Santonio Holmes needs a haircut. Just a few days after winning Super Bowl MVP honors, the Steelers receiver is backstage, prepping to appear on Live! with Regis and Kelly, his pinstriped suit jacket on a nearby hanger. A production assistant comes in with a thick brush. Holmes shakes his head, laughs. "Tell them they got some black people up in here," he says, smiling and patting down the back of his head.
Regis Philbin pops in, congratulates Holmes on his acrobatic, game-winning catch, tells him how breathtaking the moment was. Holmes says thank you, that he was as thrilled as anyone, that he was just doing his job.
The show begins. Holmes signs Reebok shoes and magazines as he waits for his cue. His friend and former barber, Renny Razor, shears his hair. Holmes watches closely, swatting away the falling pieces. "Not too tight," he says, laughing. "This ain't no Flowbee situation."
Moments later, Holmes walks onto the Live set to a standing ovation. "What a great moment in sports history," says Kelly Ripa. "What a great moment in my life," Holmes responds, grinning. The audience laughs. "Are you single?" a woman shouts from the crowd. Holmes nods, gives a shy grin.
In the wings, producers watch and marvel. "He's such a natural," one coos. "Really. Forget football. That man should be on television."
Leaving the stage, Holmes is pumped. "I love the spotlight," he says, his shoulders shimmying. He climbs into a waiting black Escalade. Autograph seekers bang on the sides of the car as it inches down a New York street on which the 25-year-old Holmes would have been unnoticed a year ago.
A couple months later Holmes is in Orlando, his off-season home, receiving the Best Sports Moment of the Year award at the annual international Reebok marketing meeting. The award is bestowed by Eli Manning and Todd Krinsky, a marketing VP. Manning and Krinsky hew to the script, doing the shoe biz version of Oscar patter.
"Congratulations, Santonio. You've made the Reebok family very proud," Krinsky says. "It's not every day one gets to stand next to a Super Bowl MVP, let alone two "
Holmes also plays his part. He is gracious, amusing, humble. He makes the jokes he was told to make, talks up the Reebok Super Bowl commemorative T-shirt-"Very smooth," he says. But when he tells the golf-shirted audience that by using Reebok products "everyone can experience this whirlwind of greatness I'm living," his smile quivers slightly at the corners.
If you ask him, Holmes will say he has not changed. That making the Catch and the fame that's come with it has done little to alter his true nature-nothing actually-that he is the same guy he always was, or, as his friend Renny puts it, "as big an asshole as ever." When asked to define himself, Holmes says, "You should want to do better than everybody else. To exceed expectations. That's my thing. Always been my thing. I live my life to enjoy everything." Of course, the old everything didn't include flirting with Jennifer Aniston on The Tonight Show or trying on loaner bling from posh jewelry shops or fielding calls from Lil Wayne about a Holmes jersey, something Holmes in fact delivered over Grammy weekend, a week after the Super Bowl, when the two hung out. The Catch has made him a star, and being a star has opened doors far beyond the field, exposure that would try the fortitude of even the most steadfast men. Staying private and focused in the NFL is challenging enough. Staying private and focused in the face of modern celebrity and its attendant perks is near impossible.
"When you go to the grocery store, you just want to get your food and go home," he says. "You don't want to stop and take pictures, sign autographs. That is not part of my job description."
Then there's the issue of the name. "San-Antonio?" Holmes says, scowling. "That's the worst. I'm like, Where do you see that hyphen in my name, bro? I'm not a city."
Better than nobody knowing your name at all, right? "I don't know," he says. "People sometimes ask me for my autograph in restaurants and stuff, and I think, Your mailman is probably doing a more important job than I am."
The night of the Super Bowl, Holmes bypassed any parties, choosing instead to hang out with his children, Santonio III (7), Nicori (5) and Saniya (3). "Of course, I wanted to watch the play 40 or 50 times," Holmes says. "But they wanted to watch Madagascar 2."
Holmes says his family is everything to him, his roots and his ground-his reality when everything else feels as intangible as fairy dust. Hard reality, at times. His oldest son suffers from sickle-cell anemia, something that weighs on Holmes, especially when he's away from him. "Family time is family time," Holmes says sternly. During family time, the cell phone is off and the rest of the world's demands must wait. This has been tricky since the Catch. "Cameras are always flashing," he says. "Every city I'm in. I feel exposed."
Dealing with all the glory from the Catch has not been easy on Holmes. He prefers to be by himself. Always has. He keeps his circle small. Smaller now. Just his friends from before. Before the NFL. Before the Super Bowl. Friends who knock him down the necessary notches, remind him of the bony, hungry boy he used to be, friends like Razor, who tells him every day, "No man is invincible." Also, "Shut the hell up."
"When you have a big entourage around you, bragging and boasting about the little things that you do, it gets to you," Holmes says. "It leads to being the person you don't want to be."
Holmes has another surefire method for maintaining humility. "You know what I think about every chance I get?" he says. "The play before the winning catch. I think, Man, I dropped the pass that could have won the Super Bowl."
THE DICK'S Sporting Goods shoot in late March is on the same field where Holmes played as a senior in high school, a shadeless patch of faded green wedged between Fort Lauderdale strip malls. Back then he was called Sticks, a scrawny kid with outsize ambitions.
Left alone at his house in Belle Glade when he was as young as 10, Holmes babysat his younger siblings while his mother, Patricia, worked late shifts. His father, Santonio Sr., wasn't in the picture. None of the kids was allowed out of the house. It was that sort of neighborhood. "I knew then that I was going to change my life," he says.
Holmes says this is why he plays football. Not for the fame or the glory or tickets to the Grammys. He plays for the exit. The entrance. He wanted to walk through a different door, one that led away from Belle Glade and the cane fields and the ceaseless grasping that crumples men like paper, bends them like reeds, leaves them forever walking in the balance between anger and apology.
"I grew up in a place where that's all people lived by," he says. "Violence. Desperation." He sighs. "The smartest decision I ever made is to never own a gun." Holmes has witnessed that life, "people thinking it's cool to blast guns, to shoot people," and he is done. "I don't want to be around that anymore. I don't want my kids around it. So."
So football. And a work ethic born of need, not want. A desire to minimize the odds of failure. "I play with passion," he says. "Those who know me, they know I have carried that passion throughout my life, since Little League. I was always the guy who's quiet but puts in the extra work."
That ethic earned him a ride to Ohio State, then a ticket to the first round of the 2006 draft. After a disappointing rookie year, Holmes led the Steelers in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2007. There have been slipups along the way: arrests for disorderly conduct (May 2006, charges dropped), domestic violence (June 2006, charges dropped) and marijuana possession (October 2008, charges dropped). But the path remains clear in his mind.
"When I came to the league, I was knocking at the door," Holmes says. "Second year I was wiping off my feet. Third year I was stepping through the door. And from here on out, you're going to know who I really am. Once I step through that door, it is time."
Today, on his old field, it is time to sell the new Reebok cleat. Between shots, Holmes tosses a football around with the boys on the set. He flaps his arms, loosens his shoulders. After the shots, Holmes looks at his stills. "My shorts are too big," he says, bunching them in his palms.
New shorts are brought to the set. Holmes slips them on and resumes posing. During a break, he's asked to record something for Reebok's website.
"Sure," he says, then learns he must sing "Happy Birthday" to the Reebok Pump sneaker. He must do this by actually holding the sneaker and singing to it on camera. Holmes does not hesitate. He knows that this is "part of the job description" now. That being an NFL superstar is not just an on-field position. And if that means getting up at 7 a.m. and standing in the sun all day in baggy shorts and skipping breakfast and lunch and singing to a vintage shoe, then Holmes is game, even if inside all of it makes him cringe.
"The best advice I was ever given was from a chapel guy in high school," remembers Holmes during a break. "He said you walk by faith, not by sight. My faith and my belief are all I can live on."
Holmes shrugs, glances at the shoe still resting in his hand. "It feels like an out-of-body experience. Like, This is my life? I do it because I know this is what I'm supposed to do. Being in front of the cameras, doing interviews, whatever it is, I've got to do it." Even so, Holmes says all he really wants "is to be treated like a normal person." That and a Pro Bowl. And a 1,000-yard season. "I never had 1,000 yards in high school, college or three years in the pros," he says.
Maybe, he thinks, 1,000 yards will shut people up about the Super Bowl. Giants receiver David Tyree will forever be defined by his own miracle moment, his falling-from-the-sky catch that kept his team alive in Super Bowl XLII. Holmes doesn't want that fate. Not that he isn't appreciative of the fans. Just, he's young. Barely starting out. And "not to be disrespectful, but I don't want to hear about my catch every day for the rest of my life. Even though I know I am going to."
Holmes recalls the time he met Allen Iverson. He saw him in a Florida club but was too shy to say anything. No need; Iverson came right over. "Man, you did your thing out there," AI said. "I respect that."
"I think about stuff like that, and it's like, Man, I am somebody special," says Holmes. He's quiet for a minute. "Yeah, I think that. But I never let it go too far."
That's the trick: balancing confidence and humility. Holmes says he intends to be in the Hall of Fame. That this catch, the one that took his life from before to after, is not the peak. And when asked if he is glad it happened, given all the changes it has wrought, he says, "Uh. Yes. Yes, I think. Yes."
"This is what I worked hard for," he concludes, "to achieve something in life that makes people smile. And that makes me smile when I look back at it."
It is nearing 6:30 p.m., and the shoot is now in its second location, in a Fort Lauderdale studio. Holmes' half-eaten chicken breast idles on a paper plate. The stylist tucks in a shirt sleeve. The photographer kneels at Holmes' feet. "Just a few more setups," he says.
Holmes glances at the clock, nods. The smoke machine is turned on. The music plays. And Holmes, slowly, head lowered in the persistent glare of the spotlight, begins to dance.