- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- There was a charity fashion show in one of New York's swankiest hotels Monday night, with paparazzi, fine wines and puffy hors d' oeuvres, and there, in one of the most unlikely corners of the city, the playful soul of this 9-2 New York Jets team was revealed once again. Offensive linemen strutted down a runway wearing designer clothes. A not-so-shy young man named Steve Weatherford -- the punter, for God's sake -- ripped his shirt off to screams from the crowd. And somewhere, presumably on the other side of the Hudson River, Santonio Holmes stayed away.
He is minding his p's and q's these days, lying low, soaking up every syllable of the playbook. This is what a change of scenery can do for a man; it can change his life. The very closest people to Holmes say he's grown up, he's shaken his bad-boy transgressions and moved on. "Great teammate" flows off the tongues of at least a half-dozen Jets these days.
Great story, right? The NFL loves redemption stories, and Holmes -- who has hauled in four clutch catches in the waning moments of four Jets victories -- fits perfectly into a 6 o'clock time slot. Man wins Super Bowl MVP, trips up repeatedly and loses his roots in Pittsburgh. Man moves to New York, the city of opportunity, the place where Alicia Keys sings "these streets will make you feel brand-new." But Holmes isn't exactly cooperating with the narrative. He hates this stuff, talking about anything besides running routes, and isn't necessarily interested in peeling back layers or becoming the league's next feel-good story.
He was on the phone Wednesday night for a rather awkward conversation filled with several pauses, calling to tie up some loose ends -- calling, mainly, because his publicist wanted him to. He does not make proclamations that he is a changed man. He doesn't care, really, what anyone thinks of him.
"If I ever worried about what someone else thought about me or said about me," Holmes said, "I don't think I would be in the position I am today. It's just about being confident in myself.
"I can't be concerned about the media, the fans, talking about the way that I play or the off-the-field things. That doesn't do anything for me. That doesn't boost my confidence; it doesn't make me go out and want to play harder. This is my job, this is my life, this is what I do for a living. I don't listen to nobody else on the outside."
Patricia Brown will help push this narrative along. She's known him the longest. In 1984, at 16, she gave birth to Santonio, the first of four children in a single-parent household. She wanted so much for this stubborn, playful kid, so much for a boy who quickly became the man of the house.
It was Santonio who got his brothers ready for the school bus, who cooked them dinner and called his mom for recipe instructions. It was Santonio who pulled down A's and made his mom so proud that she kept all of his report cards.
She knows why Holmes plays football the way he does.
"I would say mainly because of me and the struggles that I had," Brown said. "And the struggle You know, I actually had to make him grow up faster than he wanted to. Because it was just me and him and his brothers.
"I had to go to work at 4 o'clock in the morning, and some days he didn't see me unless I'd go in the room at night and wake him up and say, 'Baby, I'm home.'"
Brown is careful with her words, choosing the best answers that won't breach 26 years of trust. Her son was sick when he was little. She worried about him. It wasn't until he was an adult, after his son Santonio III was born and was diagnosed with sickle-cell disease, that they realized Santonio had the trait, too. (Holmes arrived late for camp this summer because he was with his son, who had his spleen removed because of complications from sickle-cell anemia).
When Santonio was a kid, he was small. Maybe half the size of some of the other boys, she said. So she tried to lock him up, and of course he sneaked out to play, diving for passes, falling onto discarded mattresses in a yard.
Money was tight in Belle Glade, Fla., a rugged, impoverished town on the southeast shore of Lake Okeechobee. It's sugar-cane, hard-labor land, and it's also known as "Muck City." Santonio never knew he was poor. He was just like everybody else in his neighborhood.
Then again, he wasn't. He had the stride of an Olympic sprinter and the curiosity of a third-year law student. And coaches loved that thirst for knowledge. When Holmes made it to the NFL, after four years at Ohio State, he bought Patricia a new truck for her 40th birthday. A year later, he got her a four-bedroom house.
"He's not a mama's boy," Brown said. "He's pretty much his own self."
With the Steelers
The off-the-field stuff has dogged him since Belle Glade. There was his confession just before Super Bowl XLIII that he sold drugs as a kid, a statement as jolting as his last-minute, game-winning catch a few days later that sealed the Steelers' championship. There was a domestic violence incident in 2006 that was later dismissed, an arrest in 2008 for possession of marijuana, and a lawsuit from March that alleges Holmes threw a glass at a woman in an Orlando nightclub.
The latter -- along with an impending suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy -- was the last straw for the Steelers, who were also dealing with the fallout of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's spring of scandal and an accusation of sexual assault. (Georgia prosecutors later decided not to file charges, but Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games.) With suspensions looming for two of their star players, the Steelers traded Holmes to New York for a fifth-round draft pick, informing him of the move on an April night when he was walking his dog.
Holmes was floored by the news, and his mother immediately knew something was wrong when he called that night.
"I'm going to New York," he told Patricia. "No more Pittsburgh."
His account of that night is about as emotional and revealing as Holmes gets. Pittsburgh had become home. He connected with the people there. Hines Ward taught him how to be a professional, taught him to take his playbook on road games and to visualize. But even Holmes couldn't see this.
"Being a Super Bowl MVP, that's the last thing on your mind, regardless of any situation you ever go through in life," Holmes said. "I was sad that I left. But it's the NFL I don't even know. I was lost. I was shocked.
"But it also gave me a new surge of energy, you know? That's kind of how I feel right now. I just let it roll off my chest. It hit me, and I said, 'All right, I'm playing for the Jets.' That was it."
The Steelers declined comment for this story, referring to their policy of not commenting on other teams' players. But Tom Shaw, Holmes' mentor and speed coach, said Holmes got caught in a "perfect storm" of offseason turmoil that led to his Pittsburgh exit.
Looking back on it, Shaw said it was probably the best thing that could have happened to Holmes. Just after he was traded, the receiver had a sit-down with Jets coach Rex Ryan, who, along with general manager Mike Tannenbaum, has been known to take a few risks on players who are perceived as bad seeds. The Jets also picked up troubled receiver Braylon Edwards, plus Antonio Cromartie, who was buried in paternity problems in San Diego.
But back to the meeting. Ryan told Holmes that if he did what he was supposed to do, they'd be together for a long time.
"You see Rex Ryan, and people think he's a goofball because of the things he does on TV," Shaw said. "But he's probably one of the truest people you'll ever meet. He's not afraid to tell you what he thinks."
Eight months later, it's clear that Tannenbaum threw sevens on what was once perceived as a huge gamble. Yes, Holmes had to sit for the first four games this season for his suspension. But he's had 32 catches for 491 yards in the past seven, with a handful of them being the difference in razor-thin games.
Tannenbaum calls it a partnership, an exchange of trust. The Jets took a chance on Holmes, and Holmes, through the first part of December at least, has made them look brilliant.
"Every situation is different," Tannenbaum said. "I think you have to weigh the risks and the reward and evaluate where you are as an organization, see what the price is. We go into every deal pretty methodically and talk about the pros and cons. And at the end of the day, [it's] 'Hey, this is what's best for the Jets.' And typically there's two sides to every story."
Shaw insisted it's that way with Holmes. He's known him since Holmes was a teenager, when he weighed 147 pounds and looked nothing like the rest of the NFL talent gravitating to Shaw's Florida camps. He said Holmes is genuine, that he loves his craft, and that deep down he's hurt by the negative publicity.
They had a conversation recently about Holmes' sons. He said he didn't want his kids to someday Google his name and come up with countless hits regarding their dad's misdeeds.
"He understands that the first 15 pages need to be about Santonio Holmes scoring touchdowns," Shaw said. "Doing good things for kids.
"He's got to end up proving it. He's doing everything right now. And I'm proud of him. I really am."
It's Patriots week
Grab a seat, Holmes says. He stares at a light-gray wall, softly speaking over a room full of players and reporters. It is New England week, a clash between two AFC rivals sitting at the top of the standings together at 9-2 looms Monday, and the place is buzzing with a playoff feel. In a few minutes, Rex Ryan will joke about how he looks a lot like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Holmes seems unfazed by the "Monday Night Football" buildup. He seems unfazed by everything.
Maybe it's because he reached a different stratosphere at age 24, with 35 seconds on a clock. He caught a pass from Roethlisberger in the back of the end zone, tapped both sets of tippy-toes on the ground before red end zone turned to white, then sat on the ground, clutching the ball, never wanting to let go.
"For a guy who's in his fifth year, he has great awareness beyond his years as a football player," said Jets receivers coach Henry Ellard. "That's God-given."
And it's as if he's been with the Jets since draft day in 2006. Holmes regularly goes out to dinner with second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez -- a lot of the guys on offense do -- and traveled to California this past summer to be part of Jets West, a voluntary passing camp that served as a group bonding session for the receivers and Sanchez.
Holmes shrugs off the notion that clicking with a new quarterback is all that difficult.
"I just told him, 'Just put the ball wherever you feel comfortable putting it, and I'll make a play for you,'" Holmes said. "And over the course of time, he started understanding the way I play the game and how aggressive I am and how hungry and eager I am to make plays."
But tight end Dustin Keller knows how tough it is to establish that connection. It took Keller until the playoffs last year before he felt totally comfortable. He says Sanchez clicks with Holmes because "you know what you're getting from him every single time."
"It means that the two are almost sharing one mind," Keller said about the connection. "They sit there and they see a defense and they're going to attack it the same way."
He doesn't say much
It could have gone the other way. Receivers with rap sheets, an aging running back who was supposedly washed up, a head coach who irritates a few opponents with his brash talk.
In August, nobody knew for sure what was going to happen. Somehow, all these diverse personalities have managed to come together and make it work. Linebacker Bart Scott sees it. He surveys the locker room and gives a rundown of the personalities and how they're strategically positioned.
"Quiet, quiet loud enough for two," Scott said as he pointed to the lockers. "Quiet talkative a little bit."
Scott has noticed that Holmes doesn't say much, and doesn't keep many personal items in his locker. But they get along. They talk about their kids. They have that in common.
Holmes came to New York in April talking about accountability, but that's about as far as he went. He doesn't say that this is his second and possibly last chance, and that he can't blow it. That would sound too much like a redemption story.
But his teammates know why he is here, in this season that has seemed charmed with so many last-minute heroics.
"Rex doesn't care what other people think," Scott said. "And when you don't care what other people think, you do what you think is best.
"Everybody fits in well in this environment. It's an environment that's open for all kinds of personalities. For all kinds of people. It's an environment where people are allowed to be themselves."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Those close to the Jets receiver say he's grown up and shed bad-boy image