- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- When Santonio Holmes caught the game-winning touchdown for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIII, he was rushed immediately after the game by his son, Santonio III.
"He was the first to run down the stairs and grab me," Holmes said Wednesday after his first practice at the New York Jets' training camp.
It was a forever highlight for the father and his son. The lowlight occurred last week, when Santonio III, 8, underwent surgery to have his spleen removed. He has sickle cell anemia, an incurable blood disease that caused an enlarged spleen. Surgery was inevitable; the doctors simply wanted to wait until he was old enough to handle the trauma.
Just like on that memorable night in Tampa, Fla., when he tiptoed the sideline to make one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history, Holmes refused to let go. He stayed at his son's side for three days after the surgery, getting permission from the Jets to report late to camp.
"Having to deal with surgery at that age, you lose track of everything," Holmes said. "I didn't want to think about football. All of my attention definitely was pulled toward him. I gave him all the support he needed."
Santonio III, who lives in Atlanta with his mother, was released from the hospital last Saturday night. It was the eve of training camp. Holmes asked his son if it was OK to leave Monday morning to join the team, and the small boy didn't want him to go. So he didn't.
"It was bad because he had to get four holes punched into his stomach," said Holmes, adding that Santonio III is on his feet and recovering nicely. "It's kind of tough being an 8-year-old with marks all over your body."
Holmes has a bad-guy reputation because of his off-the-field problems -- he has to serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy -- but he has made an effort to raise money for sickle cell research. He created his III & Long Foundation for that purpose. He also donated his Super Bowl gloves, worn on his famous catch, to the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America -- and they sold for $70,200 in a charity auction.
Once he arrived at camp, shortly after the first practice, Holmes tried to concentrate on football. He made an instant impact in his first practice, making a diving catch in the back of the end zone on a 5-yard bullet from Mark Sanchez.
Put Holmes in an end zone, a football within his grasp, and you're likely to see something acrobatic. Sanchez was so excited by the play that he ran like a schoolkid to the end zone, nearly jumping on special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, who was standing nearby.
"He's going to be huge for us, another speed guy to stretch the field," Sanchez said.
Chatting over a meal one day recently, Holmes asked Sanchez if they could room together in training camp. Sanchez was surprised by the request, but accepted.
"Kind of like the winter formal; the girls ask the guy," the quarterback said, smiling.
It took three days longer than planned, but the Jets now have their version of the Odd Couple. Their goal: Establish chemistry. Quickly.
Based on early indications, Holmes seems to be serious about righting his career. He wanted to room with Sanchez because he felt it would help him learn the Jets' playbook. Sanchez predicted late-night study sessions.
Holmes was one of nine skill-position players who attended the Sanchez-organized passing camp last month in Mission Viejo, Calif., the quarterback's hometown. Sanchez called it "Jets West," and he complimented Holmes for his enthusiasm.
"He did an awesome job of being open, listening, talking through routes," said Sanchez, hoping the camp will help their chemistry.
That will be an issue. Because Sanchez missed most of the offseason due to knee surgery, he had only a handful of practices to work with Holmes. They will have training camp, of course, but they will be separated during Holmes' four-game suspension at the start of the regular season. There's a sense of urgency to develop a rapport.
Holmes is starting over after a turbulent end to his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who held a fire sale when they learned about his suspension. They traded the former Super Bowl MVP, a 1,200-yard receiver last season, for only a fifth-round pick. That's how badly they wanted to unload him.
"It's going to be fun," Holmes said. "Everyone is taking on their own role. No one is trying to be bigger than the team or bigger than the group we have ... Once we get on the field, we're going to be tough to beat."