TAMPA, Fla. — Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes’ childhood was much like that of any other youngster in rural south Florida. He played backyard football. Chased squirrels. Ran around with his friends.
This was different: Despite being a promising athlete, Holmes also spent a year selling drugs on a street corner in his small hometown.
He chose to make his surprising admission at the Super Bowl, knowing millions of impressionable youngsters will be closely following the game and its players. By revealing his secret, Holmes hopes he may persuade other at-risk youth to choose a path that leads to the athletic field and a classroom, not to a detention center or a jail cell.
“I’ve only told three or four people about it,” Holmes said Wednesday. “I feel it’s time to share things. I’m on the biggest stage, everybody’s going to be watching. I’m pretty sure some kids can get a feel for changing their lives and not doing those type of things, and can get an opportunity to get out of the ghetto, the ‘hood, to be successful.”
Holmes, who initially made the admission in an interview with the Miami Herald, became exposed to the lifestyle while growing up in Belle Glade, Fla. Some family members and friends made money selling drugs, he said, and he found it an easy way to make money, too, though he didn’t specify exactly what he sold.
Holmes avoided detection by his mother by going to school, then leaving and going to the street corner. He and his family didn’t need the money for food or essentials, and he used it mostly on gifts for himself, like shoes.
“My friends were always doing it and I felt comfortable doing it at the time,” Holmes said. “As the years grew older, I just felt like that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to play football. I don’t want to end up like a lot of my friends, in jail, standing on the corner, not going to school.”
Several pivotal events turned Holmes away from selling and pushed him to football, where he starred as Glades Central High won Florida state titles during his sophomore and junior seasons and went 12-1 during his senior season.
Holmes and his mother became worried as they repeatedly returned home to find bullet holes or broken locks in their apartment. Another time, Holmes’ mother found cocaine in the youngster’s dump truck. That seemed to be what prompted her to relocate to another area.
The move, Holmes said, was pivotal in turning his life around.
“It made me who I am today. If I had continued down that path, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
“At times, going back home during the offseason or my free time, that’s the main time I think about it. But I saw how much of a struggle I had to go through, my mother had to go through and I don’t want to wish that on anybody,” Holmes said.
After high school ball, he starred at Ohio State for three seasons before being the Steelers’ first-round draft pick in 2006. Holmes has been one of their key offensive players this season, making 55 catches for 821 yards and five touchdowns. He has two touchdowns in two postseason games.
On Super Bowl media day, Holmes told a different story about his childhood.
“Belle Glade, it’s probably one of the smallest towns here in Florida, and we didn’t have much to do there. There’s a high school, a couple of elementary schools and a middle school,” he said. “We chase rabbits for a living. We did it for fun, but for the majority of the people we know, we did it for survival. I can remember it clearly that up until my sophomore year of high school, that’s what I did. Every Saturday and every Sunday after church, that’s what we would do: We would go rabbit hunting.”
Earlier this season, Holmes was benched for an important game against the Giants for being involved in a drug-related case. He was charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana after police found marijuana-filled cigars in his car after a traffic stop.
Holmes said that incident doesn’t signal a return to his past.
“It happens, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not being responsible, being around people that aren’t responsible enough to respect what I do,” Holmes said. “I knew what my path was like before, and I didn’t want to go down that path again.”