Santonio Holmes was dropped on the New York Jets' doorstep, his tattered baggage tucked under his arm. Inside was a four-game drug suspension, a rap sheet that included arrests in three states and, of course, his prized possession -- the Super Bowl catch.
That was only a year ago. Since then, Holmes has gone from a problem child, discarded by the Pittsburgh Steelers, to a team captain with a $45 million contract. This is a "Rise and Fall and Rise" story, an impoverished, rabbit-chasing child of Florida's sugar-cane fields becoming one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the NFL -- with lots of good and bad stuff in between.
Holmes nearly blew it all -- he's one strike away from a one-year suspension -- but he has been a model citizen since being traded to the Jets for a fifth-round draft pick, grand larceny by GM Mike Tannenbaum. Is this a new Holmes or is it simply the same Holmes capitalizing on an easy score?
You will have to be the judge of that, but one thing is certain: Holmes doesn't give a damn what we think. Unlike most high-profile athletes, he's not consumed with maintaining a polished image or becoming a pitch man. In his world, it's all about two things: Being a great player, being a good teammate.
"It doesn't matter what anybody feels about me or what anybody says about me," Holmes said in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com. "First and foremost, I'm a football player. That's what everybody wants on their team. That's what everybody hopes to get out of every player. I'm a true football player.
"What happens off the field, happens off the field. It doesn't dictate my character. It probably dictates the judgment, but who are they to judge me? I'm not concerned about anybody who passes some type of judgment on me. Everybody does things behind closed doors all day long. Judge yourself.
"That's the only thing I can say to the media concerned about the off-the-field issues. When Santonio Holmes steps on the field, everybody says, 'Wow, that guy is a football player.' That's all that matters to the football fans. All they really care about is the sport and how well their guy is going to play on Sunday."
Sadly, Holmes is right: It's all about Sunday -- in most cases, anyway. That's why teams like the Jets are willing to overlook off-the-field problems and take chances on gifted athletes. It's not because they want to make them better people; it's because they're in the winning business.
In Holmes' case, though, there is a caveat: His responsibility to the Jets goes beyond three hours on Sunday. Because he's a captain, one of five players handpicked by Rex Ryan, he needs to become a team leader -- and not just a behind-the-scenes guy. His job is to be out front, in good times and bad, setting the tone, along with Mark Sanchez, Darrelle Revis, Sione Pouha and Eric Smith.
It was a brilliant move by Ryan, naming Holmes a captain, because now he has ownership in the team. Holmes isn't just rank-and-file, cashing a paycheck (a rather large check at that); he's quasi-management. He said this is the first time in his life, on any level, he's been a captain.
"I've come a long way," he said. "I'm a person people can mold themselves after -- minus the off-the-field distractions."
Oh, yes, those. Funny how he used the word "distractions." They only became distractions because of his own actions.
Holmes has been arrested in all three states in which he has lived (Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania), with charges ranging from domestic violence (later dismissed) to possession of marijuana (a one-game suspension by the Steelers). He violated the league's substance-abuse policy yet again, resulting in the four-game suspension. That prompted the Steelers' fire sale.
With just one year remaining on his contract, Holmes had plenty of motivation to convince the Jets he was worth a long-term deal. He responded with a good season, highlighted by clutch plays in three straight wins, but it wasn't an outstanding year. Projected over 16 games, his statistics would've been 69 receptions, 995 yards and eight touchdowns.
But timing is everything. Because Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith also were free agents, and because Edwards was dealing with his own off-the-field issues, the Jets made Holmes their No. 1 priority. It was the right call. Nine out of 10 scouts will tell you he's a better player than Edwards, but they paid a lot of money ($9 million per year) for a player with only one 1,000-yard season.
Timing and circumstances. Holmes made a killing. Asked why he believes they picked him over Edwards, Holmes said:
"I guess it was the late-game heroics. I guess it was the teammate they saw, the potential to be a great football player to help Mark Sanchez. Fearless. A guy who wants to win, who can change a game at any moment. A fun guy to be around. A great teammate. A guy who knows how to find a way to win ballgames."
Holmes knows how to win, there's no doubt about that. He won a Super Bowl for the Steelers with his acrobatic catch against the Arizona Cardinals, and he won three straight games last season with clutch plays in the final seconds. (People tend to forget he may have cost them two games, with critical drops against the Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins. But, hey, why let the facts get in the way?)
Before every game, Holmes receives the same text message from his mother: "Big-time players step up in big-time games." It's a quote he heard a long time ago from Santana Moss, and he made it his personal mantra.
Ryan calls it "Tone Time," Holmes' ability to rise up when others tend to shrink. It doesn't happen magically; Holmes works hard to be great late. During the offseason, he works out and catches passes with weighted gloves, a way to build his strength and endurance. He prides himself on being able to outlast defensive backs in the fourth quarter.
Holmes also has perfected a technique called "late hands," the ability to wait until the last possible moment before extending his hands for a pass.
"That technique was taught to me in high school, knowing the way defenders play and that they have a tendency to look in your eyes and feel your motion," he said. "In press coverage, not giving those signs to the defender is something I pride myself on."
Holmes grew up in Belle Glade, Fla., about two hours north of Miami. That area, on the southeast shores of Lake Okeechobee, is known as Muck City because of its rich soil. The town produces two things in abundance -- sugar cane and football players. On Monday, his old high school, Belle Glade Central, played a nationally televised game on ESPN.
By now, Holmes' rabbit-chasing exploits are almost legendary; they were included in an ESPN feature in 2008. Like most kids in Muck City, he caught rabbits to make money, selling them for $4 to $6 apiece. He ran across cane fields and through canals, honing his speed while making a few bucks.
"I did it because we were short of funds and people ate rabbit," he said. "We caught them, cleaned them up and sold them to the locals."
Holmes also sold drugs as a kid, making that admission during his time with the Steelers -- another image that shatters the wholesome-story theme. Then again, his life isn't a Norman Rockwell painting. He grew up hard, surrounded by violence and drugs and poverty, and it's a testament to his work ethic that he made it out.
Muck City is part of him.
"It's everything that everyone sees on Sunday," said Holmes, who has "Muck" and "City" tattooed on the knuckles on each hand.
He lives for the game. Soon he will realize it's more than that. Maybe he has already. The Jets are counting on him, maybe more than they've counted on any receiver since Keyshawn Johnson in the late 1990s.
"If I can help us to seven to 10 wins for this team," he said, meaning games he can directly impact, "I'll put us in great position to make the Super Bowl. That's the only place I want to be right now."