As the phone call dragged on, Karl Holmes Jr. began to tune out the voice on the other end of the line. He had heard all he needed to. The message was clear: stop playing football or else …
The headaches that had plagued him for several months and the increasing memory loss when given menial tasks by family members weren’t because of overexertion, as he had hoped. It was all adding up now. Just a day shy of his 22nd birthday, Holmes knew his football career was over.
“The doctor said I was at risk of developing a brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” Holmes said while remembering the call that ended it all. “When he first called, I was tuned in. Then, I started to fade out. I just started thinking about all the hard work that I had put in to get to this point. Everything just kind of came to a stop.”
This wasn’t the end Holmes, a former standout receiver at Muir High School in Pasadena, had imagined for his football career. But as he started to think about the several concussions he had suffered in a relatively short amount of time, it all started to make sense.
There was the shot he took during a hitting drill just before his senior year at Muir. There was the time he got rocked by his then Arizona St. teammate Vontaze Burfict (now in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals) during a Sun Devils practice. There was the car accident. And then there was the last one, which came this past spring at Grand Valley State. Holmes doesn’t remember it at all.
It was all just part of the game, or so Holmes thought until he started developing severe headaches after returning home to Pasadena for summer break in May. Then came the memory loss and it was obvious something was really wrong.
“I noticed for a certain period of time that I remembered people asking me to do things, but at the time I just couldn’t remember what they asked,” Holmes said. “I would go back three or four days later and sit back like ‘He really did ask me that.’ I told my mom that I thought I was starting to forget things.”
The headaches, some lasting as long as four days, eventually sent Holmes to the emergency room. That’s when the process of having advance brain tests began. In lay terms, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive brain disease that’s caused by repeated trauma to the brain. It’s the condition that athletes in contact sports fear most.
Despite all the body parts that football can ruin, brain injuries have become the hot-button issue of the sports medicine community. Stories of athletes either dead or in dilapidated states because of head or neck injuries are now commonplace. Governing bodies at all levels of the football have quickly moved to take precautionary action and limit exposure to such catastrophic outcomes caused by such a violent sport.
Never mind the the risks, though. Football was always Holmes’ beacon of hope. It was his way to make something great out of a childhood rife with struggle. Holmes’ father, Karl Sr., is currently on death row for his role in the infamous 1993 Halloween murders that saw three young Pasadena boys gunned down in a gang retaliation shooting gone wrong.
Holmes met his father for the first time when he was 5 and didn’t see him again until he was 11. Holmes’ mother, Wanda Martin, wasn’t always a presence in his life until well into his high school days at Muir.
But through it all, Holmes has always been the entertaining kid with a contagious smile who knew exactly what to do when he had the football in his hands. After being a standout receiver and defensive back at Muir, Holmes signed with Arizona St.
Holmes was one of several Pasadena-area standouts in his age group to set his sights on college stardom and hopefully something beyond. USC defensive back Kevon Seymour, USC receiver Steven Mitchell and soon-to-be Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams were all part of the crew Holmes ran with.
After two years and the departure of head coach Dennis Erickson at Arizona St., Holmes left Tempe for Mt. San Antonio College where he never actually played but completed his associate of arts degree and got offers to continue his football career at Illinois and Colorado.
Because of an NCAA rules change in academic requirements, Holmes couldn’t attend Illinois like he had wanted and decided to continue his playing career at the best Division II school possible. Holmes enrolled at Grand Valley St. in Michigan and was slated to start at receiver this fall.
Holmes suffered the last of his football-related concussions in Grand Valley St.’s spring game. He doesn’t recall the circumstances one bit. Soon came the onset of symptoms and ultimately the conclusion that it’s best not to risk things further.
But Holmes isn’t bitter now that his career is over several years short of what he had hoped. He holds no grudges against the sport because of his circumstances and wants to continue to be a part of it in a different way by coaching after he finishes college.
For the immediate future, though, Holmes will root on his friends and family who continue on with their gridiron dreams. In addition to riends in high places, Holmes’ cousins Darick Jr. and Desean play at Arizona and San Diego St., respectively. Another cousin, Darnay, is a junior at Calabasas High and is one of the top recruits in the country for his class.
“Football just gave me a vision to see something I probably wouldn’t have seen,” Holmes said. “I’ve met a lot of people. I’ve networked. I’ve been a lot of places because of football. Football has allowed me to go to college. It was a way of repaying my family.
“Football has taught to me to be humble at all times because any time could be your last snap. I had no idea, no clue to even think that my last snap would be coming any time soon. Unfortunately, I’m not able to keep playing, but I want to go on and coach. I want to give something back to the game. Football is greatest sport on the planet.”