THE SKY is the ocean out here, so the palm trees seem to wave in the water. To Julius (Big Reds) Holt, the place at first glance "seemed like Hawaii -- all the trees and stuff." It had been a long road from one of Washington's toughest streets for the former juvenile delinquent turned top athlete. He came to this land described as the "best of the best" in hot chase of his dream of becoming one of the creme de la creme -- a pro football player.
I'd first seen Big Reds in June 1979, when he strolled like a soldier across the stage to get his diploma from Cardozo High School. He had been a former robber and hell-raiser, seemingly bound only for jail. But he turned himself around with a lot of help from coaches, teachers and family.
I'd seen Reds next December in 1979, in the frigid, snow-banked landscape of Iowa Falls, Iowa (population 7,000), where he'd gone to study and play football on scholarship at Ellsworth Community College in hopes of being ready to enter a major college within 18 months. It had been a tough transition for Reds, from his home on 14th Street -- where admittedly there were junkies and winos but also family, music and friends -- to the all-white rural Midwest. But Reds knew that only the streets awaited him, so he dug in and became team captain and a junior college all-America.
Last January, after being courted by a bevy of schools, he enrolled at the University of Arizona, a PAC-10 school with a strong academic program. He hopes to win a place as an outside linebacker in the starting lineup when the Wildcats square off against UCLA on national television in September.
"When I was small I used to see football on TV and I used to think someday that might be me," says Reds. "Now I'm getting that chance. If you've been dreaming of something all your life you go with your dreams. I'm going with my dreams."
Part of Reds' dream is becoming a pro.It's a recurring dream that too often becomes a nightmare for many inner-city boys who think the pros are their ticket to riches. It is a one-in-a-million dream, and Reds has buttressed the dream by placing high priority on getting his college degree. But he's already beat the odds several times over by making it to college at all from 14th Street. Of 1.1 million high school players, only 3.9 percent make it to college football. And of those high school players, only one tenth of 1 percent make it to the pros. Of 43,000 college players in 1977, only 2.7 percent made it to the pros.
"When they say stuff like that," says Reds, pondering those odds, "I say I may be one of those guys that make it. It's tough. It makes you want to work harder. I don't crowd out the fact that it could be me -- that one in a million that gets the chance to make it. I work on things that make me get better."
In the months since I'd seen him last, Reds' physique had changed as a result of his ambitious weightlifting program in preparation for spring football practice. His arms have increased in size, his chest is losing its baby fat, he's working to lose 10 of his 243 pounds, while increasing his strength and quickness.
For the overriding impression is that at the University of Arizona, football is taken as seriously as a heart attack. The pressure is on to win and to win in style. The school demands a dedication, punctuality and precision that Reds had not heretofore seen.
"Lifting weights is mandatory -- like a job," Reds told me. "The difference between here [and junior college] is this is a business. A lot of people have invested and they want a winning program. They aren't bringing in just anybody. Already the pressure is here. The No. 1 goal is to win PAC-10."
But if Reds is honing his body like a tool, he seems determined not to forget his Cardozo coach's warning that if he forgets his brain, he'll fall into the cult of athletics that traps many poor kids -- when athletics don't prove to be the ticket to fame they'd hoped for, they are left with only bitterness and despair.
Reds is taking courses in public administration, social problems, political science, astronomy and Russian literature. "School is harder, a lot harder," he says. He flunked a test in public administration the other week because he didn't read the book, only took notes. "I went right out and bought me a cassette to get better notes. I'm taping the lectures to keep up. I look around [the classroom and] these people have two whole pages and I'm still on the first." The cassette was his idea and it should help. He's being tutored, but his relatively slow reading comprehension, a legacy from poor early education, is still a hindrance. "Now I found I just read everything more than once."
Advancing another step on the path to his dream brings both happiness and sorrow. Distance is growing between him and his beloved high school sweetheart.
"She's totally upset. She's mad. She wants me to come home and be close to what's happening back there. I miss her and she misses me. I try to separate her from football," he said. "I tell her if I've got you on my mind completely, I'm not going to get done what I've got to do. I tell her to be patient."
And he's worried about his younger brother, who's still growing up on 14th Street.
When I talked to the coaches about Big Reds, they told me they expect big things of him. "It's all up to him," said coach Michael Barry. "He has got the ability to do it."
Reds expects big things of himself. "This season coming up and my senior year will determine whether I'm pro material. These are my last two years. It's do or die."