ROSLYN HEIGHTS, N.Y. — Sixteen-year-old Jahquie Martin slowly made his way up to the microphone, clutching a few pieces of loose leaf in his right hand. Adjusting the mic with his free hand, Martin cautiously cleared his throat before speaking.
He began like any normal high school teenager would – with a tense lump in his throat and growing beads of perspiration above his brow.
“My name is Jahquie Martin. I’m 16-years-old and from Bed Stuysvent, Brooklyn. I currently attend Boys and Girls High School,” he choked out.
Martin, far from normal as I would soon come to know, is, however, one of a kind.
“I have Sickle Cell Anemia,” he nervously shared with the crowd at the Temple Sinai synagogue in Roslyn Heights, New York on Monday for the second annual Third & Long Foundation’s Monday Night Party to help find a cure towards Sickle Cell Anemia and raise money for the Ascent School for Autism.
The crinkling of the loose leaf in his shaking hand could be overheard as a backdrop to the words of his moving story of struggle, sacrifice and – most importantly – triumph. The irony of his nerves over public speaking is that, at 16, Martin has unequivocally been through hell and back. And to still have a soft approach about something as minutely antagonizing as public speaking after such a hardening experience was refreshingly inspirational.
Bravely recounting battles with Sickle Cell Anemia, a disease that affects 90,000 – 100,000 Americans to date, the anxiety was soon stripped from the baritone voice of Martin, leaving the melodic sound of a strong young man defeating the disease that tried to derail him, one word at a time.
A seventeen-year-old Santonio Holmes was a three-sport athlete at Glades Central High School in Belle Glade, Florida. Lettering in football, basketball and track, Holmes was a human highlight reel on the field. In football, he helped lead his team to two state titles and 12-1 record as a senior. In basketball, he helped his team to a state runner-up. In track, his team won the state title during his junior year – with his 4×400 meter relay team claiming two state titles. He even excelled in classroom, graduating with 3.4 GPA.
Off the field, however, things weren’t as easy as picking up a first down.
Holmes, an undiagnosed carrier of the Sickle Cell trait until the age of 25, consistently missed school due to a frequent indescribable illness. There would be moments where he’d find himself in bed all day, writhing with aches and pain that, he said, were too excruciating for words.
Small in stature, but equipped with an unwavering drive – much like Martin, Holmes refused to be beaten. Not by Sickle Cell Anemia. Not by life either. While classmates strained over what to do after the Friday night football game or who they were taking to their senior prom, Holmes faced, what appeared to be, an insurmountable third-and-long situation at 17, which most would never expect to encounter.
An unforeseen pregnancy to then-girlfriend, Nicole King, would turn his world upside-down. Santonio Holmes III came into this world with Sickle Cell Anemia. Something that Holmes could never have prepared himself for – the sleepless nights in hospitals, countless blood transfusions, surgically removing his spleen, all before his son turned 10.
“I didn’t see that part coming in my life. I knew I would be a better father than my father was. I vowed to make something of my life and made sure he was taken care of,” Holmes said.
A vow that his father, Santonio Holmes Sr., didn’t have when the former Ohio State Buckeye was born. At 28, Holmes struggles to recall spending more than a week with his father.
Upon receiving the news of his newborn’s prognosis, Holmes new a change had to be made. As a self-described “troubled kid”, Holmes came clean that he used to peddle drugs on the Florida street corners, while his mother thought he was at high school. A worn, but short path that, seemingly, only led to the Glades Correctional Facility.
“It was just being around the friends I grew up with,” he recalled. “Those guys were always doing it. So I felt comfortable [selling drugs] at the time. But as I grew older, I just felt that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to play football. I didn’t want to end up in jail like a lot of my friends.”
His decision to quit dealing was, according to him, part of God’s plan. “It made me who I am today. If I continued down that path, I wouldn’t be here.”
Holmes rededicated himself to football and family, earning a full scholarship to the Ohio State University, where he would leave school early for the NFL draft to support his family.
Now as a member of the New York Jets and considered one of the top receivers in the game, it’s not even a question if Holmes chose the right path.
He has endured his share of bumps and potholes along the way – three arrests (disorderly conduct, domestic violence, and marijuana possession), violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy (marijuana) and being labeled a “poster boy for the Jets dysfunction”.
The few missteps are hardly an accurate indictment on the man Holmes is.
As Jahquie Martin closed his speech to a rousing standing ovation to those listening in the Roslyn Heights synagogue, Holmes embraced Martin and thanked him for sharing his courageous story. A story that Holmes is all too familiar with.
“To stand behind him and see his hands shake nervously as he was holding his speech was special. I felt every part – every word. I felt his pain to the beginning to the end,” Holmes said.
Witnessing the embrace between Holmes and Martin – a true moment of reality – cast aside the ‘selfish’ and ‘cancerous’ perception that’s followed Holmes since arriving in New York. A selfish person would not spend their free time traveling to Africa to help those less fortunate, which he has done for the past three seasons. A cancerous person would not go out of his way to help young, upcoming receivers – who are looking to one day take his roster spot – become the best professionals they can be.
“He’s the type of guy who’ll come up to you and talk to you and share what he knows,” Jordan White, rookie wide receiver, told NY Metro.
“He’s a little big brother [to me],” Stephen Hill cracked.
When there’s someone who’s had a life’s worth of experience crammed in to their first twenty-eight years, it’s hard not to listen. Similar to showing Hill the finer points of a hitch-and-go route, Holmes counseled his son on how to control the waves of pain that would flow through him. For Holmes, the trick was rubbing his extremities while focusing on how this pain he’s feeling now will shape the man he will one day be – stoic, strong, a survivor.
Now 10, Santonio III can play the same game that allowed his father the platform to help his son and others suffering from Sickle Cell Anemia. Like Martin, who, after receiving help from Santonio’s Third & Long Foundation, has not been in a hospital in two years.
Ten years after receiving the stunning news that he would be a fathering a child at the childish age of 17, Holmes converted that third and long in his life and took it all the way to the endzone.
Since 2008 his Third & Long Foundation has helped raise $125,000 in the hopes of one day finding a cure for Sickle Cell Anemia.
I asked Holmes why he decided to share with the world, on such a grand stage as the Super Bowl media day, that he used to deal drugs. Would he feel the backlash of this being yet another label for the ‘athletes are bad role models’ stigma? Why out yourself to the world as a former juvenile drug dealer?
“I wanted to show that I was a troubled kid who overcame different obstacles in my life to become the person I am today. [Hopefully] that allowed a lot of kids to put away the past struggles and move on to better things,” he said. “I can represent for the place that I grew up in and let kids in a similar position know there still is a chance. If you put your mind to it, you can do it.”
Does that sound like a poster boy of dysfunction?
It’s no secret that Holmes has image problems – some of which is to his own doing. And in the NFL perception is everything, yet the reality is hardly seen when they step out of their cleats and go beyond the white lines of the gridiron and step in to the real world.
The reality is this: Santonio Holmes is a fighter. A fighter with a chip on his shoulder. An undersized athlete, he’s needed that spirit to succeed in the NFL. He’s needed that spirit to overcome Sickle Cell Anemia, a disease he says no one knows the extent of its ruthlessness.
“Explaining the severity of pain that Sickle Cell-stricken people go through is indescribable to those who don’t have it. We are one of a kind,” he said.
As the Monday Night Football party came to a close, it was clear leaving the Temple Sinai that both Jahquie Martin and Santonio Holmes were, at least for one day, both one of a kind.
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