Brian Holley's final practice at Memorial Stadium ended on a note fit for Jahvid Best. Cal's running backs extended a long tradition by carrying Holley off the field Friday, a ritual reserved for seniors and accompanied by much chuckling and good-natured grief. Holley, mindful of his improbable path to this triumphant scene, wore a wide smile as his teammates hoisted him into the air. By no means does he count as a star, not with only three carries and six catches this season. Most of the periodic media attention he commanded involved talking about Best or Shane Vereen, the swift tailbacks for whom he blocks.
But as the Bears prepare to end their season Wednesday night against Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl - and Holley and 15 other seniors prepare to end their Cal careers - it's worth remembering that not every college football player wades in scholarship offers, savors splashy headlines or eyes a tantalizing future in the NFL. There also are players such as Holley, a squat, thick-necked fullback whose story smacks of patience and persistence. He received exactly zero scholarship offers coming out of Diamond Ranch High in Pomona. UC Davis showed the most interest, inviting him to play as a walk-on.
Holley, in filling out the universal UC application online, noticed the box for Berkeley. He clicked it. Before long, he received his acceptance letter, convinced his high-school coaches to call their counterparts at Cal and found himself nervously auditioning for a spot in the 2005 freshman class alongside future stars DeSean Jackson and Zack Follett. "I didn't know if I was on that level or not, because everybody else doubted me," Holley said. "So when I first came here, it was definitely a learning experience. It was humbling." Holley made the team, but he seldom made it onto the field. He redshirted in 2005, spent '06 on the scout team in practice and the next two seasons as a special-teams stalwart, stuck on the depth chart behind accomplished fullbacks Chris Manderino, Byron Storer and Will Ta'ufo'ou. (Holley earned a scholarship after the '07 season.)
Even this year, with the starting job open, running backs coach Ron Gould was skeptical. He told Holley he needed to lower his body fat and improve his athleticism - so Holley spent the summer outside Atlanta, diligently working out with former Cal player Zach Smith and his father, Chip, who owns a sports performance training company.