Even as a little boy, Ben Holmes had an innate belief that he was destined for great things in the sport of football.
“Here’s a funny quick story,” said his father, John. “He was playing Pee Wee football and he’d go sit up on his bed with his mom. He’d say, ‘Mama, how old am I going to be when I sign my first pro contract?’”
The answer was 27. Holmes, a former standout at Orchard Park, will realize his boyhood dream in the coming days when he signs a contract with the New Jersey Generals of the new United States Football League.
Last week in Birmingham, Holmes was the fourth overall pick in the USFL draft. The rebooted eight-team league, now based in Alabama, held a positional draft in which all eight teams picked a quarterback in the first round.
The draft culminated an improbable football odyssey for Holmes, who didn’t start at quarterback for Orchard Park until his senior year in 2013 and never played in Division I. But he’ll be throwing passes on prime-time TV when the Generals are scheduled to open the USFL season April 16 against the Birmingham Stallions.
“It was a little emotional,” Holmes said while waiting for a connecting flight home from the draft. “You ever see the movie ‘Miracle’, when they beat Russia and the head coach didn’t show any emotion until he got in the hallway by himself? That’s kind of what I did.”
Holmes walked alone into a hallway inside Protective Stadium, pumped his fist in the air and called his girlfriend, Jennifer Mendez, who was back home in New Braunfels, Texas with their 1-year-old daughter, Claire. They had a good cry on FaceTime, as Ben thanked God and his mother and “had a moment.”
The sad thing was, his mom, Susan, wasn’t around to share it. Susan died in 2017, at age 52, after a battle with Scleroderma, a rare disease that involves a chronic hardening and tightening of the connective tissues.
Ben was devastated by his mother’s passing. He also felt his football career might be over as well. After graduating from Orchard Park in 2014, he had played two successful seasons at Nassau Community College and received an offer to play quarterback at Stony Brook, a Division I program.
But soon after he got the offer from Stony Brook, his mother’s condition became grave. Ben came home, his grades suffering, and decided to be by Susan’s side. He felt his mother needed him more than he needed football.
“I did,” he said. “I came home from Long Island and took some time to be with her. I didn’t know it was going to be the end, but I knew she needed help.”
Susan, a warm, loving soul who put others ahead of herself, died in May of ’17. A month later, Ben was sitting on the couch, mourning his mother, going through job offers online and wondering where his life would lead next.
That’s when his phone buzzed. There was a text from Tate Whitten, a graduate assistant for Tarleton State, a Division II football program in Stephenville, Texas. Whitten was offering him a chance to play quarterback for the Texans.
Holmes was stunned. He remembers thinking, ‘Somebody found me!’ He called Whitten, who had been an assistant at Tarleton for only three weeks after a career as a special teamer and receiver under his father, the head coach. Whitten was looking for older players who had been overlooked.
“I thought I could find a guy who should have been playing at a higher level but might be too old,” Whitten said last week from Texas.
Tate realized that Holmes was in the early stages of grief and found himself consoling the quarterback. “I kind of put the recruiting part to the side and was concerned about his well-being,” he said. “We became really close and we have a good relationship now. I still talk to him every few days or once a week.”
“I can only fathom what he was going through.”
Holmes and his father did some research on Tarleton, weighed his options – limited as they were – and a month later he was driving from Buffalo to Texas. Whitten set his alarm for 3 a.m. on the day Holmes was set to arrive, just to make sure the long trip from the East was going all right.
When Holmes showed up on Stephenville, he asked Whitten if he could gather some receivers the next day, so he could throw. Then he got some much-needed sleep.
“I got some of the wide receivers out there,” Whitten recalled. “It was something I’d never seen before, the way the ball was popping out of his hand. He was dropping dimes all over the place. I was trying to not get too far ahead of myself. We had no pads, no defense. I went to the coaching staff and said, ‘I think he’s special.’”
Naturally, there was some eye-rolling from the veteran coaches, who had to wonder if the new coach was a little overzealous about his discovery.
“I understand it now,” said Whitten, who is still coaching receivers at Tarleton. “I was a graduate assistant. I was super, super excited about it. I was, ‘Dadgum, I might have just hit the jackpot!’ It turns out I did.”
He sure did. Holmes became a star at Tarleton. He had to redshirt in 2017, having been rerouted so late. But in 2018, he took off. He won the quarterback job in the spring, then led the Texans to an unbeaten regular season and the first Lonestar Conference championship in their history.
Tarleton did it again in 2019, going unbeaten until losing in the Division II playoffs. Holmes went 23-2 as a starting QB and finished his two-year career with the fifth-most passing yards (5,997) and second-most passing touchdowns (62) in school history.
Holmes ran for more than 500 yards his first year at Tarleton, a la Josh Allen. But in his senior year, he ran less and became a better passer, increasing his TD passes and cutting down on interceptions.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be big or fast enough to be a runner,” he said. “If you look at my numbers from my junior to senior year, I really did change to become a pocket passer, a guy who could extend the play.”
Not surprisingly, he didn’t get drafted by the NFL, or invited to any camps. He had a criminal justice degree but didn’t want to give up on his pro football dream just yet.
“I told myself after my senior year, I’m going to give myself two, two and a half years to really pursue it,” he said. “I’ve just been in Texas, training. Just working out and staying hopeful for an opportunity and praying really hard. It’s been a long road.”
In 2021, he played one game for the Arizona Rattlers of the Indoor League and two with the Sea Lions of the Spring League. He barely played (and had no contract), but showed enough to impress Zerick Collins, quarterbacks coach for the Sea Lions. Collins coaches quarterbacks for the Generals of the new USFL, and he convinced the New Jersey franchise to take a shot on Holmes.
“I think I just made a real good impression on him,” Holmes said. “They believed in me and we’re grateful for that. It’s a turning point in my life, for sure.”
Holmes said he had no idea he was a candidate for the USFL until a week or so before the draft. Two Fridays ago, he got a call from a fellow Western New Yorker — Daryl Johnson, the Lewiston-Porter graduate and former Dallas Cowboy fullback who is the USFL’s vice president for football operations.
“He said, ‘Make sure you’re by your phone, I’ll have some exciting news for you pretty soon,’” Holmes said. “On Saturday evening, they called me and they’re like, ‘You’ve got to get your best suit, you’re going to come out for the draft.’”
On Monday, he flew to Birmingham, site of the draft and home for the entire league the first season. He was a bit in awe. “At first, I was thinking, ‘Why are I here?’ But I had a little talk with myself that, ‘I belong. I’m here for a reason.’”
Holmes figured he would be the last pick of the first round by New Orleans. Then his name was announced fourth overall to the Generals. The next thing you knew, he was out in the hallway, calling his loved ones.
“Oh my gosh, it meant so much,” said Jennifer, who met Ben when she was playing volleyball at Tarleton State. “He’s been working so hard for such a long time for an opportunity, and for this to come along for him meant the world, for him and for all of us who are behind him supporting him.
“He was so excited, fist pumping, hands in the air, tears in his eyes, excited to share the moment with us. He said I wish you all were here. It was emotional for all of us.”
Ben has been deeply religious since his mother’s death. He could sense Susan looking down at him, pleased by her little boy’s good fortune.
“Most definitely,” Jennifer said. “We were all saying, ‘She had the best view in the room.’”
Holmes also had a good cry and chat over FaceTime with his father. John always believed Ben would get his shot, even when he was talking about that first pro football contract as a little boy.
“Oh, it’s unbelievable,” said John, who was en route to Florida for his job as a driver/generator tech at the PGA Tour stop. “All the hard work and everything he’s been through since high school, losing his mom. It’s a really cool story.”
John Holmes tells Ben to emulate Kurt Warner. After all, Warner was an undrafted free agent and minor-league football vagabond who became a two-time NFL, a Super Bowl MVP and a Hall of Famer. He was 27 when he joined the Rams as their third-string quarterback in 1998.
They made a movie about Warner’s life called “American Underdog,” which was released to theaters this past Christmas. Holmes doesn’t mind the comparisons.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I know Kurt pretty well. I got to throw with him a few times, through different people we’ve been in contact with, making relationships, I got his number and he was able to help me out, get me out to his house (in Arizona) for two days.
“Last night, he actually shared a nice message with me, texted me congratulations and stuff like that.”
Holmes said he probably heard Warner’s name 50 times on the day of the draft. It’s an easy story angle, but he has more immediate concerns.
“They asked, ‘Is the NFL next?’” Holmes said. “I’m like, ‘I’m a New Jersey General right now and I’ve got to game-plan for April 16 against the Stallions. I’m going to be where my feet are.
“After the season, we’ll see what happens.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.