I have to be honest. I've known DJ Holt for awhile. DJ is one of my closest friends from college. I would see him almost every day, every year I was in school-we would do homework together, hang out, and we would bond a lot over our favorite parts of being elite linebackers. I mean, that last one took up most of our time.
My mom can attest: after the first time I met DJ, I called her immediately. I had to tell her about one of the most genuinely kind, hard-working people I'd ever come across.
He had made me laugh quite a bit. And I guess I cry pretty easily, but he'd nearly made me cry, too. I think I was a freshman at the time, and he was a sophomore. He was telling me what he wanted to accomplish, what was important to him.
Looking back on this day makes me increasingly certain that DJ can do anything he sets his mind to accomplishing. Last year, he was signed to the Washington Redskins, and loved everything about his experience in the nation's capital. DJ is the kind of person who will absorb everything about his surroundings; he has an ability to take in entire landscapes where many people may focus on a single feature. When I asked him about Washington, he not only told me how inspiring it was to play in a professional environment, but that he got to see a great number of American monuments-- and excitedly detailed his first experience at the White House-- for the first time in his life. He was released from the Redskins before the season began and is currently a free agent, but his courage and drive were undeterred; he is now more informed and determined than ever in fulfilling the goals that he set for himself long ago.
When I first met him, I learned that he wanted to play professional football. He wanted to buy a house for his parents: For his mom, who had never missed a football game, who had always been there for DJ and his friends who needed rides home from football practice, who had made sure all of his laundry was always done, who had never once in his recollection complained as she worked night shifts at multiple jobs on top of everything else. And for his dad, who he looked up to more than anyone. His dad, he explained, was not his biological father, although he had been there as long as DJ could remember. He had married a single mother with two tiny boys, and had told both of those boys that they were his. And to DJ, there was no truer mark of paternity than that.
Football was important, but his degree was, too. He wanted that, because football wouldn't last forever. After football, he wanted to work in real estate, maybe. What kind of real estate? Well, a kind that would let him help kids and families who were in the position he'd been in. He'd never had his own room. That was okay with him; he loved his brother. But it could get crowded, especially when they both had friends over, and he knew that other families weren't as lucky as his. Sometimes kids shared beds, or shared couches. DJ had a deep concern for the reality of hardships endured by a huge scope of people, a capacity to look far beyond himself and into the lives of others.
He really did have me laughing too. Of almost equal concern to him was the absence of any late-night dining options in Berkeley. Did I know that famished feeling at 3 AM; an immediate need for sustenance, only to come up against the endless frustration of closed doors and darkened lights in every restaurant in Berkeley? When I admitted that this was not a typical issue for me, DJ filled me in on the injustice of Berkeley's dining industry. Where were hungry Cal students supposed to go at 3 AM?
DJ and I had been friends for a couple years when he turned 22. I couldn't wait to hear what the plans for that night were. What was on the agenda? What was he most excited for? He smiled without missing a beat, and replied simply that he was most excited to turn another year old. A lot of people don't get to see 22, he said.
My visions of tequila shots and balloons kind of evaporated after that response.
About a year ago, after a strong senior season at Cal that ended with all Pac-12 Honorable Mention as well as Co-Defensive MVP honors (the latter of which he shared with Mychal Kendricks, the Pac-12 Defensive player of the year), DJ moved to Utah to train for the NFL. He had one semester left of college, and at that point, a lot of guys in his position would have left their academic careers for good. I don't think DJ ever entertained that thought. He had to finish his senior thesis, but financial aid was no longer covering housing expenses because he'd moved out of state. So for three months, DJ lived with my two roommates and me. He was the best roommate ever-clean, quiet, always there for us whenever we needed guy advice-without ever making us feel like he was just putting up with our annoying girl moments. He happily slept on our couch, wrote his thesis, and trained several hours a day for football.
I've watched DJ Holt play in football games. I've played pickup basketball with him. I've gone to parties with him. I've studied with him. I've seen him write a senior thesis, composed of his original research. "The Myth of Sport and the American Dream, Cinematically Complicated and Constructed." (Go check it out in Cal's American Studies department!) I've seen him make some big tackles, and win some games. I've seen him get up early in the morning to catch a ride home that was supposed to leave at 7 AM, and wait all day until he finally got picked up, well after 9 PM. I've seen him move to a completely unfamiliar place in order to train, then come back to Berkeley without the financial assistance of the football program and sleep on a couch every night for three months so he could get his degree. I've seen him skip meals because Berkeley rents are high and sometimes financial-aid checks don't quite cover the needs of a guy who has to eat six or seven meals a day to compensate for the exertion of football practice. I've seen him hurt his hamstring a few days before the Berkeley combine that would hugely impact his professional future.
I have never once heard DJ Holt complain.
On the football field, DJ has an undeniable ability to be in the right place at the right time. Those qualities of foresight and overarching vision make an entire team better. Those qualities win football games.
DJ was placed on the Pac-12 all-underrated squad by ESPN after his senior season. Some of the same attributes that make him invaluable to a team-his humility, his selflessness, his thoughtfulness-might make him fly under the radar in terms of the immediate recognition of talent that results from flashy play. No matter what he achieves, you won't hear about it from him.
He comes by that humility rightfully. DJ has played football for as long as he can remember, and although he has constantly excelled and garnered the support of both of his parents, his father was always understated about his son's accomplishments. But there was one game in high school that elicited a unique reaction from him. DJ was in on every play, and in those days he played offense and defense. He led his team in his directed, industrious manner, and he didn't make a single mistake. He had played a game that was about as perfect as a football performance could get. And after the game, his father came up to him and told him so.
On the field, off the field, DJ is the kind of guy who makes others better, just by being present. You may not even realize it as it's happening, because he does it with an unobtrusive, gentle manner that is in no way affected or deliberate. His goals are always in sight, and he sees the journey to reach them as an opportunity and a blessing.
He leads by example-an example of unentitled, selfless drive.