Three years ago, Jason Holmes had never heard of Australian football, let alone seen a game. This Saturday night, he will become the first American to make an AFL debut.
Jason Holmes is unique in the true sense of the word. Of the 12,387 players to have played VFL/AFL football since the competition’s inception in 1897, as of Saturday night, he will be the only one to have been born and raised in the USA.
Sanford Wheeler (Sydney) and Don Pyke (West Coast) were born in the US and a few dozen have close links, but Holmes is as American as they come.
It was April 2013 when Holmes travelled from Chicago to a talent-spotting camp in Los Angeles. While he planned to use the trip as a means to see family and friends in LA, he was quickly taken aback by football.
Sitting by himself in a room, he watched a 30-minute internet clip that explained the game, its intricacies and subtleties in layman’s terms.
At that moment, the division one college basketball he had been playing with Morehead State Eagles in Kentucky was a distant memory. The future was Australian football and a new life beckoned.
“The first time I consciously watched footy was watching a video called AFL Explained on YouTube,” Holmes told SAINTS.com.au.
“Then I saw Nic Naitanui take that amazing mark and I was like ‘woah man.’ It really resonated with me. He came from a basketball background so I thought I’d love to have a crack at that.”
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The rest is history. In December, just six months after he sat enthralled in front of a laptop watching that video clip, St Kilda selected Holmes with pick 36 in the Rookie Draft.
Holmes may not have been so open to a move over the other side of the world had he not been cut from such a sporting cloth.
His father Kevin travelled far and wide across Europe and South America throughout his 10-year basketball career that at one stage had him drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, while brothers Andre (26) and Mark (24) are also elite athletes.
Andre is a Wide Receiver for the Oakland Raiders in the NFL, while Mark plays professional basketball in France.
It was one simple bit of advice from his father that has stuck with Holmes throughout the last two years away from home: “Windows open and windows close, but if there is a crack in the door, stick your foot in it. Go after it and take your opportunities.”
And that is exactly what the 25-year-old left-footer has done.
RELATED: Holmes cut from a sporting cloth
When he kicked his first VFL goal in practice match last year, his teammates reacted as if it were a minor miracle. Nowadays, his goal-kicking has become an integral part of his footballing makeup.
2014 was all about learning. Cushioned by a two-year international rookie contract, St Kilda’s raft of development coaches were patient with him, initially teaching him skills that most kids pick up intrinsically.
Holmes himself was anything but patient. Driven, committed and ambitious were words that were used to describe him, and towards the end of the 2014 season his form almost led to a debut.
“Jason was very close to being picked towards the end of the season and did a fantastic job for Sandringham in the VFL (state league),” midfield coach Adam Kingsley said in his season review.
“We know he is only 18 months into an AFL career and he has an appetite to work hard which will hold him in good stead. Holmesy has all the right attributes so we are excited to see how that develops.”
This year Holmes’ rapid progression has seen him hold down Sandringham’s number one ruck spot, often forcing teammates Tom Hickey and Lewis Pierce into other roles.
Against Port Melbourne in June, he registered 60 hit outs. After a hard-fought victory, Zebras coach Paul Hudson could not hide his delight.
“Jason controlled the ruckwork like you wouldn’t believe,” Hudson told SAINTS.com.au.
“The best part about Holmesy is he is starting to get out into space and find the footy, which is something we’ve really had to focus on for a while now. His marking has improved rapidly.”
Recently he’s spent more time forward, booting one goal and two behinds against the Northern Blues last weekend.
But it’s not as if Holmes’ ascension to become St Kilda’s sixth AFL debutant this year has been smooth sailing.
Aside from being away from home, there have been times when doubts have crept in, only to be squashed by an unmistakable desire to succeed.
“I’ve certainly hit points where I struggle a bit and I’ve had those moments,” he conceded.
“I’ve never quit a day in my life. I knew I was doing something special and just needed to stick with it.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without my coaches, teammates and the club.”
Holmes lives with teammate Arryn Siposs and said he will never forget the moment head coach Alan Richardson called him on Tuesday evening to notify him of his selection.
“Richo gave me a call last night after match committee,” he recalled.
I was sitting in the living room with Arryn Siposs and his girlfriend. When Richo called we muted the TV and Sippo put his computer to the side and gave me a huge hug for about a minute. We were very excited. Then I called my parents straight away even though it was 6am over there. Sippo kept saying how proud and excited he was for me.”
Above all else, Holmes yearns to play in a premiership with St Kilda. It’s an ambition that did not exist 24 months ago, but it burns brighter than ever now.
This article was first published on the St Kilda Football Club website.
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