we were really starting to come together as a team and I was one of the top returners. I was also starting to get more snaps on offense and showing out a little bit on that side of the ball. I’d heard some rumors about the league maybe having some funding issues. There were a few guys on the team saying the league could fold at any time. I had enough to worry about just and trying to win games, so I tried to shut that stuff out. Besides, I had a three-year contract. Even if the league didn’t last that long, I thought for sure we’d last for at least the rest of the season. That would hopefully give me the film I needed to pursue whatever might come next.

We won a big game against San Antonio on March 31 — I returned my first kick for a touchdown. After the game, we were all in the locker room in circle celebrating together. It was pretty wild, honestly. We were all screaming along to the song “Shots” (you know the one that goes “Shots! Shots! Shots!”) There were only two games left in the regular season and we were looking like the baddest team in the league.

While we were all getting rowdy, Charlie Ebersol, the CEO of the AAF, came into our locker room and started dancing around and celebrating with us. One of the players on the team saw him and shouted, “Hey man, are we still going to have jobs next week?” We all kind of stopped and looked at him for a response. He said, “Y’all better show up next week because you got a huge game!” 

And just like that, the celebration started back up. We were good. We had heard it from the man himself. 

After the celebration, I pulled Mr. Ebersol aside and shook his hand. I thanked him for everything — for this life-changing experience.

Two days later, the Alliance of American Football folded. 

Christian Petersen/AAF/Getty Images

My teammates and I had been planning a trip to the Grand Canyon.

I was getting ready to go when I heard one of my teammates outside my room saying “That’s crazy! They can’t do that. No way!” 

In the pit of my stomach, I think I knew right then and there it was over. I came out and asked what was going on and and he confirmed that the league had been suspended.  

It was like this immediate shock to my system. Not only had we been told directly that that wasn’t happening two days earlier, but our contracts stated that we’d be notified 60 days in advance if the league was going to fold. 

Right after that, the text came through from our coach.

“Mandatory team meeting at 3 p.m.”

The meeting wasn’t long. We were basically read a list of instructions about next steps and when our benefits would end. We got our last game paychecks that Friday and had three days to move out and pay our own way home. It really was over. 

For me, the worst part of it all was seeing how it affected everyone around me. Every person in the league — from the coaches to the trainers — had viewed this as a huge opportunity. Yes, we all knew it was a business, but we’d held up our end of the bargain. We’d put in the work and carried ourselves like professionals. We didn’t break our promise to nobody. 

It wasn’t just the money we lost, but also the opportunity to continue to train and get better. We’d still had two games left in the regular season, and then there might be a playoff game. That was potentially at least three more opportunities to get good film. And we were in a groove and playing well, so I knew it would be good film. 

Instead, we all went our separate ways. All the work we’d put into building a winning team and strong relationships were gone. 

We were all back at square one.  

The Springfield News-LeaderThere are a lot of things I’m upset about when it comes to how things went down for the AAF.

Of course, part of it was the outright lies and breach of contract, but I joined a class action lawsuit with other players that will hopefully address that.

What hurt even more was that I had plans. My family knew how much I had sacrificed to make it to the AAF and supported me so much. The championship game was in Texas, not too far from where I grew up in Arkansas. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t daydreamed about balling out in front of my family during a championship game. Showing that I hadn’t just made it on to a roster, but I was really doing the thing.

That had all been dashed in an instant. Now I was back where I’d started with no agent and no prospects.

I went back to Missouri to regroup, and from there I kept grinding. I kept my body right, and reached out to whoever I could to network and see if there was another opportunity out there. As it turned out, Trip, the old assistant GM who had first discovered me, was now involved with player personnel for the XFL — a new football league starting up in 2020 with a lot of impressive people attached to it. 

I shot him a note and he reached out to the right people, who helped get me an invite to an open tryout in front of scouts. Whenever it’s just been about football, I’ve always liked my chances. I put in a lot of preparation, and I had a great workout.

Not long after, I got word that I was in the XFL’s pool of draftable players. And now, I’m once again waiting to see where football will take me.

I’m once again waiting to see where football will take me.

I don’t know where I’ll be playing yet, but this week, for the first time, I’m hopefully going to hear my name called in a draft, just like I dreamed about as a kid. I wasn’t necessarily expecting it to be the XFL draft, but that doesn’t matter. 

It’s still an opportunity. I still have a shot. That’s all that matters.

In the past year, so many things in my life have changed. I’ve gone from construction work, to playing ball in the Arizona desert, to being out of a job entirely. There were plenty of times when I thought I might be at the end of the line. But through all the challenges, the frustration, the pain, one thing has never changed: I still love football, now more than ever. 

And I’m not done with it by a long shot. No sir. 

My story is just about to start. 

Deion Holliman
Football Free Agent