RICHMOND — It’s 6 a.m. at the Washington Redskins’ team hotel, and there’s rookie linebacker Cole Holcomb again, sitting in the still-empty breakfast room, iPad open, watching practice film before most of his teammates are out of bed. The team’s coach, Jay Gruden, notices him, just as Gruden has noticed Holcomb every morning sitting in the silent room, huddled over the iPad.
“He wants to be great,” Gruden said later.
The third day of the NFL draft is a flood of names and highlights, flickering across the screen and fading into the jingling music announcing each new pick. North Carolina’s Cole Holcomb, born and raised in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., was just another name when Washington took him in the fifth round. In many ways he was immediately forgotten — as he always has been forgotten — until he showed up and made sure his new team would know he was there.
The Redskins play their first preseason game Thursday night in Cleveland, and one of the most important players to watch will be the 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker whose name was quickly lost on the draft’s last day — the kid who had to beg to walk on at North Carolina, who had to fight to get noticed by the NFL and who has pushed himself into an open fight to start at inside linebacker.
“You just got to take your opportunities and run with them,” Holcomb said, standing on the field after a long recent practice. “Prepare like at any moment you can go in, that’s how I take my approach. If I take the approach that I’m going to start, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Everyone is noticing Holcomb now, calling plays on the defense at practice, pushing into gaps, ready to make tackles. He is the player whose name the coaches keep mentioning and the fans keep calling, the one who seems smaller than all the other linebackers, who keeps pushing, pushing, pushing in the blazing morning sun, even after the whistle blows.
Then he walks off the field to call the man he phones each day, the one who taught him about the fight, the only one who knows as much as he about the single word that has come to define his football life: persistence.
The next rung on the ladder
Cole’s father, Jack, knows it well. He spent his early 20s in the Navy, working as a cook on the USS Opportune, an old rescue and salvage ship during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But because he had been a high school football player and was a sturdy man with meaty hands, the ship’s captain told him he had to help man the 20-millimeter gun protruding from the ship’s deck as well.
They were always doing drills on the ship, practicing in case of an enemy attack, and because Jack was usually in the kitchen, this meant he had to come running out, still in his cooking smock, to grab the gun and start firing bullets, with glowing tracers, into the sky. Then, when they were done, he would let go of the gun, return to the kitchen and start cooking again.
He went to Florida after the war and landed a job selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door. You want work? Try loading four boxes of stand-up vacuum cleaners into the back of a car early each morning and driving into the neighborhoods of Lakeland and Haines City, knocking on front doors begging for the chance to throw salt on the carpet and hope the Kirby sucks it up enough for someone to want to buy a $1,700 vacuum cleaner they didn’t know they needed.
He loved that job, did it for nine months and made $75,000, more than twice what he got as a cook in the Navy. He thought he was rich. But he also knew selling vacuums door-to-door was no way to live, so he called a friend who offered a job selling cars at a local dealership. Compared to begging people to buy vacuums on their doorsteps, selling cars to customers actually looking to buy a car was easy, and eventually he became the general manager and co-owner of two shops in New Smyrna Beach.
But the hours were long, so Jack’s only breaks came when Cole was old enough to play football. Jack coached the team, and after practice they sat alone in Jack’s car, with Jack telling Cole everything he knew about making it in life, about how the proper way to reach the top of a ladder is to look at the next rung.
“People get confused looking up to the top of the ladder,” Jack says. “I’m just trying to figure out the next rung. And I think if you figure out how to grab that next rung and you firmly grab it, you’ll eventually get to the top. That’s how my career was. I had fortunate breaks. I excelled because I always looked at the next position that was above me.”
Cole listened, and when he got to high school and became a star linebacker at New Smyrna Beach High, he tried to put the same desire and determination into every play that his father had into peddling those vacuums or pushing those cars. But the big college offers never came, instead reserved for linebackers bigger than him.
His high school coach worked the phones, believing Cole belonged in the SEC or ACC, and North Carolina finally agreed to take him as a walk-on. Cole arrived looking for a fight. Everything was a battle, another rung on the ladder. He started at the bottom of the depth chart and set out to dazzle the coaches by learning the defense and jumping into practice drills when everyone else hesitated. Within weeks he was a backup. The next summer the coaches gave him a scholarship, and he started the next three years at linebacker and led the team in tackles each season.
He should have expected lots of calls from NFL scouts. Instead, his profiles were filled with nothing but negatives. The one that gnawed at him the most was the suggestion he couldn’t play inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
‘We drafted the right guy’
How about being placed in the non-scouting combine group at the gym where you train for the draft? Cole didn’t get invited to the NFL’s scouting combine in Indianapolis, so he was placed with the fringe players. Every day he watched the elite prospects running through drills and muttered to himself: “I can hang with those guys. I should be there.”
But all this did was make him work harder, to lock his gaze on the next ladder rung and push himself to go faster and be stronger. When his agent, Christina Phillips, told him he had been invited to a regional combine in Kansas City, Mo., that came before his training had peaked, he went anyway. And when Phillips told him he might not want to run the 40-yard dash because he hadn’t built up to run that soon, he brushed off the suggestion.
Then he ran the 40 in 4.45 seconds, which would have been the fifth-fastest time for a linebacker at the combine.
“When you tell him he can’t compete, it makes him more angry and want to compete more,” Phillips says.
“Got to keep grinding,” Cole says. “Just keep chopping wood, man. That’s the way we’ve always been.”
He had always played every play through the end, never stopping because this is all he knew, because it was what Jack had taught on those car rides home from practice. Plus, when you are fighting to be noticed by the NFL, you never know who might be watching.
Gruden, it turns out, was watching. One day this past winter, the coach loaded up video of North Carolina’s defense with the intent of watching another player he had on a list of prospects. But it was the linebacker in the middle, the relentless one, the one constantly pounding through bigger players to make tackles, who fascinated him.
He went to the team’s new inside linebackers coach, Rob Ryan, whose office was next to his.
“You’ve got to watch this guy,” Ryan remembers Gruden saying.
Gruden and Ryan had a tape made of Cole’s highlights and shared it with Washington’s scouts. When it came time for the team to pick in the fifth round, the Redskins called.
Within days at Redskins training camp, Cole was calling plays on the second-team defense — a 3-4 defense, he likes to point out — telling players much older and more experienced what they should be doing. While this is normally the job of a middle linebacker, it is not normally a task handed to a fifth-round pick at his first professional camp.
“We knew what we were drafting,” Ryan says. “We drafted the right guy.”
A few days ago, Holcomb had to perform the traditional skit demanded of rookies each night at training camp. Most players consider this a torture to be survived. Cole chose to impersonate Ryan, planning his performance for two months, ordering a billowing gray wig on Amazon and practicing his coach’s mannerisms until he had them just right. He texted a video of the performance to Phillips, who, when she first glanced at her phone, wondered why he was sending her a picture of Rob Ryan.
After watching it, she laughed.
“That’s Cole,” she says. “He’s going to prepare for something until he does it right.”