I’m not sure anyone’s happier about the start of the season than Montrae Holland.
Yes, there’s eagerness throughout the locker room. In one corner, there’s Selvin Young, who flashes a broad, toothy grin when asked about how he progressed from undrafted fifth-teamer to Travis Henry’s backup. In another, there’s three rookie defensive linemen who all worked their way onto the second team — and, one would think, into the front-line rotation by Sunday, assuming they’re among the active 45 players. The locker room is pregnant with expectation and, it seems, oozing with confidence.
But as Holland wrapped tape around his hands and thumbs in the locker room this week, he paused to ponder just what he’d managed to do. On a team where linemen are usually cultivated patiently from the draft and the undrafted rookie pool rather than imported via trade or free agency, Holland is poised become the first offseason veteran pickup to be a part of Denver’s opening-day starting offensive line since Ephraim Salaam in 2002. (Salaam also started the ’03 opener; that would be his final Broncos season.)
And given the fact that Holland spent the last eight games of 2006 and the playoffs as a game-day inactive, there are many reasons why he admitted he couldn’t remember starting a season with such excitement and anticipation.
“Man, I don’t know,” he said after mentally scanning through the years to compare this season with the others of his football life. “I can’t even tell you. I’m overwhelmed just to have another opportunity to go out with a great team.”
It’s not just about the team, though. It’s about proving that he’s back.
As 2006 dawned, Holland had etched a solid niche for himself after joining the Saints as a fourth-round pick from Florida State in 2003. He’d started 30 games over his first three seasons, including 23 of the 28 games in which he’d played in 2004 and 2005; only a torn right knee ligament late in 2004 had come close to derailing his professional career.
But in year four of his career, the business side of the NFL tagged him. The Saints made a coaching change, which was only the most visible tenet of a thorough overhaul in the wake of a 3-13 2005 season. Nevertheless, Holland appeared to be in their plans as training camp began.
Then he sprained his knee, Jamar Nesbit slid over into his spot, and you know how the rest of the story goes. Player gets hurt; player usurped by teammate while injured; player can’t get his job back. It’s a story as common in sport as injuries themselves, and Holland’s tale was just another version of the purported headache that befell Wally Pipp when Lou Gehrig replaced him in the New York Yankees’ lineup 81 years earlier.
“It was one of the worst feelings that I ever had, because not only was I on the bench, but halfway through the season I wasn’t active, either,” Holland recalled.
Meanwhile, as Holland suffered in silence, his team celebrated. Bandwagons don’t stop for the guys left at the curb. Holland had one of two choices — sulk and create discord, or smile and enjoy the moments which he could only watch from the sidelines.
He chose the latter. He chose wisely — and honorably.
“We won the division and I was celebrating with the guys,” he said. “I was happy with everyone around me. I can’t place my disappointment on my teammates. I just had to roll with it and be a team player.”
But when he became an unrestricted free agent, he was also happy to leave and restore the promise to his career. The Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns called, but the team that piqued his interest the most was the one for whom he will start at right guard when the regular sseason opens Sunday.
“When I heard the Broncos wanted me, I focused in and signed on the first day of free agency,” he said.
His focus then translated to the playing field, where he claimed first-team work at right guard by the second week of training camp, seizing it and refusing to yield as the preseason progressed. His work in the August games was solid; he meshed into the line with surprising smoothness for a newcomer to both tbe Broncos and a zone-blocking scheme.
“For the most part, it was okay (this summer). I can always be better,” he said. “We didn’t do a whole lot of zone-blocking there (in New Orleans). There’s a lot of man-blocking, a lot of power run-blocking. It’s different, but it’s coming along pretty well.”
And for the 27-yer-old native of Jefferson, Texas, the regular-season’s dawn is a new beginning in every way.
“It feels like my first year again,” he said. “There’s great guys around me. It’s a great feeling.”