In Division III football, no matter how many hurdles life throws at you, no matter how long it’s been since you put on the pads, there’s always a chance you’ll get a second go-round on the gridiron.
Jon Daniels proved that. He played one season at Wittenberg after his high school career at South, then spent five years in the National Guard before returning to the Tigers in 2010. He made the most of three seasons in which he was always the oldest and one of the most respected players.
Dustin Holmes didn’t follow the exact path blazed by Daniels, yet in spirit, the story is similar. Holmes graduated from Tecumseh High School in 2010 and appeared in nine games as a freshman at Wittenberg that fall.
By the end of the season, he appeared to be an up-and-coming star for the defense. Then he was gone: no announcement, no fanfare, just another name deleted from the roster, which happens all the time at this level.
Last week, seemingly from out of nowhere, Holmes, now 22, returned to Wittenberg’s roster as a starting linebacker and had a sack and eight tackles in a 34-17 victory over DePauw at Edwards-Maurer Field.
“He’s Lazarus man,” Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham joked. “He’s dead, and then he’s back up again.”
In Division I, players get five years — or six in rare cases — to play four seasons. Once your clock starts, Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham said, it’s rolling.
That rule doesn’t apply in Division III where athletes get 10 semesters to compete for four years, but those semesters can be spread over any length of time. That’s why Holmes was able to return to Wittenberg. This is why he left:
“Honestly, I had some family issues and a couple classroom issues,” he said after practice Tuesday. “I withdrew and took a job traveling all over the country doing some agricultural construction. Then I went to Ohio Northern (last year) and stayed up there, didn’t play football or anything.
“Then I just got to thinking. I love playing the sport. I got a hold of some of the coaches and I was really committed to coming back. I’ve been working hard lifting. I’ve got to take that chance while it’s still there.”
Before he returned to school at Ohio Northern and then Wittenberg, Holmes worked 70 hours a week building giant grain silo bins — 105 feet across, 100 feet tall, he said — and traveled to 27 states on the job.
It was good work but difficult work and reminded him of all that he was missing by not playing football and working toward a degree.
“People that work that job don’t have families or any kind of life,” Holmes said. “They’re just out on the road working.”
Holmes always held out hope of playing again. The last two years, he told Wittenberg linebacker Kyle Sanning, a fellow Tecumseh graduate, he was coming back only to have the plans fall through. He told Sanning again this year, and Sanning spread the word, but everyone said, “We’ll believe it when we see it.”
Holmes told himself, “I’m 22 years old. If I’m going to do it, I need to do it now. I can’t wait another year or two and say I’m going to do it.”
It almost didn’t happen. It wasn’t until a day before the deadline to register for classes that Holmes enrolled.
Earlier in the summer, Holmes reached out to Wittenberg defensive coordinator Sean Ross to see if Wittenberg would take him back.
“He said, ‘Hey, if we can get Dustin back, would you take him?’” Fincham said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to have him as a football player if he can get his personal life squared up.’ He had some things to overcome. We got him in here the first week of school. He missed all of camp. He was in good lifting shape. He was a lot bigger than what he was here earlier.”
Holmes was a 190-pound defensive back in 2010. Now he’s a 215-pound linebacker. He started practice the week before the season opener against Butler on Sept. 6 and moved from the scout team to safety to linebacker in rapid fashion.
Holmes was rusty, but when DeVonta Anderson sprained his ankle, Holmes got his chance to play against DePauw.
“I love it. I’m so glad,” Holmes said. “It’s the best decision I ever made. I love the school and the coaches, and all the professors are awesome, too. I couldn’t believe I stayed away so long.”
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