The story of William Hollis is more about persevering through life than it is about football. Hollis, who hopes to find his way into an NFL camp this summer, is the ultimate underdog. His story, and his determination, make him impossible not to root for.
William Hollis may never make it in the NFL. If he does, however, Hollis has led the kind of life that someone will turn into a movie.
Hollis, 23, is a 6-foot-1, 245-pound linebacker/defensive end who last played for Tuskegee University, which plays in the Division 2 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He began his career at Clark Atlanta, also a member of the SIAC. To say Hollis' life has taken several detours along his road to trying to earn the attention of NFL teams is an understatement.
You don't so much interview Hollis as you simply turn on the recorder, ask him to tell his story and then just get out of the way and listen.
Hollis has played only one season of football since 2009, and that as a reserve who barely saw the field for Tuskegee in 2012. He claims the Tuskegee coaching staff there refused to play him because, though he walked on and earned a scholarship, they had not recruited him.
Our interview started with me asking Hollis if, considering where he is coming from, making the NFL was realistic. From there, the William Hollis Experience began.
"I think it's very realistic. I had a workout with the Toronto Argonauts going against about four different NFL-caliber tackles that played one year, two years in the NFL and I completely dominated ‘em.
"I just feel like I'm a big diamond in the rough. I just feel like I been hit with a lot of life problems. I lost my mom to a heroin overdose.
"Come out of Clark Atlanta as the No. 1 linebacker in black college football. I was ranked No. 45 on the inside linebacker list in the 2011 draft class. I'm only 23 years old. I got over 320 career tackles, 27 career sacks. I can bring experience from outside linebacker, middle linebacker.
"I feel like some scouts already know but I feel like once I play in these All-Star games [Hollis will play in a pair of Division 2 All-Star Games later this month] I feel like they gonna like me a lot. I truly believe I've got an opportunity to play in the National Football League."
At this point, it's necessary to allow Hollis explain more about the "life problems" he referenced.
"I had it rough. Foster home to foster home, mother on drugs. I never had anything. ... Every friend that I had is dead or in prison. Yesterday I talked to my best friend -- he's serving 100 years for murder. He murdered a kid when he was 15 years old.
"I used to sleep in crack houses with my mother, just to protect her. I used to sneak out of my grandmother's house to go to the crack house."
Through it all, Hollis has maintained a belief in himself.
"Every time you see me I smile every day because I'm happy to be alive. ... "If I meet one man that understands my story and understands my situation they'll be proud of me and they'll know once I step out on that field my whole life experience I let that out. I am the underdog, but I'm a great football player. I want to be one of the greatest."
What has he learned through all of this?
"I learned that the life that I grew up living it wasn't normal for a kid to live that type of life. What I persevered through a lot of men and a lot of young players would have given up a long time ago. I came from a city like Pontiac, Mich. All I seen was murders, death, drugs, my mother on dope ... I seen this as a child.
"That's why I wasn't humble the first time around. I grew up with nobody coming to our football games. You know it's nice for your friends' parents to say you're a great player, you good, you this or that but it feels better to hear it from your parents and I never had that. There's a reason why I wasn't humble.
"I learned I can't be angry at the past, I can only embrace the future and my opportunities that are in front of me. I'm an energetic, passionate player. I don't look at these guys on the next level as better than me, I just feel like they had a better start than me.
"Their fathers taking ‘em out here and teaching ‘em this and teaching ‘em that or they had a coach taking ‘em under their arms. I was bouncing from high school to high school, house to house, foster home to foster home and I had to put in my mind that I will not be a statistic.
"I'm a self-made kid. I did everything on my own. I set my own alarm clock to go to middle school. I set my own alarm clock to go to high school. I set my own alarm clocks to do anything I wanted to do for myself."
"Sometimes people don't understand what he's saying, but I understand what he's saying. He makes kids that are in poverty and in inner-city situations that feel like there's no way out he gives them hope. He gives them that belief in ourselves that we can make it. We can be role models to kids under us.
"I can bring that to the community. I can go talk to kids and say yeah I slept in condemned homes. I did all that and I'm only 23 right now and right now I'm a mature father. I have a little girl, a beautiful little girl that I do this for every day. I grind every day.
"If I step on an NFL camp surface I'm gonna put everything I have ... I'm a passionate player and I believe that the world just ain't seen me yet. Once they see me and they see my conviction and my passion they will never forget me -- and they will never forget how I play.I'll play with a broken leg, I'll play with a broken arm, I'll play with a broken hand because I know somebody out there has it worse than me.
"I just had death after death after death, turmoil after turmoil. My doing an interview with you today, I'm thankful. Every other athlete you interview is not more thankful than what I am. I know I come from nuthin', but I'm not nuthin.' I'm something, and the world will know one day. Remember my name."
After spending part of an afternoon talking with Hollis, he will undoubtedly be hard to forget. Whether he makes it or not, he's easy to root for.
- 2009 Clark, Atlanta: 78 tackles, 50 solos, 5 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 14.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 INTs (only 8 games). Nominated for Harlon Hill Trophy as a junior (D2 Heisman); Daktronics All-Super Region 2 Team
- 2009 Set NCAA record with forced fumbles and recoveries in 4 straight games
- 2008 El Camino CC: 57 tackles, 12 sacks, 14 TFL, 2 forces fumbles (played DE)
Transferred to North Alabama in 2010, but never played due to family issues. Played seven games for Tuskegee in 2012. Has worked out with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.