Football Writers Association of America 2002 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Jason King, Kansas City Star

LAWRENCE If Ervin Holloman ever got off his couch, it was usually to close the curtains so that no one would see him crying.

The television and radio were always off. His wife, Erika, had left for work. Except for his own sniffles, Holloman didn't hear a sound.

Time and time again last spring often when he was supposed to be in psychology class or at a football weight session this is where the University of Kansas defensive tackle found himself. Holed up in his dark apartment.

Jason King
Kansas City Star
Age: 27
College: Baylor
Background: Began full-time job at The Kansas City Star in February 1998 covering high schools. Was promoted to the University of Kansas beat in May 2000. Won an APSE award for enterprise writing in 2002. His hometown is Dallas.

All alone with Nia.

Looking at her picture taken days before her death, Holloman realized the childhood he spent shopping at secondhand stores was tame. Sharing two bedrooms with his 11 brothers and sisters became trivial as he focused on Nia's grossly swollen tummy. Mowing lawns to buy beans and cornbread for his lupus-stricken mother that was simple, Holloman said, compared to seeing tubes protruding from the body of his precious, newborn daughter.

"I always thought I had it tough when I was young," said Holloman, a senior. "With the way I grew up ... I was always proud of myself for getting through it. I didn't think anything could stop me after that."

Holloman, a 292-pounder with a rugby player's handshake and a Barry White voice, pauses as he shakes his head and stares at the floor.

"But after what happened with Nia ... football, school, everything. I couldn't do it anymore. I felt like I'd been beat."

Forty-eight days after her birth, Nia Holloman died in a Kansas City hospital from complications caused by Down syndrome.

Ervin tried to mourn and move on. But he couldn't. He began skipping classes to take asylum under his bed covers. He got suspended from the football team and said he didn't care.

Sitting in his apartment, Ervin could hear the concern in the voices of his coaches as they left messages on his answering machine. But he rarely picked up the phone. He just sat there, thumbing through the pictures of Nia he'd taken at the hospital.

Holloman had already lost a daughter. Now he was losing himself.

"I thought I was going crazy," Holloman said. "I liter ally thought I was going crazy.

In the months leading up to Nia's birth on Nov. 20, 2000, one image kept darting through Holloman's mind. "I kept thinking, 'Oh man, I'm going to have to learn to change diapers.'"

But as he stood in the delivery room at Lawrence Memorial Hospital that day, wearing a sterile cap and scrubs as he knelt by his girlfriend, Erika, Holloman's fear and uncertainty about having a child was erased with one joyous sound.

"That baby came out and started squealing," Holloman said. "I was so happy. I mean, that baby was part of me. I thought, 'I did that.' I'll never be able to describe how good that felt. Right there, I broke down and cried."

Doctors carried the baby over to Holloman and placed her in his arms.

It would be one of the few times he'd ever hold his daughter.

Within hours, Nia had been diagnosed with Down syndrome and was rushed to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Her liver and spleen were enlarged, which caused swelling in her stomach. There was a hole in Nia's heart, and leukemia cells circulated in her blood.

A high bilirubin count had jaundiced Nia's skin, forcing doctors to place bright lights around her incubator.

Ervin and Erika who were married shortly after Nia's birth spent the next six weeks at the hospital. During the day they watched as doctors fed Nia intravenously. At night they lay in their beds at the nearby Ronald McDonald House and prayed. Thanksgiving came and went. So did Christmas.

"One day they told us she was getting better," Ervin said. "And the next day they said she was worse. But we thought she was going to make it. We really had hope." The Hollomans had just finished dinner on Jan. 6 when they were summoned back to Children's Mercy.

Nia had taken a turn for the worse.

"Her heart rate was at 30," Erika said. "We stood by her bed and watched it beat on the monitor. It was going so slow. She was barely breathing."

Doctors asked Ervin and Erika if they wanted them to try and resuscitate their child.

"No," the couple told them. "Let her go."

The tubes were unhooked from Nia's body before doctors left her alone in a room with Ervin, Erika and their families.

"We just stood over her and watched," Ervin said. "There really wasn't anything else to do. We just watched."

About an hour later, Nia passed away.

"I only got to hold her three times," Ervin said. "It was like someone took my heart and just ... "

Ervin and Erika returned to Lawrence and eventually found the strength to walk into the bedroom they'd decorated for Nia. Down came the off-white curtains, the ones adorned with pictures of teddy bears. The stuffed animals she never got to hold were stored and her crib was disassembled.

Classes at KU resumed a week after Nia's death, but nothing could make Ervin stop thinking about his daughter. Coaches had to knock on his door each morning to make sure he was up for class. He'd try to pay attention when he went. But he ended up staring out the window.

The work he turned in was sloppy. And his first round of tests? All F's.

"I remember Ervin sitting there each day stonefaced," said Ellen Kroeker, Holloman's English professor. "He was numb."

One day Erika came home on a lunch break and found her husband sitting in the den.

She asked him why he wasn't in class.

"He said he couldn't handle it anymore," said Erika, wiping away a tear. "He told me he wanted to quit quit football, quit school, quit everything. He wanted to leave. I didn't try to talk him out of it.

"I wanted to leave, too."

Ervin went to Jayhawks coach Terry Allen and told him of his plans.

Allen managed to convince Ervin to keep trying. But Ervin's grades plummeted to the point where Allen was forced to suspend him from spring practice.

"It didn't bother me," Holloman said. "I didn't want to be there anyway."

Allen hoped Holloman would be able to rebound, but deep down, he had succumbed to the fact that his starting defensive tackle had played his last game in a KU uniform.

"Ervin was on thin ice," Allen said. "We were just praying he didn't fall through it.

Holloman's struggles in the classroom and his absence from the football squad evoked criticism from his teammates.

Some of them called Holloman lazy. Others, questioning his commitment to the team, said it was probably better that he was gone.

But most of them didn't know that Holloman had lost a child much less that his wife had ever been pregnant.

"There aren't many people that really know Ervin," said KU receiver Roger Ross, who played and lived with Holloman at Garden City Community College from 1998-99. "He doesn't talk much and, when he does, he doesn't open up. He was hurting inside, but only a few people on the team really knew it."

"Ervin didn't want a pity party," said Travis Jones, Holloman's defensive line coach.

This wasn't the first time Holloman had dealt with adversity. His mother, Bernice Bush, worked hard in her job as a cleaning lady in Wichita. But when you have 12 children, there's only so much cash to go around.

Before Ervin ever learned his states and capitals, he was mowing lawns to make enough money for his family's dinner. Ervin's outfits were bought with welfare checks at used clothing stores. Some nights he shared his twin bed with two siblings.

"My mom told us over and over that we might not have the things we wanted," Ervin said. "But we'd always have the things we needed."

In 1990, when Ervin was a fifth-grader, his mother was diagnosed with lupus and had to quit work. Walking became difficult for Bernice so Ervin became the family cook. He made sure to accompany her to church each Sunday. And when Bernice felt like it, the two would go fishing.

It would've been nice, Ervin said, if his father would've helped with the chores and finances. But he never knew his dad.

"To be honest," Ervin said, "I'm not even sure what he looks like."

At 22, Ervin thought his past had been tucked away neatly for years, but suddenly it was haunting him again. That wasn't all bad, though, because it made him start thinking about his future, too.

Were he and his wife destined for the same struggles he'd already endured in Wichita? What kind of job could he get if he dropped out of school? Where would he go without football?

"I had no plan in life," Holloman said. "I'm not going to lie. Going to college is fine and all. But football is really all I know. It's the only thing I ever did and I love it. "I'd see the team going out to practice each day while I was going to get tutored. I realized I belonged with them. I thought, 'What am I doing? I've got to get back.'"

Slowly, Holloman began to rediscover the main thing his grief had stolen hope. He started attending extra tutoring sessions and study groups. Never did he miss a class in April or May. Holloman finished his English papers days before they were due so he could take a draft to Kroeker for suggestions. Erika helped by typing his final copy.

"One of the things that helped him succeed was that he was willing to let me know the context of his life," Kroeker said. "I told him, 'Ervin, if you're willing to work then I'll match you step by step. But if you're not going to work then you're going down on your own. I can't do this for you.' I felt like a bit of life was returning to him. Until that point, he had been frozen."

Allen was taken aback by Holloman's new spirit and let him rejoin the team midway through spring practice. Ervin still had his bad days, occasionally missing a weightlifting workout. But any loss of focus was brief.

"I was basically doing homework day and night," Holloman said. "But I was still so far behind. It was frustrating because I'd finally come around and realized what I wanted. But I wasn't sure I was going to get it."

Holloman took his last exam in May and anxiously awaited his report card.

When it finally came, he could hardly contain himself. Two B's, two C's and a D.

Allen announced in June that Holloman, who started 10 of 11 games as a junior, would be eligible for the 2001 season.

"That," Ervin said, "was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life.

Every now and then, Ervin bends down and puts his head near Erika's stomach.

"Wake up," he whispers. "Whatcha doin' in there?" In about three weeks, Erika will give birth to another child another girl. An amniocentesis has already been performed. Although there are no guarantees, doctors expect the child to be healthy.

"We probably go to the doctor more than we need to," Ervin said. "We just keep wanting to hear someone tell us everything's going to be all right. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little scared. After what happened with Nia, that's only natural. But it's a happy feeling, too.

"We're getting a second chance."

That's also what Holloman is getting on the football field. After a lackluster junior season "Twenty-one tackles, that says it all," he said Holloman has been one of the biggest bright spots for KU's defense.

At 292, Holloman has lost 18 pounds in the last six weeks, making him quicker off the block and a threat to chase down scrambling quarterbacks. He's made 12 tackles in two games, including a career-high seventackle performance against No. 14 UCLA last week.

"Ervin is happy again," said Jones, the line coach. "When you have a devastating loss like he did, why take away something that makes you happy? Athletes are in their own realm when they're on the field. It's their sense of belonging. Ervin needed that back, and he's got it."

Holloman's work ethic leads Jones to believe he has a future in football.

If not in the NFL than maybe in Canada or the Arena League, where his brother, Cliff a former Kansas State standout stars for Tulsa.

"Ervin has a chance to be so good," Ross said. "Everything he did at Garden City was unbelievable. He didn't show that last year. But I've got the feeling he's going to be a dominating player by the time this season is over."

As proud as Ross has been of Ervin on the field, he said he's even more impressed by the way he's conducted himself off of it.

If Erika needs medicine in the middle of the night, Ervin drives to the store and buys it.

Instead of fast food, he barbecues chicken or cooks pork chops. The two rarely miss a Sunday service at Victory Bible Church. And when players go out and celebrate after games, Ervin stays home with his wife.

"I've learned a lot about how to treat a woman by watching Ervin," Ross said. "He's a straight family man. A family's future."

As the birth of his child draws closer, Ervin is getting more and more excited about the day he and Erika, 21, return from the hospital with their new daughter.

Maybe some night, the family will gather for dinner at the Hollomans' apartment. Ervin can invite Bernice, 57, and her 11 other children and 23 grandkids. They could sit around the kitchen table, where a copy of Ervin's favorite poem hangs in a frame nearby.

Written by an unknown author, the passage is entitled "Footprints." Although the famous verse is commonplace in households across America, it's especially poignant to Holloman.

The poem describes a man dreaming about walking through his life on a beach. During his good times, the man notices two sets of footprints in the sand. One set is his, the other is God's.

But during the man's times of struggle, only one set of footprints is visible.

"I don't understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me," the man says to the Lord.

The Lord replies: "My precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."

Comment from the judge, Tom Kensler: Dripping with emotion, this study in the human condition through times of tragedy shows us that college football players are people, too. The reader feels the pain and the struggle and is drawn into the story, as if to be sitting in the living room. A writer can receive no better compliment.

Second place: Bruce Feldman, ESPN The Magazine
Third place: Tom Dienhart, The Sporting News
Honorable mention: Brian Landman, St. Petersburg Times; Mark Wangrin, San Antonio Express News; Ted Miller, Seattle Post-Intelligencer