A Double Feature in “Holleywood”

By Terrance Turner

Nick Holley (left) and his brother Nate (right) pose with fellow Whitmer High alum Chris Wormley. (Photo via Twitter.)

Today, Twitter user @ArkenBrandSport posted the full video of the XFL’s Instagram Live with Houston Roughnecks wide receiver Nick Holley. The 44-minute clip can be viewed in full below:

Nick Holley’s brother Nate joined him during yesterday’s Instagram Live. The twin brothers discussed their competitive nature, supportive relationship, and the paths that led each of them to pro football success. Nick overcame five season-ending injuries to become a wide receiver for the Houston Roughnecks this year, catching back-to-back touchdowns in Week 4 and 5. Nate is a professional linebacker for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League (CFL). He was named Rookie of the Year in November, after a season with 100 tackles and a sack. But the brothers don’t allow each other to get big-headed.

“After he won Rookie of the Year, I called him and said, ‘You still ain’t s–t.’ Click. Hung up,” Nick recalled on IG Live. He added that Nate had done the same to him after one of Nick’s touchdowns. But underneath the jibes and jousting, the two brothers support each other.

“He’s very deserving of everything he’s gotten,” Nate said when interviewed on Live. “I think he can perform at the highest level, week in and week out, just as I believe that about myself.”

The conversation was reminiscent of their joint interview with the Garage Apartment (posted above). On March 7, I joined H’Dari Jones (from Garage Apartment Media) to interview Nick and Nate Holley on their careers and sibling rivalry. A lightly edited Q&A follows below. 

Was football a part of your early life?

Nick answered first: “Yeah. Competing is always a part of our life, no matter what it is. So we started playing at a young age, one-on-one, and going at each other. He was more of a defensive and I was more of an offensive guy, and obviously I won more games,” Nick laughed. “But we were going at it all the time.” 

“Let’s just put this straight,” Nate deadpans. “That’s the first time I ever let him go first. I always go first, but since this is his show and he’s padded up, I’mma let him go that time. That’s why I let him answer. But yes, always competitive. Started in the backyard. I think we had some Michigan football helmets on — plastic. Plastic helmets, and we had the jersey. We’d throw the ball way up in the air; the other guy would catch it. We had one-on-one football in our own backyard. We kind of had constraints and our own rules, but that’s kind of where it all started.” 

Were you guys athletic in high school and middle school?

Nick: “Well, yeah. We went to high school together, went to college together. Did really well in high school, did pretty well in college — he [Nate] actually finished three years in a row, leading the nation in solo tackles, so he was kind of an animal. And then we ended up going to the Rams together. So we played all the way up through it, together.” 

“Every level,” Nate says. “We’ve been blessed enough to play at every level.” (They were both part of the Rams squad in 2018.)

How did it feel when you had to split off and go in different directions?

“It’s different and it’s weird,” Nick says, “because we’re used to always being on the same team and cheering the other one on. But the love and support never went [away]. I’ve watched every last one of his games when he was out at Calgary in the CFL, and he’s watched every one of mine,” Nick said. “So it’s almost like we’re there in spirit.”

Nate says: “I was just going to say it’s different. Like he said, it’s awesome to be on the same team to where we can come off the sideline, kind of tell each other what we saw and what we were thinking on a certain given play. You know, we’d kind of collaborate after each drive, and [when] each of us kind of needed a little pick-me-up, we always had that there. Now, it’s just learning to be a little different in our warm up routine; we don’t have nobody to play catch with like we do in our warmup routines,” he said. “But we enjoy ourselves. We enjoy this game.” 

“We have fun,” Nick said. 

“Like he said, I haven’t missed a game this year,” Nate said. “Last weekend I was on a Summerville trip, and I watched it in the middle of nowhere at a bar, up on the screen. And I just had the whole bar rooting for him.”

What do you do better than him and vice versa? 

“He don’t have any moves,” Nick smiled. “I got a couple moves. He can tackle.” Nate dissolved into laughter. Speaking of moves, one example was the “Crazy Legs” dance Nick did after the Week 5 touchdown.

“That’s my sister’s move,” Nick admitted, sparking more laughs. “That’s why I did it. But now, I think we are [both] all around pretty good.” 

Nate answers: “If you broke it down, though, I think the only thing he’s got me on, though, is like, financials. Like,  numbers — he’s a good numbers guy. You can have that one,” he told Nick. “But I respect him too much as an athlete, you know, as we’ve grown up… I can’t take that from him you know people ask us, ‘Who’s better? Who’s better at the game?’ For me, I have too much respect for him and how he plays the game to be able to say me. But also, you know, obviously I have enough respect for myself to say him. So that, for me, is the best answer.” 

What was your reaction when you saw his touchdown in Week 4, Nate? 

“Last game, I watched at home by myself with a fire lit. So it was just me. I went crazy. I actually had — it was kind of funny — I had like, a little twin intuition. I’ve got a video of it and everything: I stood up and I said he’s going to score on this play right now. and soon enough, as the ball was snapped and I hit record, he scored. I don’t know what it was — twin intuition, you can call it…”

They say one twin can kind of sense what’s going on with the other… 

“You know, there is some truth to that,” Nate began. Nick added: “We spend so much time together, we know what each other’s thinking. And we kind of have that chemistry to where, if he’s behind me and my eyes are shut, I can throw him a ball, ‘cause I know where he’s at.”

Nick played different positions throughout his career; did Nate do the same?

“Yeah. I mean, I was a basically — safety/linebacker role. Played safety in college, played linebacker the rest of my life. Played linebacker in the CFL, so I’ve had to change positions in that aspect. IN high school, I did play offense and defense, so I’ve changed, kinda there. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve kind of been that hybrid role of safety and linebacker. so for me that’s been the biggest change just having to make that bump, either: ‘OK, now I’m out an open space,’ or ‘OK, now I’m down with the big boys and I got to play a little earlier, right? So for me that was the biggest change or difference.” 

Nick, describe to me what you saw on that touchdown catch. 

“Uh, defenders?” he joked. “Basically, we have a play call that it involves me reading the coverage, reading the defense, and PJ reading the coverage and reading the defense as well. He had a flat concept as well. Two guys from the alley just kind of miscommunicated and broke the coverage and came down. I actually thought that PJ had already thrown the flat. I turned around and looked, and he still had the ball in his hands. He saw me; I went out one-on-one, there was a lot of grass…” 

Did you know what your move was going to be? 

“No, I didn’t. You can’t think about it. You just react and you keep moving. I knew if I got tackled one-on-one I would have never heard the end of it, so I had to make sure that I got in the end zone.”

Watch the full video below:

Inside Nick Holley’s Revealing Interview on Instagram Live

By Terrance Turner

At 1 pm today, the XFL hosted an Instagram Live session with Houston Roughnecks wide receiver Nick Holley. During the roughly 40-minute interview, Holley discussed his journey to the XFL and how he’s keeping in shape amid the coronavirus outbreak. But he also opened up about a life anchored by faith, family, and football.

Nick’s twin brother Nate also joined the livestream, as the two discussed their relationship and love for sports. The two went to Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio. They went to Kent State University together, where Nate played safety. Nick, however, alternated between quarterback, wide receiver, and running back. What’s his favorite position? “Quarterback, by far,” Nick said during the livestream.

While he was initially drafted as a running back, Holley eventually became a slot receiver. Yet the idea of Nick Holley at QB is not outside the realm of possibility: “Coach Jones knows that at any given time, I’m ready to get back there and sling it.” Speaking of QBs, how was it working with former Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker?

“P.J. is an exciting player to be around,” Holley said. “Playing with PJ was absolutely amazing. I don’t know if you know this, but I was a quarterback in college as well [at Kent State] and quarterback in high school [at Whitmer High] and I said to PJ: ‘You remind me of a young Nick’, just messing with him. But you know, he’s got the will to win. He’s always ready to go, and I love the fact that he’s an awesome competitor. Just being around somebody that has that competitive ability, that passion and love…”

It’s passion and love that has kept him playing this game, even through pain. At 25, Nick Holley has suffered five major season-ending injuries. Today, he said: “The broken back was probably the most painful thing I’ve been through.” But that physical hurt paled in comparison to what he went through emotionally.

“When I was 18 years old, I lost my mother,” Holley said. “That was the worst pain I could ever go through.” The emotional pain from that loss outweighed pain from injuries. And it let Holley know that he could survive the long, grueling recovery time: “I’d already been through the worst that I could go through.”

During the livestream, Holley discussed both his injury history and his perseverance. “Five years in a row, the football season has been taken away from me,” he said. This year, the coronavirus was responsible for the abrupt end of the XFL season. But Holley’s last three seasons at Kent State — and his 2018 stint with the Los Angeles Rams — were all derailed by season-ending injuries: a broken back and three (!!!) torn ACLs. According to the Toledo Blade, the third ACL tear occurred during Rams training camp in 2018.

Holley didn’t even know he’d torn the ligament at first. When he learned the news, Nick was devastated: “I remember I got the news, went back to my room, turned the shower on, and just bawled my eyes out in the dark,” he told the Blade. But he didn’t stay down for long. “I went in the shower, bawled my eyes out, but I almost felt…peace,” he said during today’s livestream. “That’s when I found the Lord. That’s when I found faith.”

HIs faith informs his approach to the game. When I asked Holley on March 7 how he gave that memorable performance in Week 5, he thanked the Almighty. “First and foremostly, I give glory to God. It’s the big man upstairs,” he said. But Holley supplements his faith with a positive attitude.

He quoted Conor McGregor’s coach John Kavanaugh (who was himself quoting Mike Tyson): “A happy fighter is a dangerous fighter.” That philosophy drives how Holley acts on the field: “I play better when I’m having fun and when I’m enjoying myself.” The good vibes extend to his treatment of fellow players. “If you ask anybody on the defense, I’m the nicest guy on the field,” he says. Friendliness can be a strategic advantage, Holley told the viewers, adding that sometimes, just smiling at another man can throw him off his game. And it’s easy to smile when you love the game as much as he does. “I can’t wait for another opportunity to get back on that field.”

Part of the livestream included a fan Q&A. One XFL fan asked: “What is it like to never lose an XFL game in your professional career?” “That ain’t saying much, first of all,” Holley laughs. “So we had a long ways to go.” Asked about how it felt to be undefeated, he said: “It was frustrating and encouraging all at the same time.” The frustration stemmed from feeling like the team “hadn’t played a complete game,” he said. “We haven’t scratched our surface. We haven’t played up to our potential.”

Clearly, the XFL recognized Nick Holley’s potential. He was working for a landscaping company when the league called him about a potential spot. He was chopping wood for the winter! “I had overalls on,” Holley remembered during today’s chat. Soon he was wearing the team’s #33 jersey, which he chose in honor of his father. Paul Holley wore the number during his high school playing days, Nick said.

Now, Nick was the one with a chance to shine. After making that incredible catch in Week 1, Holley gave an interview that quickly went viral.

The team made Holley a Twitter account after his interview went viral. He had never had an account before and is still figuring it out: “I still don’t know how to use it, to be honest.” He even had to ask his strength coach: “How do I make a tweet?” Thankfully, the team helped him out. “Yeah they made me a Twitter, and they were like, ‘You’re trending on Twitter.’ I’m like, ‘What does that mean?’” (It means you’ve become popular through Internet sharing. In Holley’s case, that meant a clip that’s been like 6,000 times and shared by over 700 people.)

Now, on the other side of a stellar five-game season, Holley credits hard work for the team’s success. “There is not an XFL team that worked harder than the Roughnecks. There is not a dang team that worked harder than us,” he declared.

Should the Houston Roughnecks be crowned XFL champions? “We have to be. It has to be, because you can’t have a first season and not have a championship. It’s almost like the whole season was undone. I need the board to get together,” he said. “We need that championship.”

What does the future hold? I hope good things. I’m waiting to see what opportunities come about. I thank the XFL for every opportunity I’ve gotten. I love the game, love the atmosphere. But at this time, I’m just kind of waiting,” he said.

Roughnecks Remain Unbeaten After Wild Finish

By Terrance Turner

March 9, 2020 (updated Nov. 15)

Despite three turnovers and a wildly controversial fourth quarter, the Houston Roughnecks survived Game 5 on Saturday afternoon to remain undefeated. The Roughnecks beat the Seattle Dragons 32-23 at TDECU Stadium yesterday. They remain the only unbeaten team in the XFL.

After a near-scoreless first quarter, the Seattle Dragons’ offense took off. After a fumble by the Roughnecks, Dragons quarterback B.J. Daniels led a 7-play, 18-yard, three-minute scoring drive. On 4th and goal at the one-yard line, Daniels ran in and scored the touchdown. The two-point conversion, however, was unsuccessful: a gaggle of Houston defenders prevented the Dragons from scoring.

Following an 18-yard kickoff return by cornerback Charles James II, the Roughnecks began their drive. The first quarter ended just as Houston running back Andre Williams achieved 1st down with a nine-yard carry. After the second quarter began, the drive stalled. A field goal by kicker Sergio Castillo was no good. After a near-fumble on first and 10, the Dragons recovered. Dragons running back Trey Williams scored the touchdown with a 17-yard scamper. This time, the two-point conversion was good: Daniels threw a successful pass to wide receiver Austin Proehl.

That made the score 14-0 — the largest deficit the Houston Roughnecks have ever faced. But they quickly cut the lead down. On 3rd and 1, Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker connected with wide receiver Nick Holley for a stunning 50-yard touchdown.

The Roughnecks decided to go for a three-point conversion but couldn’t make the play, so the score remained 14-6. After the Dragons went three and out, receiver Sam Mobley had a 16-yard return, which was negated by a holding penalty. But Mobley rebounded with a 42-yard catch.

Following the two-minute warning, a 14-yard play by wide receiver Blake Jackson took the Roughnecks to the one-yard line. A false start penalty moved them five yards back. Running back James Butler scored a one-yard TD run, jumping into the stands to celebrate. But the celebration was short-lived: the on-field ruling of a touchdown was reversed when referees said Butler was short of the goal line. Worse yet, Seattle Dragons player Godwin Igwebuike was injured on the play. He laid on the ground for several minutes but eventually was able to walk off the field.

On the very next play, Butler scored again:

This time, the touchdown was upheld. Walker connected with Holley for the successful two-point conversion. The Houston Roughnecks’ eight-play, 90-yard drive evened the score. The game was tied 14-14 at halftime.

The Dragons got the ball back to start the second half. On 3rd and 5, B.J. Daniels fell to the ground for a four-yard loss. Roughnecks linebacker Edmond Robinson was credited with the sack. Seattle settled for a field goal, which kicker Ernesto Lacayo nailed to make it 17-14.

They would add to that lead after a costly mistake by the Roughnecks. On 1st down, Walker was intercepted by Dragons cornerback Marko Myers, who returned the pick 52 yards. It was Walker who tripped Myers up to keep him from scoring. But Myers landed inside the one-yard line, which set up B.J. Daniels’ touchdown run. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but Seattle still held a commanding 23-14 lead.

Walker rallied the Roughnecks with a four-play, 64-yard drive, highlighted by a dramatic 48-yard pass to Cam Phillips. That set up 1st and goal at the 10-yard line. Butler ran through Seattle defenders for his second touchdown of the day. The Roughnecks went for a three-point conversion in hopes of tying the game, but Walker’s pass was too high for Holley. Still, the Roughnecks had narrowed Seattle’s lead. They trailed 23-20.

The Dragons took over. Just when it seemed like they were headed for a three-and-out, a defensive pass interference call (on Houston) gave them an automatic first down. But they still failed to convert, as #97 Gabe Wright stuffed Daniels for a seven-yard loss. Seattle was forced to punt on 4th and 16. Then, a promising Roughnecks drive ended with another turnover. As Walker launched a pass to receiver Sam Mobley, Dragons safety Jordan Martin jumped up and grabbed the ball. He appeared to land out of bounds, but referees reversed their initial ruling to say that Martin had intercepted the ball.

Seattle was unable to convert the pick into any points. The end of that fruitless drive also marked the end of the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Walker helmed another scoring drive that culminated in a 6-yard TD by Cam Phillips. The two-point conversion attempt was no good. But with nine minutes left, the Roughnecks had taken their first lead of the day, 26-23. The Dragons were unable to score any points on their next drive and punted on 4th down. With 3:33 remaining, Walker fired the ball to Cam Phillips for an 11-yard TD. Roughnecks went for 1 extra point, but running back Andre Williams was stopped in the backfield. However, the Roughnecks had scored 18 unanswered points and taken a 32-23 lead.

The game would end with two major controversies. On the Dragons’ drive, Daniels was running when he tumbled to the ground and disappeared inside a mass of red and white jerseys. A pileup ensued, with players stacked on top of each other for several minutes. During that time, referees threw two flags in the air. But the reason for the penalties remained unclear.

After what seemed like an eternity, referee Tra Blake provided an answer: “The ruling on the field is a fumble recovered by the defense. It’s Houston’s ball,” he said. “After the play, personal foul: #47 on the return team for Houston — for throwing a punch. He’s disqualified.”

What had happened? Linebacker DeMarquis Gates had stripped the ball from Daniels and then recovered the fumble. But then he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected from the game for throwing a punch. Remarkably, Gates was signing autographs for fans mere moments after being disqualified. He was also interviewed. “What did you get ejected for?” the reporter asked. “To be honest, I don’t know,” Gates responded. “I just had to make a play.”

Once all of the dust settled, it was 1st and 10 for the Roughnecks with 1:58 left. A 12-yard pickup by Andre Williams was enough for a Roughnecks first down. On fourth down, P.J. Walker took a knee with two seconds remaining, and the clock ran out. After the game, the XFL issued a statement saying that the ball should’ve gone to the Dragons:

“Today’s Seattle Dragons-Houston Roughnecks game should not have ended as it did. Replays showed clearly that the knee of Houston quarterback P.J. Walker touched the field, rendering him ‘down’ and the fourth-down play officially completed, with approximately two seconds remaining on the clock – effectively turning the ball over to Seattle on downs. With a nine-point differential in the score, Seattle was denied an opportunity to tie the game. The XFL sincerely regrets this error.”

Walker, however, appears to have no regrets. Asked about the game’s three turnovers (including two picks), Walker took responsibility, but didn’t beat himself up: “In the beginning, with the three turnovers, it was just… it happens. It’s part of the game, you know? So things happen. You just got to bounce back from ‘em. Great players bounce back. Winners gonna always bounce back as well. And it is what it is,” Walker said in a postgame press conference.

During the press conference, Walker was joined by wide receivers Sam Mobley and Cam Phillips. They all emphasized a team-first mentality. “We stay consistent every day. We work really hard, I would say — for the most part — as a team. So we know what we’ve got in our locker room. We just go out there and do what we do,” Walker said during the conference.

 Phillips also focused on the team. In response to a question about the game’s second half: “I just think we did a great job of sort of calming down, understanding that we just had to do our jobs better, just pay a little more attention to detail,” said Phillips. He added that “it resulted in, you know, a 32-9 run to finish the game after that point. So not just the offense, the defense picked it up as well, and props — shout out to the whole team.”

“It’s a team thing,” added Sam Mobley. “I think we all have faith in each other as a team, and we have each other’s backs, whether we’re up or down. And just us having each other’s back helped us get to the finish and come back.” 

The press conference video is presented below:

Quarterback P.J. Walker (left) and wide receivers Cam Phillips (middle) and Sam Mobley (right) answered questions after winning their game on March 7.

During the press conference, Phillips was asked about defensive coverage. His answer gave props to his teammates: “Sam had a great game. Nick Holley, you know, had another great game — made a few big catches. Like I said, we just trust in each other, man. We talk all the time, laugh all the time, so we understand that that camaraderie and sort of brotherhood is key — especially on offense.”

Brotherhood was also on the mind on running back James Butler, whom I interviewed in the locker room. “We really came alive in that second half,” Butler said. “We know how good we can be. We’re still putting pieces together, still trying to play a complete game. But yeah, it’s a brotherhood in this locker room.”

Speaking of brotherhood, wide receiver Nick Holley was outside signing autographs for fans during the press conference. (His twin brother Nate Holley, who played in the CFL before joining the Miami Dolphins this offseason, was also in attendance.) I was fortunate enough to interview Nick Holley after the game.

What was the key to his terrific performance? “First and foremostly, I give glory to God — it’s the big man upstairs. And after that, it’s just preparation,” he said. Like Butler, Holley also felt that despite the 5-0 start, the team could still improve — “we haven’t scratched our surface yet. We still haven’t put a complete game together and played up to our potential.” Butler had also mentioned the idea of a “complete game”. What does that mean for Holley? “No mistakes on offense, no mistakes on defense, and superior special teams.” The interview is embedded below.

The family theme continued when a surprise guest. Running back Andre Williams had a breakout game, with 10 carries for 54 yards. I asked him what was the key to his performance; before answering, he reached over and grabbed a small infant. It was his one-year-old son, Ka’el, whom Williams held his son as he talked. It was an all-too-rare glimpse of who these players are off the field. For all the (valid) talk about brotherhood, many professional football players have also experienced fatherhood.

“Football is family,” says a 2016 advertising campaign for the NFL. But on the field, these men — fathers, sons, and brothers — are hidden behind shoulder pads and bulky helmets. We sometimes see them with their families on the field after the game. But when was the last time you saw a man (especially a black man) caring for his child during a locker-room interview? The moment with Williams and his baby son lent an added dimension to my coverage.

Williams answered: “I just try to stay level-headed — don’t get too high, don’t get too low, stay in the game. You know, it was a great team win. On both sides of the ball. All three phases, we played well enough to win.” Our interview was crashed by receiver Jalen Saunders, who spent the XFL season on injured reserve. (He was signed by the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks in April, but opted out after the pandemic began.)

I also asked Williams why the Roughnecks don’t have a tight end.