FOXBORO - Over the 12 seasons of Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach of the New England Patriots, the team has gained a reputation as being the Last Chance Saloon of the NFL.
It doesn't matter where a player has played before or how famous he became, Belichick has always been searching for individuals willing to give their best effort to stay in the league and be productive for a team that might be able to reward them with a Super Bowl ring.
There have been successes - monumental ones like Corey Dillon and Rodney Harrison, less-publicized but no less important ones than Joe Andruzzi and David Patten. And there have been spectacular failures such as Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. The common thread is that the Patriots are always willing to give someone a chance to succeed - and what they choose to do with that chance is up to them.
Welcome to Foxboro, Jesse Holley.
"This organization is a great organization and a winning organization, and I'm just blessed to truly be a part of it. I want to succeed here and hopefully I can be here for a very long time," said the wide receiver from North Carolina, whose path to the NFL may be the most unique of anyone currently on the roster.
Holley, 28, played both football and basketball for the Tar Heels, and was a member of their 2004-05 NCAA Division I men's basketball national champions. Football was his first choice, however, and he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2007. He spent about a month on their practice squad before being released.
In May 2008, he was signed by the British Columbia Lions of the CFL, but was released about a month into the league's preseason.
"Year-and-a-half, I was out of football," he said. "UPS, security, TMobile, a gamut of jobs. Trying to pay the bills, keep food on my table."
But the lure of football was still nagging at him, and so he chose to seize a truly unique opportunity - the Spike TV reality show, "4th and Long."
The basic cable network with the penchant for broadcasting testosterone-fueled pursuits created a show hosted by former Dallas Cowboys' receiver Michael Irvin and featuring members of the Cowboys' coaching staff, with the premise that 12 athletes would compete over 10 weeks for the chance to go to training camp with the Cowboys.
"I was working security, 11 at night until 7 in the morning, and working TMobile part time and I got the call," Holley said. "I had to go through a rigorous amount of things and I quit a job that I didn't have in order to come back. I had no money and the reality show came about."
Holley's application was one of approximately 300,000 sent to the producers, who interviewed 20,000 and eventually picked 50 to attend a tryout camp in Los Angeles.
"Out of the 50, they picked 12 of us to go on the show - six wide receivers, six DBs," Holley said. "Out of 12 there was one, and that's just when the job started because I had to go to training camp and I was the 80th man in the training camp. So I had to work my way up from there."
Holley won the show and got his shot with Dallas, but he said it was a grueling experience.
"(The show) was something I never want to experience again," he said. "It was a culmination of many different things - of mental toughness, physical toughness, endurance, and so it was a good opportunity. I met great people - the late Joe Avezzano, I learned a lot from him, special teams wise. Being around a guy like Bill Bates, who throughout his 10-plus year career, the Cowboys continually tried to cut him and tried to cut him and tried to cut him, but they couldn't find a way to cut him. So I kind of like to take a little Bill Bates in myself and work so hard that they try to find a way cut you but just can't.
"And of course, being around 'The Playmaker,' Michael Irvin ... he's a Hall of Famer, he's one of the greats and, believe it or not, at 40-plus years old Mike can still go out there and get it," he added. "Just being around him and learning from him, his love and passion for the game is second to none. That was just a great thing. And they kind of introduced me to the tradition of being a Cowboy when I was a Cowboy, so that was a great thing."
Holley, a cousin to WEEI talk-host Michael Holley, spent three seasons with the Cowboys, either on their practice squad or regular-season roster. He has seven career catches for 169 yards (an intriguing 24.1 yards per catch), with most of his playing time coming last year, but the Cowboys cut him loose after the season.
Holley was in Mexico and on the verge of taking some well-deserved vacation time when he got the call that the Patriots were interested.
"I always laugh because I've said, 'God has a sense of humor,'" he said. "He gets a laugh out of me all the time. Even coming here I just landed in Mexico and I turned my phone on and my agent's like, 'Where you at?' And I'm like, 'Mexico. Cancun.' He was like, 'Well, you gotta get back. The Patriots want to come in and work you out.' So I grabbed my bag, (found) a flight to get back here the wee hours in the morning and I'm ready for a workout the next morning. It's just another chapter in the book hopefully, something I can tell my kids and my grandkids when I'm old and gray."
As interesting as his path to the Patriots has been, Holley is fully aware that his quasi-celebrity status and $2 will get him a couple of donuts at the Patriot Place Dunkin' Donuts. The notoriety of his past is over; it's again time to work.
"Work my tail off," he said. "But that's what my life has been all about. I work my tail off each and every place that I've been my entire life, everything that I've done. One thing about hard work, it always pays off in anything you do. Whether it's on the field or off the field, in life, in marriage, in a relationship, being a friend, being a brother, being a mentor, whatever it is, if you work your tail off, success will find you."
The full-squad minicamp concluded Thursday, and over the next five-plus weeks, the players will be on their own. They won't be getting the full playbook (Belichick said it's because revisions will be made before training camp begins), but they'll get enough information to study while they maintain themselves physically over their last hint of vacation before the season starts for real.
Holley admitted he needed that time because the playbook was unlike anything he had ever seen.
"Have you ever been to Japan? You've been to Japan? Do you speak Japanese? OK. That's it right there. There you go. Japanese. I just order Rosetta Stone," he said, laughing.
The humor only slightly masks the seriousness of the challenge.
"I'm working my way through it, taking it one day at a time," he said. "I'm around a bunch of veteran guys, asking questions, paying close attention. I'm closing my mouth, opening my eyes and opening my ears and absorbing as much as I can."
There will be no shortage of competition, and he knows it. The depth chart already has Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater ahead of him from last year, new addition Brandon Lloyd, and returning prodigal sons Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth, who also have far more familiarity with the Patriots' system.
"Any time you're out here on the football field, it's competition - at the same position, offense, defense, special teams," he said. "But I'm around guys that have been in this league nine, 10, 11, 12 years and so you have to soak that up. Get in their side pocket and get in their ear and ask questions. That's what they're here for. They've been in this league a lot longer than I have.
"They run a pretty fast system here and they expect you to learn a lot, and I'm OK with that," he said. "I'm excited about it and can't wait to get to work."