As Deonte Holden walked off the field Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium, exhausted in victory, thrilled to have made his first career start at defensive end for N.C. State and having beaten Florida State, he can be excused for having so much race through his mind.
All the pain. The surgeries. The long struggle. The days and months wondering if he would ever play for the Wolfpack or ever really contribute.
But as Holden put it, “It was all worth it. It’s hard to stop a man with a dream.”
There were times Holden sought out Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, asking if he was making the right decision trying to stay and play, that maybe it would be better to graduate -- fulfilling a promise to his mother -- and move on, forget football.
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Holden, redshirted as a freshman in 2014, had suffered a broken left foot in fall camp before this second season. He had surgery, had screws and a plate implanted for stability, and then needed more surgery.
“The doctors told him ‘We don’t know if you should keeping doing this,’” Doeren said. “He said, ‘I don’t quit anything.’
“He’s really hard-headed, but in a good way. He won’t quit. His foot was bad. But he kept saying it will work out.”
Not that there wasn’t a lot of frustration and doubt.
“Coach Doeren could tell you I came to his office a couple of times and I even questioned myself. ‘I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t feel like I’m the same player.’” Holden said. “But something in my head said, ‘No, you’re going to keep going and you’re going to figure it out and it’s all going to work out in the end.’
“That’s what I did. I kept going, I kept pushing forward. And I had guys who definitely inspired me along the way to help me.”
Bradley Chubb was one of those who inspired him. Holden said he was recruited with Chubb, B.J. Hill, Justin Jones and Kentavius Street, who together formed what would become one of the nation’s best D-lines last season and had all four drafted by NFL teams.
Chubb, the nation’s best defensive player in 2017, was drafted fifth overall by the Denver Broncos. He’ll be at Carter-Finley Stadium on Thursday to have his jersey number -- No. 9 -- honored during the Pack’s game against Wake Forest.
It will be “Senior Night” for the Pack and Holden, a graduate student, expected to be a part of the often emotional sendoff. That changed last week when the NCAA announced Holden had been granted a sixth year of eligibility.
“I was so excited my body was shaking,” Holden said.
His parents, Deonte and Carolyn Holden, having already made plans to attend, will be coming in from Landover, Md.., for the game. They’ll have to wait another year for their son’s big night, not that anyone is complaining about the change in plans.
“I always knew there was a chance I could get it based on the injuries I had,” Holden said of the NCAA ruling. “I’m definitely excited, just being able to prove and show people what I can do and how I can contribute..”
Holden has made the most of his time at N.C. State. No pity-parties. With his promise to his mom in mind, he earned an undergraduate degree in business marketing in May 2017.
“When I got here I said I was going to graduate in three years,” Holden said. “Some people looked at me like I was a fool. It was like ‘You weren’t even an honor student coming out of high school.’ I said I’d figure it out.”
Admitted to graduate school, Holden is taking master’s degree courses in Global Luxury and Management and in management. Sports, fashion, real estate ... Holden has a lot in mind for life after football.
“You could always see he has the bigger picture in mind,” Doeren said.
But Holden always kept his football dream alive despite not playing for almost 18 months because of the foot problem.
“I was always the type who thought I’m going to play football, I’m going to stick this out,” he said. “If I’m going to be in pain, I’ll run in pain. I told the doctor if I can walk, I can run. And if I can run, I can play. That’s exactly what I did.”
Held out in 2015, Holden played sparingly in 2016 and 2017 -- 29 plays total in five games. The 6-4, 247-pounder has been in for 233 plays in eight games this fall for the Pack, starting against FSU because of injuries on the D-line that caused Darian Roseboro to be moved from end to nose guard.
That added up to quite a few days for Holden: a sixth year from the NCAA, then the first career start.
“It was a great moment just being able to show people, OK, I got my sixth year and this is why I deserve it,” he said
Asked about his academic plans for his sixth year, Holden smiled, saying, “Somebody said I should get my PhD. I think I’ll focus on football and see how far I can get with football.
“Hopefully I can inspire those kids who doubt themselves. Because I’ve been in a situation where I doubted myself and I said I’m going to keep going forward. ... Nobody else can take you away from your dreams. When somebody has a dream and has a goal, they’re really hard to stop.”
Wake Forest at N.C. State
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh