When running back Ray Holley showed up at the Hamilton Tiger-Cat free agent camp in Los Angeles last April, he’d been out of football for more than a year and a half and was working part-time installing air conditioners.
Family and friends weren’t exactly encouraging him to quit but they were starting to question how long he planned to keep training for football. With a master’s degree in counselling, Holley had options beyond the ones presented by the refrigeration business. But he didn’t want to start a new career before he was convinced his playing days were truly over.
“This is what I love, and I wasn’t ready to give it up. I was going to keep it up until the fire died,” Holley said. “I wasn’t going to leave any doubt. If I gave everything I had and didn’t make it, all right. But I never wanted to think, ‘What if?'”
Generously listed at 5-foot-9, 200 pounds, Holley played two seasons of junior college before getting exactly one NCAA Division I scholarship offer. He parlayed that into three seasons at Louisiana Tech where he was an academic All-American in the classroom and second team All-conference selection as a player his senior season.
Undrafted, he spent time with the Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens, and Dallas Cowboys then had tryouts with a few other NFL teams. Eventually, interest dried up and he went home to California, started working and kept training.
“I knew that every day, it was less likely that I was going to get another opportunity,” he said.
Even after his solid performance at the Ticat free agent camp — it cost him $80 to attend — Holley was making plans to move forward with the next phase of his life.
His former coaches at Louisiana Tech, now at the University of California, offered him a coaching internship for the upcoming season and, tired of air conditioners, he planned to take it.
“I was going to keep training but I was going to use it as an opportunity to get a foot in the door,” Holley said. “I was all packed and ready to move, and the day before I was supposed to leave, I got the call from Hamilton.”
He started training camp buried on the depth chart behind veterans C.J. Gable, Mossis Madu and Nic Grigsby. But Madu hurt his shoulder on the second day and is done for the year. Then Gable banged up his hand and is touch and go to begin the season. Now Grigsby is hobbled after getting dinged in Monday’s pre-season game.
Holley had 18 yards on six carries as well as two catches for 14 yards in the win over the Redblacks, and now finds himself at the top of the depth chart. Head coach Kent Austin admits it wasn’t what he expected.
“He’s done great. He’s a really conscientious guy, he’s smart and he’s picked up the offence quickly,” Austin said. “He’s a really fast learner and he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He got an opportunity and he took advantage of it.”
With so many injuries to the team’s running backs, Holley has been asked to shoulder more of the load in practice this week. He’s not complaining.
“Training camp is tough on everyone but I consider myself so blessed every single day,” he said. “All I can think about is how grateful I am to be here.”