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Becoming a Cowboy a big leap from Conant for Holmes
By Marty Maciaszek | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 1/5/2012 11:49 PM

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Andre Holmes did not grow up aspiring to be a Cowboy.

Or a Bear, Viking or Patriot.

"Ever since I was a kid I always wanted to play in the NBA," said Holmes, who graduated from Conant High School in 2006. "I thought that was my calling. I thought I was going to be in the NBA."

Which was somewhat understandable considering his pedigree. Holmes' dad Kevin was a starter for the legendary Ray Meyer during DePaul's glory days in the mid-1980s, was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers and had a 12-year professional career in Europe, Asia and South America.

Football was another story for Andre Holmes since he didn't play until he arrived at Conant. When he did he didn't distinguish himself as a big catch for anyone even though he stood 6-feet-5 as a senior.

Then Holmes went to Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan and put up monster receiving numbers. NFL teams showed interest that only grew after Holmes had an impressive performance at the annual April combine.

Holmes wasn't drafted but ended up spending the entire season as a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. They thought enough of him to protect his rights by signing him to their 53-man active roster for the final four games.

Even though Holmes couldn't play because of an injured hamstring he's put himself in position to complete an incredible underdog success stories. But those who have been around him on the football field really aren't amazed.

"I'm not really shocked by what he's done," said Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein.

"We knew he was going to fill out and become stronger," said Conant head football coach Bill Modelski. "I am not surprised by this one bit.

"He's just the nicest kid in the world. You can't help but feel happy for the whole family."

A quiet beginning

When Andre Holmes was growing up he played basketball, soccer and baseball. His dad Kevin didn't want him to play football until he got to high school.

Early on at Conant he was more into basketball and track. He played football on the "B" team as a freshman, started one game as a sophomore and spent most of his junior year with the junior varsity.

Holmes did see some varsity action in the last couple of games and caught a pass in the playoffs. There were times where he wondered if it was time well spent.

Modelski and his coaches persuaded him to stick with football.

"I wouldn't say I was going to give up football," Holmes said. "It definitely came up in my head, but I wouldn't really say I was contemplating it or really thinking about it.

"It was more frustration. But I stuck with it and it's a good thing I did."

Not that the results as a senior at Conant made him the buzz of recruiting message boards. He caught a grand total of 12 passes for 293 yards and 1 touchdown.

Modelski said a number of factors went into numbers that weren't eye-catching. It was his first year as a head coach and running the offense.

Defenses focused on taking away Holmes. Conant didn't have the necessary components for a prolific passing game even though Modelski said Holmes had great hands and a tremendous ability to adjust to the ball in the air.

"We honestly thought he was as good as anybody in our league but we didn't have the ability to get him the ball," Modelski said. "We were not built for that. At times we tried to get him the ball but no one would let us."

But football had become Holmes' top sport and one where he saw a future. It wasn't going to be at some big-name powerhouse.

"He had no junior film to stand on so it was all based on his senior year, and what did he have," Modelski said. "I was calling and emailing and I couldn't get the time of day from anyone on this kid."

Holmes really was set on going to Drake. Then Hillsdale College, a school of 1,350 students about 100 miles southwest of Detroit, showed interest.

Some geographic confusion tempered Holmes' initial reaction.

"I thought they said Hinsdale," Holmes said with a laugh. "I didn't want to go to school close to home.

"When they said it was in Michigan, a light bulb popped in my head and I thought this might be a nice school to go to."

Hillsdale's interest also grew when Holmes' father took part in the visit.

"Kevin comes in the room and they said, 'Oh, my God,'" Modelski said with a laugh of the 6-8 Holmes, who is in his first year as an assistant men's basketball coach at North Park University.

Little did Hillsdale know how blessed it would be with Andre Holmes and vice versa.

"It was probably the best decision of my life," he said.

Catching on quickly

Holmes still had some strength and to gain when he arrived at Hillsdale at 176 pounds. He also didn't have speed to burn after being timed in the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds as a Conant senior and 4.76 seconds as a college freshman.

But he did have very important attributes besides standing 6-5.

"He didn't particularly blow our doors off with his 40 time when he came in," Otterbein said. "From the time we recruited him, he worked hard and got after it in the weight room, got stronger and really worked on his route running.

"He kind of blossomed. There wasn't a 'eureka' moment but it was more of a gradual process throughout his playing career."

He redshirted as a freshman but slowly worked his way into a more prominent role. As a junior he caught 77 passes for 1,076 yards.

His senior year of college was just a bit more productive than high school. Holmes caught 104 passes for 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns and set Hillsdale career records with 219 catches and 3,092 receiving yards.

He also had the measurables scouts look for with his weight up to 205 pounds and his 40 time down to 4.35. Suddenly, a goal-setting session after his redshirt freshman year with then-Hillsdale offensive coordinator Barry Fagan didn't look so unrealistic.

"One of the things that came up was, 'Do you want to play after college," Holmes said. "I left (the questionnaire) blank. I didn't know what I should put there.

"He told me if I keep working hard it could definitely be a possibility. Over the years it became more of a possibility and I knew it was what I wanted to do."

It didn't hurt that NFL scouts had been around to see offensive lineman Jared Veldheer, a third-round draft pick in 2010 and two-year starter with the Oakland Raiders. It helped when Holmes meaured up with some of the big names at the NFL combine.

"He certainly fit with that group," said Otterbein, who also attended the combine. "His size, speed and athletic ability matched up."

Now it was a matter of finding the right team which fit.

Part of America's Team

Holmes did not get drafted so he had to wait for the NFL's labor problems to be settled. When they were he signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings.

They cut him midway through the preseason but he landed with Dallas and earned a spot on the practice squad.

"This organization is great," Holmes said. "It's one of the best in the league. It's America's Team and you get a lot of publicity and a lot of things other teams don't get."

More important was the opportunity to work on the finer points of becoming an NFL wide receiver. Holmes, who has now bulked up to 217 pounds, simulated big receivers such as the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald and the Lions' Calvin Johnson in practice.

"I feel a lot better after seeing how everyone does things," Holmes said. "Watching veterans like Miles Austin and seeing what they do to make themselves better.

"On the practice squad you have to work hard and you have to continually get better and you get a chance to do it every week. It's a lot of fun being in the locker room and everything is a dream come true."

When there were rumblings other teams might be looking to snag Holmes off the practice squad, the Cowboys protected their investment by adding him to their active roster.

"Being able to play well against your own competition every day, it's a confidence-builder," said Holmes, who was also working on all special teams. "Now I'm excited to get the opportunity to shine in games."

Unfortunately for Holmes, there was no immediate Hollywood chapter of catching a game-winning touchdown from Tony Romo, another undrafted free agent.

The week Holmes moved up to the active roster, he strained a hamstring which had given him trouble earlier in the season. That prevented him from making his NFL debut.

Consider it another challenge for a guy who has already overcome a lot of them to end up in an NFL uniform.

"You get a little chip on your shoulder and you want to prove to other people you can play," Holmes said. "You always have to have a chip on your shoulder to continue to compete and get better.

"There are a lot of stories in the NFL of players coming out of nowhere and succeeding. I'm glad I can hopefully do the same and be in there for a long while."

mmaciaszek@dailyherald.com