Looking Back at Big Game

Posted Apr 3, 2012

Win or lose, after every game he played in the final part of his 11-plus years in the NFL, Torry Holt would play another game well after the contest on the field was finished.

The game was simple: it was a waiting game, the type that would test your patience if you were looking to get your game story written in a timely fashion or get your sound bites back to your station before the evening news.

It was Holt’s custom after those games to retire to the training room for post-game ice treatment. As the years went on, Holt would spend more and more time back there as Father Time caught up to his creaky knees. He’d go to the back, pull up a spot on one of the training tables, wrap the knees in ice and reflect on the game that had just happened.

One by one, Holt’s teammates would step in front of the media horde and answer any and all questions. They’d answer those questions, get dressed and depart into the night. Not Holt.

Through the years, some media types would complain that Holt was avoiding them, that he was dodging their questions, especially as the losses mounted in the latter part of his time with the Rams.

But Holt never intended to avoid anything; he was as much of a stand up guy as you’d find in the league. What he wanted was to take the time to let it all sink in so he wouldn’t speak out of turn.

For those willing to wait, Holt was pure gold. Rare is the athlete that can combine outstanding, Hall of Fame caliber play with insightful, Hall of Fame caliber quotations. So I waited. Usually, only myself and Jim Thomas of the Post Dispatch would be left in the locker room by the time Holt emerged.

When he did finally come out, Holt always had a smile on his face. He expected us to be there just like we expected him to provide us with notebook filling words that would fit seamlessly into whatever that game’s narrative was.

In Holt’s era, the idea of a talkative wide receiver was nothing out of the ordinary. Loud mouthed wideouts were more plentiful and the kicker was that you didn’t even have to be that good to get on a soapbox.

But Holt was different. He was thoughtful, he was insightful and he was downright kind. There wasn’t a person in the building that would walk away from a conversation with Torry Holt without a smile on their face. He also knew when to be “on” and when to turn it off, something he learned from fellow wideout Isaac Bruce.

“Yeah, sometimes it’s just shutting up and just playing, not worrying about anything that is going on other than what you can control and that’s your job and your actions and your words,” Holt told me in 2007. “That’s one of the biggest lessons I would take from Isaac. Sometimes you should just shut up. Tame your tongue and let your actions and what you do on the football field speak for you. That’s what he does.”

In fact, in the more than eight years I’ve known him, I’d say the only people that came away from an encounter with Holt with anything less than a positive experience were the corners that tried to cover him and the defensive coordinators confounded by trying to find ways to stop him. He was constantly breaking out into song whether it was on the bus on the way to the airport or in the locker room with his teammates. He never saw the game as anything more than that and he played it with child-like abandon.

Despite all of that, though, it was important to not let that megawatt smile, bubbly personality and friendly demeanor fool you. Holt was the ultimate competitor, a fiery gamer who when it came time to strap on the helmets never had any intention to do anything but torch you in a way that would make you reconsider your chosen profession. The fact that he did it with a smile on his face only made it worse for his opponents.

Holt’s greatness as a player can easily be measured in numbers. His clockwork consistency made him the most productive and dependable receiver of the 2000s. His knack for the spectacular never simmered far from the surface. Even as a rookie, Holt showed no fear on the game’s grandest stage as he helped the Rams to the Super Bowl XXXIV title helping solidify the "Big Game" moniker that would stay with him.

What made Holt special, much like his running mate Bruce, was that for as terrific as he was on the field, he was that good of a person off it. Teammates revered him, coaches trusted him completely and every person he interacted with got the very best of Torry, not some robotic facsimile that majored in insincerity.

In 2007, I had the opportunity to write a feature about Holt, Bruce and then receivers coach Henry Ellard. It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve done in the eight years I’ve had this job. For as much as I loved talking to Bruce and Holt, I loved listening to Ellard talk ABOUT them.

Much like Bruce, Ellard is a quiet kind of guy with a keen eye for the little details and a brain set on astute perspective. Ellard told me a story about when the light came on for Holt, a game against Miami early in Holt’s career where he ran a deep 8-route and caught a touchdown pass.

When Holt went to the sideline, he walked up to Ellard wearing that aforementioned grin on his face. Ellard asked Holt what he was smiling about and Holt told him that the play had felt like it happened in slow motion. In other words, Holt was seeing things like he’d never seen them before and the play had felt, well, easy.

Ellard told Holt that it meant everything had clicked and Holt went on to one of the most productive and exciting careers by a wide receiver in league history. He wore that same smile for the rest of his time in the NFL.

Holt is going to officially call it a career on Wednesday when he signs a one-day contract with the team that drafted him and then announces his retirement at an 11 a.m. news conference.

In five years, Holt’s name will come up for debate amongst the voting members of the Hall of Fame. Holt plays a position that is forming a backlog of talent so it remains to be seen whether he garners the necessary votes to get in.

Holt always said he would walk away from the game when he felt the time was right. He didn’t plan to play forever though I know that it killed him that his knees gave out on him earlier than he would’ve liked. There’s little doubt that if he could have squeezed a couple more highly productive season out of them that he’d be a slam dunk candidate for Canton.

And maybe Holt’s refusal to join in the reindeer games being played by the loudmouth receivers of his day kept him out of the spotlight. He didn’t get the attention of other wideouts because he wasn’t constantly calling attention to himself.

“I was never a flashy guy, I was never a me guy,” Holt said. “I have always felt I put the team before myself. I have always set goals for myself that if I reach those goals they would help our football team win. I have never really been that much of a flashy, hey look at me type of guy. I have always let my body of work and what I do on the football field speak for me.”

For anyone paying attention, those accomplishments spoke volumes. And if you heard them, you were one of the lucky ones who got a chance to witness a special kind of classy greatness.

If you didn’t have the pleasure to see it for yourself, just know that Holt wasn’t trying to keep you waiting. He just wanted to let it all sink in.