It was big local news when the son of a pair of Portville, New York natives was taken in the fifth round of last April’s National Football League draft.
Cole Holcomb, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound inside linebacker who played collegiately at North Carolina, went to the Redskins with the 173rd pick.
An almost immediate first-teamer, he’s started nine of 10 games and his 64 tackles rank second for Washington, behind only strong safety Landon Collins. Holcomb has also forced two fumbles.
But what makes his situation so interesting is his parents, Jack and Beth, his dad in particular.
You see Jack, a former multi-sport star at Portville Central School, has never missed one of Cole’s football games … ever, home or away. It started when he coached his offspring in pee-wees and continued through the years at New Smyrna Beach, Florida High School, then four seasons at UNC and finally this year with the Redskins.
Jack and Beth, both 50, after leaving Portville, moved from Charlotte to New Smyrna where they have two side-by-side auto dealerships — Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge and Chevrolet.
“We chose New Smyrna because we thought it would be a great place to raise our kids,” Jack said, “that was really important to us.”
The Holcombs have two children, daughter Jordan, 28, an All-America volleyball player at Daytona’s Embry Riddle University who went on to play professionally in Austria, now an assistant coach at her alma mater and works two other jobs including for her dad.
Cole, five years younger, had a sterling scholastic career but saw a confirmed walk-on role at Duke fall through.
But his high school coach had another option.
“North Carolina was having (NCAA) issues with restrictions on scholarships,” Jack said, “(coach) Larry Fedora had just gotten there and they were really working on preferred walk-ons, which Cole was.
“It’s one of the Top 20 academic schools in the country. He was 15th in his high school class and my position was that he get to a first-rate academic school. Plus, his high school coach assured me that Cole could compete on that level.”
Late in his redshirt freshman year, Holcomb, en route to a business degree, called his dad.
“At the end of spring football, he told me he had moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart and was on all of the special teams,” Jack recalled. “I went to the spring game and he looked good and just kept improving.”
The next fall, under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, the former head coach at Auburn, Holcomb started an impressive four-year run over which the Tar Heels went 24-26 but made two bowl games.
“It was the right time, the right place, the right people and when Coach Chizik came in, after the first meeting, Cole called me and said ‘I’d run through a brick wall for this guy,” Jack said. “He was so motivated and so ready to just practice. He couldn’t wait to engage this guy’s philosophy.”
And Cole’s collegiate playing career continued his dad’s pilgrimage to every game … but now a lot farther than the high school schedule.
Over the four years, there were the flights from nearby Daytona to Chapel Hill for UNC home games or meetings with nearby Duke and North Carolina State. But there were also road trips to Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Blacksburg, Virginia, Champagne, Illinois, El Paso, Charlottesville, Virginia, Norfolk, Palo Alto, California, Syracuse and Greenville, North Carolina.
The Holcombs were able to drive to the games in Florida — Miami, Tallahassee and Orlando — but most of the trips were via air.
“I hate flying, I’m a white-knuckler,” Jack admitted, but he did it fairly inexpensively. “I’m frugal and I make sure that I’ve got all my points. We flew Southwest when he was in Chapel Hill (at UNC) and they had (frequent) flyer miles and his whole (collegiate career) I had the Buddy Pass ... we didn’t buy a plane ticket. I’d get my ticket with points and Beth flew free as my buddy.”
The Holcombs even went to a game Cole didn’t play.
“He had a torn labrum from a car accident his junior year,” Jack said. “It was the last game of the season against N.C. State. We were there ... I had to make sure he wasn’t going to play. If he had tried, I’d have jumped out of the stands and tackled him myself.”
Now, with Cole a pro in Washington, Jack and Beth are flying American or Delta and still using those points.
“We fly out of Daytona and Cole’s 10 miles from Dulles Airport,” Jack said of home games. “I leave the dealership at 11:30 and I’m sitting in his living room at 4:30.
“Then we get up at 4:30 on Monday mornings so we can be back at the dealership by 10:30.”
Of course, they’ve also flown to Redskins road games at Buffalo, Philadelphia, East Rutherford, New Jersey and Minneapolis, the latter causing Cole a bit of consternation.
“I was going to take that game off … it was a Thursday night,” Jack recalled. “But he said, ‘Dad, you’ve never missed a game.” So I figured, “I guess I’m going to Minnesota.”
Clearly the Holcombs unfailingly make those trips because they’re so proud of their son and they’ll be in Washington on Sunday when the Redskins host Detroit.
“He’s a head-down worker, a blue-collar guy, that’s how he approaches what he does … he did it at North Carolina, and in the NFL,” Jack said. “He doesn’t approach high school, college or professional football any different in how he goes about his business. He studies film with the same passion as he did in high school and college. He attacks it the same in a very disciplined way.”
As for all those trips to games — 60 between college and the pros, and counting — he admitted, “My time away from my business is my kids ... that’s always been my vacation … my release.”