01/23/2019 7:00 AM -
By Peter Schwartz
This coming Sunday, the New York Streets will be holding an open tryout at PACPLEX in Brooklyn and that will give area football players an opportunity to show off their skills with the hopes of earning an invitation to the Streets’ inaugural training camp for the 2019 National Arena League season. Open tryouts have been a staple in Arena Football for many years and there have been numerous times where a player was able to earn a roster spot.
If you are a football player and you’re still deciding if you are going to come down on Sunday or if you think open tryouts are a waste of time, let me tell you a story from my eight years working in the Arena Football League with the New York Dragons about a player who realized his dream of playing professional football through an open tryout.
Will Holder was a star football player at Monmouth University in New Jersey and when he graduated was the school’s all-time leading receiver with 115 catches, 2,309 yards and 25 touchdowns. After college, Holder went to an open tryout for the New Jersey Gladiators of the Arena Football League in 2001.
He was one of five or six hundred hopefuls that showed up one day at the old New York Giants bubble next to Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands and earned an invitation to training camp for the 2002 season. However, this particular chapter of his career did not have a happy ending.
“I made that team and I was on the practice squad for a few weeks and then they released me when I got hurt so I was bummed out,” recalled Holder.
Disappointed with how things ended in New Jersey, Holder got a call from his agent a few months later about a tryout for the AFL’s New York Dragons. The tryout would take place in late 2002 as the team was looking for players to add to the training camp roster for the 2003 season. Holder lived in New Jersey and when he heard it was a New York tryout, he had to think about it before making a decision.
As it turns out, he made a decision that would change his life.
“My only concern was how far is it because my car wasn’t in the best shape at that time,” said Holder. “I learned it was right on Long Island so I was like cool I have family out there so I made the trip. I didn’t have to think much at all. I wanted to play.”
After relocating from Iowa to Long Island for the 2001 season, the New York Dragons practiced at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for their inaugural season at the Nassau Coliseum, but they had plans to renovate an old airplane hangar at Mitchell Field next to the Coliseum into a practice facility for the 2002 season. But there were a number of unforeseen delays and the Dragons needed a venue for training camp and practice.
What they wound up doing was rolling an indoor turf onto a parking lot next to the Coliseum and that’s where the Dragons held the open tryout as well as training camp and practices for the 2002 season. Holder would drive to the tryout to with the hopes of earning a trip to Dragons training camp in 2003.
“I paid…it had to be around $50 and I had an opportunity to show my talent and I took advantage of it,” said Holder who is currently a career firefighter in New Jersey. “We had to do drills of course and we had to warm up. They timed us in the 40 (yard dash) and everything.”
The coaches began to take notice of Holder’s ability and so did Aaron Garcia, arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of Arena Football. Garcia was at the open tryout helping out and throwing passes to the wide receiver candidates and he noticed how well Holder was doing in the drills. So Garcia went to Director of Player Personnel Rory Vacco and Head Coach John Gregory and asked to throw passes to Holder.
Garcia and Holder had no prior history together, but they enjoyed instant chemistry that was a sign of things to come.
“I had no idea who he was,” said Holder. “All I could think was that this guy had a really good arm. He wants to throw to me and I want him to throw to me so let’s do it. I had a lot of fun.”
So much fun that at the end of the day, Holder was informed that he had earned an invitation to 2003 New York Dragons training camp. The team mailed Holder a contract to sign but he still had to earn a roster spot when he reported to camp. Between the tryout and training camp, Holder recalled his experience with the Gladiators and worked hard to improve on some aspects of his game.
When the Dragons made their final cuts, Holder wasn’t one of them and was told he had made the team. He began the 2003 season on the practice squad and the Dragons got off to an 0-4 start costing head coach John Gregory his job. New head coach Todd Shell took over and promoted Holder to the active roster and that was the opportunity he was looking for.
“My career didn’t really blossom or elevate from that point until the coaching change occurred,” said Holder. “Everything really took off at that point.”
Holder would have an instant impact on the Dragons’ offense. He would haul in 51 catches for 593 yards and 12 touchdowns and helped the Dragons reach the playoffs after an 0-6 start to the season.
Don’t rub your eyes! The Dragons lost their first two games under Shell to fall to 0-6, but the team would win eight of their final ten games to finish 8-8 and win the Eastern Division title. The Dragons would then beat Chicago in the opening round of the playoffs before their season ended the following week in Orlando.
From an open tryout to training camp to an 0-6 start to a division championship. That was quite a first professional season for the talented Holder who was an ironman playing both wide receiver and defensive back.
“Unbelievable,” said Holder. “When I look back on it, it’s even more impressive to think about it. (Shell) convinced us to believe that what we all think is crazy now. We felt like okay we can win it. One game at a time.”
Proving he was not a flash in the pan, Holder did even better in 2004 with 67 catches, 941 yards and 26 touchdowns in helping the Dragons to a 2nd straight Eastern Division title.
Holder spent five seasons with the Dragons from 2003 to 2007 and then he finished his AFL career with Kansas City in 2008. In his six year career, Holder caught 217 passes for 2609 yards and 56 touchdowns. Sprinkled into those six Arena Football League seasons were two invitations to NFL training camps with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004 and with the Oakland Raiders in 2005.
His journey started with a dream to play professional football after college and then after a disappointing ending with the New Jersey Gladiators, Holder earned a 2nd opportunity when he went to the New York Dragons open tryout and earned a roster spot.
So if you’re a football player still thinking about wether or not to come to the New York Streets’ open tryout this Sunday, Holder has some words of wisdom for you.
“My message would be to go for it and do it,” said Holder. “If it’s something you’re thinking about, do it. If you feel like you’re good and you can see yourself playing on that level or even playing in the NFL, if you feel like you need a pathway or more exposure, go do it and see what happens. Continue to work hard and you never know. Sometimes the right person getting their eyeballs on you…you never know.”
And perhaps the right set of eyeballs will be at PACPLEX this Sunday. The moral of the story is this…if you have a dream, you have to explore all options and opportunities to make that dream come true. Will Holder did it back in 2002-2003 and perhaps there will be a Will Holder or two or more at the NY Streets open tryout.
It’s like playing the New York Lottery…“Hey You Never Know!”