Santonio Holmes has come a long way from 'Muck City'
Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes knows his history: "Muck City," the nickname for Belle Glade, Fla., where he grew up, is tattooed on his hands.
Santonio Holmes celebrates the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Steelers' Super Bowl victory in February.
This rubbish-strewn house is where Santonio Holmes was raised in his early years, on what is known as "the alley" in the Okeechobee Center Project of Belle Glade, Fla. When drugs and danger visited that duplex, his mother moved the family to another part of the project.
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Bill Hillgrove of the Steelers Radio Network gave voice to the historic moment from Super Bowl XLIII: "And now the burden is on that Steelers offense again. Forty-three seconds to go ... ."
BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- The worn-out sign welcoming motorists to one of America's poorest of cities boasts about its richest of grounds: Her soil is her future. Next door squats the Pioneer Growers Co-Op and the Glades Correctional Institution. Across State Road 80 is the crop-duster airport, the Glades Work Camp prison and the tallest structure for miles, one of the three mills remaining from the seven amid Big Sugar's high times.
The Steelers' Santonio Holmes sprang from this muck. He grew up in the projects of this town. He grew up on what is considered not only the wrong side of Palm Beach County but the wrong side of the Cross State Highway, directly across from his old high school. The place carries a different designation: Belle Glade Camp, where 2000 U.S. Census figures show 700 of the 1,100 residents live below the poverty line, a median family income of $17,000 yearly. He grew up in a single-parent household, surrounded on three sides by cane fields and deep in the legendary muck, the dark, enriched soil that produces one-quarter of America's sugar, rice, corn, cabbage and a crop of 30 NFL players.
He once wrote "muck city" across his face, on eye-black patches. Then, in a 2007 celebration of cousin Fred Taylor's inaugural Pro Bowl, a South Beach tattoo artist indelibly inked it above Mr. Holmes' knuckles: Muck on the right, City on the left. He knows his roots like the back of the hands that he'll see every time he stretches to catch a pass today at Heinz Field in the Steelers' AFC North collision with leader Cincinnati.
"I always refer back to everything I did as a kid, growing up, where I came from ---- Belle Glade. I even have it tattooed on my hands, Muck City," he said earlier this week, showing his Super Bowl XLIII MVP hands. "So definitely I'm always reminded of where I came from, where I grew up, just how rough it was. It's right there, visible to me, every day."
His lifelong friend, Fred Robinson Jr., grew up in the same Okeechobee Center project and on the same path. He ran rabbits with him, as they call the chase through the burned or freshly cut cane fields hunting the animals for food and money. He sprinted down a track and flew with a football to state championships alongside Mr. Holmes, earning a Division I scholarship way up north and a potential escape route the same as Mr. Holmes did. Yet Mr. Robinson admittedly made bad decisions, wound up at Division II Clarion University in Pennsylvania and then back home, employed by the area's second-biggest business behind agriculture; he's a guard at one of the three Florida prison facilities here.
"To stay focused through real trials and tribulations," began Mr. Robinson, standing on the same Bethel Court street where they spent their youths. "His mom working from morning to night. At 10, 11 years old, thrust into 'fatherhood' [caring for his two younger brothers]. Didn't even understand what it meant to be The Man. But he's done even the adult thing as a little kid.
"You look around here. You see the poverty around here," added Mr. Robinson, whose father paid for Mr. Holmes' registration onto his first football team, the Peewee Eagles. "You don't know struggle until you go through a struggle."
It's a variation on the theme of Western Pennsylvania kids avoiding the mills and mines of their forefathers. On the southeastern shores of Lake Okeechobee, a world away from tony West Palm Beach 45 miles east, boys zip past the rows of 7-foot-high, sharp-edged crops but never want to work in them, so instead they play on fields far more manicured, soft and green.
Mr. Holmes' mother, Patricia Brown, sent her firstborn as a 10th-grader to live with her husband and his stepfather, Little Moss, who brought him on weekends to the fields where he has toiled October to May for 34 years.
"That was his whole thinking, taking him to work ..." she started to say.
"... Show him the value of work," the stepfather added, "how to work, but don't do this kind of work."
One searing day in Georgia, performing the job of "push-down man," this high-school kid continually shoved boxes of cane down a ramp and from there ran a different route.
"After that, he didn't want to see another field, " proudly said his mother, herself an employee for the past quarter-century in cornfields that cause her to board a bus by 4 in the morning from November to July.
Mr. Holmes, 25, remembered: "Man, my whole body cramped, head to toe. I was like, 'You know what, Mom, this is not for me. Dad, you can have this ... I ain't doing no kind of hard labor. I'm strictly about sports and school.' That's what I did from then on. I told them I was never coming back to those fields."
" ... [Ben Roethlisberger] gets the snap. He's back. He pumps. He scrambles around. ..."
Chasing dreams all began in the muck, with dead critters in his school backpack or on a coat hanger.
"I was born and raised in Belle Glade," said Willie McDonald, the father of NFL draftee Ray McDonald Sr. and grandfather of Ray McDonald Jr., of the San Francisco 49ers, the former dean of students at Glades Central Community High and the track coach to 30 future NFLers.
"I know exactly what the situation is. You ran rabbits to make a little extra spending money. Running rabbits also made you quicker. You have to cut. You have to turn." You have to be as elusive as your prey while traversing the soft, near-black soil.
"Every kid here grows up chasing rabbits, not out of sport but support," added Jessie Hester, a native and a former NFL receiver who coaches the Glades Central Raiders. "Some of the kids had to eat. It was out of necessity ... to survive."
So important was racing after rabbits, said Mr. Robinson's stepfather, Johnny Huggins, that pursuers failed to notice hazards such as bobcats, wild boars or worse: "You jump in the canal after a rabbit, 'I got it!' " Pause. Stare. " 'Uh, was that alligator in there the whole time?' "
In Mr. Holmes' case, his old track coach cites another explanation.
"We go back before he was born," Willie McDonald said, referring to Santonio Holmes Sr., with whom the Steelers receiver has had little contact throughout his life. "I coached his father in track. Matter of fact, they ran the same events: 400 meters and the 400-meter relay. Same running style. Finished the same."
Environment or genetics, he is a product of the muck that doesn't easily come off hands, shoes, bloodlines.
Whatever propelled him, he won state titles in both football and track.
When the University of Miami Hurricanes signed Ryan Moore from Orlando instead of him, Mr. Holmes pushed north to perform so well for Ohio State after red-shirting in its 2002 national-championship season that as a junior he was drafted No. 25 overall by the team he always chose while playing Madden NFL video games.
Far from the fields where Edward R. Murrow in 1960 taped his "Harvest of Shame" documentary about the plight of migrant workers, far from the town without a single mall, far from a place some 18 miles from the nearest modern-day sign of civilization -- a Walmart -- this rabbit hunter made his mark.
"... Throws it back corner of the end zone. Santonio with a touchdown! Santonio Holmes! I don't know how he did it! ... "
Santonio Holmes Jr. didn't magically appear on his tippy-toes in the rear, right corner of the Raymond James Stadium end zone late the first night in February. It just seemed that way to his own children.
"When the celebration started, we had to wake them up," Ms. Brown said. "I was wondering: 'How can children be out for a football game?' "
"I was asleep on the last play; they told me about it," admitted T.J., 8, the son Mr. Holmes had at 17 and had to leave behind to attend Ohio State. Later came brother Nicori, 5, and sister Saniya, 3. These are the children with whom he curled up that night, in his Tampa hotel room, while teammates partied with celebrities from Snoop Dogg to Jesse Jackson.
"We wrestled with him," T.J. said. "We watched a replay of the game." And, oh, yeah, they took in the animated "Madagascar" sequel, too.
T.J., hospitalized for days on end since infancy, is the reason his father performs charity work for sickle cell anemia. Doctors ultimately found the sickle cell trait in both T.J.'s father and grandfather. It is why Mr. Holmes stumps for the charity, why he auctioned off his Super Bowl gloves for nearly $100,000.
"It allowed me to open up different doors," he said of being the Super Bowl MVP. "It allowed me to put my name out there and raise an awareness ... ."
The one-time father figure who watched over his brothers Kenneth, three years younger, and Devontae, seven years younger, still adjusts to true fatherhood.
"I never thought he could play football while taking care of his brother, being a big brother and a daddy. I thought that was too much on him," his mother said.
Then she saw him this past summer as his three children spent much of the offseason with him for a change rather than with their mothers in Georgia and Ohio. She added, "He's getting better. At first, ooooooh, they were driving him up the wall. He was pulling what little hair he had on his head out. He's getting patience and is getting better, I guess because he has them the whole summer and not just the weekends or holidays."
Their time together was hardly interrupted by his post-Super Bowl celebrity. There was a next-day parade and later a springtime first-pitch at a Braves-Pirates exhibition game, both at Disney World. There were the ESPY sports awards in Los Angeles, accompanied by his kids and mother. There were appearances on Jay Leno, David Letterman and BET. But there wasn't a daily grind as one might expect.
"There's not much there there," said expert Bob Dorfman, creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "The checkered past hurts him -- the drug possession, the domestic violence [despite charges being dropped or dismissed]. I guess the perfect example of how marketers are hedging their bets is: Even winning the MVP and the 'I'm going to Disney World' thing, he still had to have [Ben] Roethlisberger go with him.
"He's still pretty young; he's got a lot of years left; maybe he does have a shot down the road. But, yeah, it's going to take more than that one iconic catch to make him more of an iconic marketing figure."
That circus of a week in Tampa, Mr. Holmes tried to use the Super Bowl platform to talk about how he sold drugs as a 7-year-old on a notorious corner in downtown Belle Glade, and the confession seemed to backfire on him. After all, barely three months earlier, he had admitted to smoking marijuana when he had been pulled over by Pittsburgh police.
"I think the story just got misconstrued," he said of his tale about how drugs led to break-ins and bullet holes in the project home shared with relatives -- one from which his mother soon after moved her boys. His attempted message: "I'm here now, and you can be doing the same thing if you choose the right path."
Still, as did receiving mate Hines Ward before him as Super Bowl XL MVP, he tried to keep the big game from altering him. "His life changed, but Santonio still remains the same," Mr. Robinson said. See, not many humans get stopped by kids striking your pose: tippy-toes down, hands outstretched. Not many get to autograph a photo of such a catch for the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice. Not many get to buy their mother and stepfather a new home midway to West Palm Beach, although they refuse his numerous requests to stop working the fields ("That's been their way of living for the past 20-plus years," he said with a shrug).
"I was like, 'Come on, man, you got to make that catch,' " Mr. McDonald Jr., of the 49ers, recalled yelling after Mr. Holmes had a Roethlisberger pass slip through his mitts in the end zone's left corner on the forgettable play before. "He came back the next play and made, heck, what I think is the greatest play in the history of the Super Bowl. End of the game, game on the line, down three points? There isn't anything better than that."
"He made a whole city smile," Mr. Robinson said.
And he wasn't talking about Pittsburgh.
First Published November 15, 2009 12:00 am