Julius (Big Red) Holt stepped from the plane last week as jauntily as you can when you are 6-foot-3 and weigh 265 pounds. Beneath his arm, steely from pumping iron every day, he carried a book by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol that he'd been reading en route from Arizona to Washington.
Red headed for his stepfather's home at 14th and R streets NW, where he'd grown up. He planned to stay in town a month. Culture shock cut short his visit.
For the past three years, Red has pursued his dream of becoming one of America's gladiators, a professional football player. Now he's a senior at the University of Arizona and a likely draft choice for the pros.
Red was unprepared to make a cultural adjustment back to 14th Street, if only for a week. "I felt sad seeing his family there . I felt out of place there. I've been away and I've adjusted myself to a better life style, having better things. My father doesn't want to leave . . . . Maybe he's waited too late."
I first met Big Red in June 1979, when he graduated from Cardozo High School. As a teen-ager, one of seven children growing up in the heart of the inner city, he'd been exposed to the anguish and the warmth of his environment. He robbed people, broke into cars and generally raised hell, even as he tenderly helped care for his younger brothers. Once the police picked him up. But Cardozo coaches saw his gifts as an athlete and Red finally listened to them. From his teachers, his brother Bernard and his stepfather who admittedly didn't have much to give materially, Red began to acquire the self-confidence that he could use both his brain and his body.
I'd seen him next six months later, in the frigid landscape of Iowa Falls, Iowa, on a football scholarship at Ellsworth Community College. He became team captain and a junior college all-American.
In January 1981, after being courted by a bevy of schools, he became an Arizona Wildcat, a 244-pound first-string defensive tackle who made eight stops when the Wildcats beat Southern Cal and knocked the Trojans out of their No. 1 ranking.
"It was like a dream come true," Red, now 20, recalled the other day, his eyes sparkling at the memory. "It was like the Fourth of July when you got fireworks because the odds were 100 to 1 against our beating them. I felt great."
Then the freckled smile turned to granite. Red was troubled. His family and friends in D.C. were upset about his decision to leave town early. The boys said he wasn't acting like his old self. "We went partying," said his old friend, James Locke, "and he sat down and didn't dance, didn't do anything." Some of his friends said Red had got on that pedestal, said Locke, "said Red was acting white."
It was a strange turnabout. During his first weeks in the heartland of Iowa, he felt out of place. Now he feels out of place in the inner-city world. "I don't want nobody to think I'm better than them. I'm not apologizing for leaving. I'm just doing what any person would do who feels comfortable someplace else." Red senses he has nothing to give to the old environment any more, and nothing to receive there but terror.
Watching the cops roughly arresting some dudes at 14th and V, he felt vulnerable and apprehensive.
"I'm not used to seeing streets dirty and crowded. You don't see that in Arizona. I ain't used to that fast lane no more . . . . Being out there in the streets, too much stuff happens, all the drugs . . . . I hate to see people who were better off than I was in high school out there now just hustling to try to get over. That's what's making me want to leave.
"Once you've worked so hard to try to better yourself, I don't think I need to get that back in my system. Street life is fine and I know a little about it, but now I'm growing up and I've got a nice girlfriend and I'm getting ready for more responsibility."
Sports writers say Red is closer than ever to beating the extremely high odds of turning his dream into a reality and making it to the pros. He doesn't want to blow it. "I'm not leaving where I came from," he says, "family and friends . . . if I make something of myself, I'll be back to lend a helping hand."