Sunday, September 18, 2011 Updated: September 20, 12:06 PM ET
WR Jesse Holley seizes the moment
By Tim MacMahon ESPNDallas.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- It might sound corny if it didn't come true.
"California is the land of opportunity," coach Jason Garrett told the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night, using the Golden State's old slogan to stress his mantra about needing bit players to seize the moment when they get their chance.
Jesse Holley hung on every word coming out of his head coach's mouth during the team meeting at the hotel. After all, this is a guy who was working security and selling cell phones in Durham, N.C., a few years ago. He's a guy who earned his initial invitation to Cowboys training camp by winning the only season of Michael Irvin's reality show on Spike TV, prompting plenty of punch lines. He's a guy who scrapped for a spot on the practice squad and earned his promotion to the 53-man roster the hard way, by standing out on special teams.
Jesse Holley's 77-yard reception set up the Cowboys' game-winning field goal in overtime.
Holley is a guy who didn't have an NFL career catch -- until Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park. Now he's the guy who made the biggest play in a remarkable comeback win, getting wide open for a 77-yard catch and run to set up a chip-shot field goal in overtime in the wild 27-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
Holley is a bottom-of-the-roster battler who epitomizes Garrett's mantra about needing the next man to step up when injuries hit.
Look at Alan Ball, who is the Cowboys' fourth cornerback after failing as the starting free safety last season. He was a fill-in starter Sunday with Terence Newman and Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys' eight-figure corners, sidelined by injuries. Ball gave up his share of completions, but the Cowboys don't win without his interception that set up backup quarterback Jon Kitna's touchdown pass in the third quarter.
Look at Kevin Kowalski, the undrafted rookie center who wasn't expected to make the roster until the team released five-time Pro Bowler Andre Gurode. The Cowboys needed the kid to get his first taste of real NFL action when starter Phil Costa injured his knee. Kowalski was on the field for every offensive snap as the Cowboys erased a 10-point deficit in the final 11:12 and won in overtime.
"We talk all the time that it takes everybody," Garrett said. "We certainly found that out today. A lot of guys got opportunities today and stepped up and swung the bat."
Holley's performance and personal history, however, make him the poster boy.
Let's be honest. The Cowboys hoped Holley would never play a significant down at receiver. That didn't stop him from frequently working after training camp practices with the team's fourth quarterback, trying to hone his route-running skills and improve his hands.
That work paid off late in the fourth quarter Sunday. Holley, the Cowboys' third receiver with Dez Bryant out due to a bruised quadriceps, started the game-tying drive with a slant for an 11-yard gain. That was his first NFL catch. His second came on the next snap, when he picked up eight yards on a comeback route.
Holley's third NFL catch is the one you keep seeing on the highlight shows.
Holley wouldn't have even been on the field for the Cowboys' first offensive play of overtime if Miles Austin didn't tweak his hamstring in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.
"I went to my coaches and I told them I'm ready," Holley said. "I'm just glad that they believed in me to make a play."
The play couldn't have unfolded any more perfectly. The safety bit badly on play-action, allowing Holley to get wide open up the right seam. Tony Romo, who excelled down the stretch after returning with a broken rib, hit Holley in stride on the final throw of a remarkably gutsy, clutch performance.
"If I drop that pass," Holley said with a wide smile, "my bag might beat me back to Dallas."
OK, maybe it could have been a bit more perfect. In the movies, safety Donte Whitner wouldn't have caught Holley from behind at the 1-yard line.
Not that the Cowboys are complaining about a comeback that was almost too good to believe. They proudly marched off the field after Dan Bailey -- the rookie kicker who redeemed himself after a chip-shot miss early in the game -- won the game with a 19-yard field goal.
"Life's about opportunities," Romo said after getting dressed, a process that caused him to wince in pain while putting on his socks and request help from a reporter to fix his collar. "They're coming your way. Are you ready for them or not?"
The reality show winner who worked so hard was ready. Holley left Candlestick Park a hero.
"I'm proud of you," owner Jerry Jones told Holley as they shook hands in the locker room. "You deserve this, Jesse. You deserve it."
The Cowboys deserved this win.
Karma tends to favor teams when the next man keeps stepping up, no matter how improbable the odds.
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.