‘I love it:’ DeVonte Holloman on high school coaching and the origins of his style
Angelina Holloman and her friends were much more interested in watching Angelina's 1-year old daughter try to toddle than the on-field preseason NFL action at Dallas' AT&T Stadium in August, 2014.
So Holloman thought it was a prank when text messages began to pile into her phone asking if her future husband, Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeVonte Holloman, was okay?
"I was like, 'that's not a funny joke,'" Angelina said. "I remember looking down at him, and one of my friends took Brooklyn and trying to find my way to medical to find out what happened."
It was just a preseason game after all. Does anyone pay attention to those?
DeVonte Holloman certainly did. Like most of the other 140 or so players on the field that night, he was living out a lifelong dream, wearing the blue star of America's team on his helmet and trying to capitalize on a promising rookie season when an innocuous-looking run play ended his career.
There was no big blow or snap of his head. No gasp from the crowd.
He simply bounced off the running back and into the arms of a teammate, before clutching his neck and slowly crumpling.
'Couldn't hide it'
Holloman moved from Charlotte's Independence High to South Pointe for his senior year of high school in 2008 and was an integral part of one of the best high school football teams in Rock Hill's history. He and Stephon Gilmore led the school's second-ever team to a 15-0 season, state championship and national ranking. Holloman was one of three future NFL players on that team, and even though he was only around for a year, quickly became one of the group's leaders.
"He was icing on the cake," said Bobby Carroll, who coached South Pointe.
Holloman was a key contributor to South Carolina's resurgence under Steve Spurrier, part of a run of talented players that joined the Gamecocks from Rock Hill. A defensive play-maker, he helped the Gamecocks to a pair of 11-win seasons, before Dallas picked him in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Holloman took off like a rocket in preseason action, returning an interception 75 yards for a touchdown against the Dolphins. He was a backup in the first six games before suffering a spinal contusion during an October practice, the injury that ultimately ended his career.
He was defending a run play when he collided with an offensive lineman. The pain staggered him, but the accompanying numbness was more disconcerting. He thought it might be a concussion.
"I was kind of stunned," said Holloman. "I couldn't feel my arms. I just had pain in my whole body. It was just kind of a routine play really."
He returned after two months on the sidelines and had 11 tackle and two sacks in the Cowboys' 2013 season-ending loss to Philadelphia, but he never shook his initial neck injury. Doctors told him it was risky to continue playing. The next hit could paralyze him. In the first 2014 preseason game at San Diego, he delivered a blow and the pain/numbness roared back.
It happened again the next week against the Ravens. Kneeling on the ground, he wanted to pound his fist into the artificial turf. But he couldn't move his arm.
"I really couldn't hide it," he said.
Snapped from the boredom of a routine preseason game, Angelina rushed from her seat to find her boyfriend.
"I remember having no clue where to go," she said. "No one else knew either."
She located Holloman in the bowels of the Cowboys' gargantuan stadium and a counselor was there -- Miss Jackie -- who let her know that everything was okay -- to a degree -- and that Holloman had to stay with the doctors. Headed home from his final NFL game, he broke down in the car as he told Angelina how he couldn't stand up on his own, that his chiseled arms couldn't push his body up off the ground.
"I just remember it being really emotional for both of us," she said.
Holloman wanted to be able to play in the yard with his kids, or walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. He wanted to walk down the aisle at his own wedding some day. But he had developed spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine that put pressure on important nerves, and threatened the future he envisioned.
"I had a young daughter, I still had my whole life ahead of me," said Holloman. "It was kind of an easy decision."
Learning on the fly
Angelina's dad, Jim, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in October, 2013. Holloman and Angelina lived in Columbia, where DeVonte was working as a graduate assistant on the South Carolina Gamecocks' football coaching staff, trying to find a new purpose. They routinely drove two hours each way to see Jim. On one of those drives, Holloman made a proposal to Angelina.
"He turned to me and said, 'Why we don't we just move to Beaufort?' I didn't think he was being serious, but then he got some connections and we started talking about it."
They made the move. Andy Smyth helped Holloman get involved with Beaufort's football program.
“I’d seen him play but I’d never seen him in person,” said Smyth, Beaufort’s defensive line coach. “He wasn’t what I was expecting. He was a very squared away guy, immediately came off like he was comfortable walking out on the field with kids around us, because he walked right into a summer practice. The kids took to him immediately.”
The Beaufort kids perceived Holloman differently than their other coaches, according to Smyth.
"It’s one thing to be yelled at by some old guys or guys that have done it for a long time," he said. "I think it’s been a big deal for some of our kids to receive the coaching and to sit around and talk to him about what it was like at Carolina or what it was like at Dallas, or Independence or South Pointe.”
Before catching on with Beaufort, Angelina saw her husband grappling with his NFL career's sudden end. A lifelong dream was suddenly vaporized. Few kids imagine what they'll do after their pro football careers end.
"I think for a while he did struggle," Angelina said.
Coaching has given Holloman's life a professional focus. He was Beaufort's defensive coordinator the last two years under head coach Mark Clifford. When Clifford announced his retirement last November, players and staff members spoke up on Holloman's behalf and the school didn't interview any other candidates for the head job. Holloman was Beaufort's head coach a week later. Was he ready?
"No, man! I'm learning on the fly," he said. "What I am led by is being a good person and trying to do right by the kids, and I've got a lot of help and a lot of good coaches on my staff that help me make decisions, and I've got a really great group of seniors to help me get this thing started off right. I've got a lot of help, man."
Holloman, 27 years old, views himself as a big brother instead of a father figure. Angelina works at a local dentist and gets feedback from her husband's players all the time.
"They would talk about how awesome he was, how relatable he was," she said. "'He's the only coach that understands.' It was confirmation for me that he's in the right place."
Hall of Fame coaches have influenced Holloman at every level of his career. He learned the importance of the weight room from legendary former Independence coach Tommy Knotts and the importance of humor and player relationships from Bobby Carroll and Steve Spurrier.
And he's getting accustomed to the parts of the job that weren't in his contract, like demoting an assistant coach, cleaning the team's laundry, or driving kids home after practice.
There is excitement around Beaufort football following Holloman's appointment and a decent 2017 season in which the Eagles finished 7-3 and made the 4A playoffs. They'll hold a spring game Friday. Holloman is incredibly busy, and it's only spring practice, not even the real season.
"It's a multi-tasking job, not only managing the kids, but adults, grades, working with other teachers in your building, parents... it's a lot more work than I thought it would be," he said.
If a place can help a man come to grips with life's sudden turns, Beaufort is it. Holloman crosses over multiple bridges on the drive to and from work and the shimmering waterways and glowing sun help replenish a coach after a long day.
"I love being close to the water," he said. "It's kind of a little mini-paradise."
Holloman's new environment -- the moss-covered surroundings, his wife's family, his football program -- all pull him back when the "what if?'s" creep into his mind, and help him refocus on his new mission: positively influencing young people.
“He wants to be a great head football coach," said Smyth. "I don’t know what that means for him down the road, but I do know presently everything he’s got is being put into our program.”
Feeling settled, Holloman made another proposal to Angelina. They got married in July, 2016 on Parris Island. A big wedding overlooked Ballast Creek and the open water beyond. Holloman kissed his bride and walked her back up the aisle.
Holloman rarely spoke about his injury at length or in detail until recently, another sign he's moving past the pain. The first time he talked about it publicly was at a meeting of 100 Voices Strong, a group that encourages academically-gifted African-American middle school students in the Beaufort area. Angelina recorded her husband's talk so that he could hear how he sounded speaking about his life story. She asked to share it on social media, but he said not yet.
He's changed his mind since.
"I think I finally found something to fill that void and I'm really happy," Holloman said.
He had always told Angelina that when he retired from the NFL he wanted to move back to Beaufort with her, that it was such a pretty place. He just never thought that would happen when he was 24 years old.