Holland commits to Elon Phoenix
Matt Holland will have to wear his cleats during football practice at Elon University.
The Hilliard Middle-Senior High School offensive lineman prefers to run in bare feet. But that may have to change next fall after signing his letter of intent to play for the Phoenix on National Signing Day Feb. 1.
Holland will attend the North Carolina-based university with an annual $50,000 full-ride scholarship. He plans to become a physical therapist.
“It will give me a chance to help people and stay around athletes,” Holland said.
“He’s a good kid,” said HMSHS Dean John Crawford. “I’ve been coaching him off and on since he was a seventh grader. He’s always been big.”
Holland has a reputation for running barefoot during team practice.
“I’ve never seen such a big kid run so fast without his shoes on,” Crawford said. “This comes as no surprise to me. He’s a good kid and he’s a pleaser. He wants to please coaches.”
The 6-foot-2, 296-pound player quipped, “I hate shoes.”
“We told the coaches that when he comes out, make sure that he has his cleats on,” Dad Hardy Holland said.
Holland might be speedier running shoeless.
“He runs faster without shoes on,” Mom Andrea said.
Hilliard Flashes Coach Zack Whittenburg praised Holland’s work ethic and acceptance by a Division I collegiate football program.
“It’s a great honor,” the coach said. “People think in small towns that you can’t make it. But you can. Hopefully he’ll be there for four to five years, work hard and have a bright future.”
Whittenburg said that Holland, 19, will be an asset to his new team.
“If you were to create a player, he’s exactly what you want, working hard – playing hard. He’s got what the schools are looking for with his flexibility,” the coach said.
Holland’s passion for football wasn’t apparent when he began playing football in sixth grade. He wanted to quit on his first day of practice, but his parents encouraged him to tough it out.
“We’ve always been a true believer in telling our kids to finish what they start,” Hardy said.
As the younger Holland found his footing, his love for the game deepened.
“It lets me get out all my aggression,” he said. “And I like the family aspect of being a team.”
His teammates have helped to motivate him along the way.
“Ian McBride – he’s been there to push me and help me get through hard times,” Holland said. “So has Jacob Waters, Brandon Wilkes and Holden McMillen – because he’s always been a good friend.”
The teen expressed his appreciation for Whittenburg.
“He was there when I was in eighth grade and he took us to an almost undefeated season,” Holland recalled. “He’s a great coach – and he really pushed me to get to college. He encouraged me to go mentally farther than I thought I could go. He made me a better person.”
Focused on academics and his career goal in physical therapy, Holland’s not sure if he will ever play professional football. He has a 3.5 grade point average.
“If it happens, I’ll take it,” he said. “If it doesn’t, I’m not going to worry about it. It’s not my last resort.”
Holland comes from a large family that includes siblings Anthony, Hunter, Cole, Hardee, Michael, Heather, Brandon, Jonathan and Brandi. His dad is pleased with his son’s accomplishments.
“I’m proud of him. I’d really like him to make a footprint in life,” Hardy said, then added jokingly, “I don’t want him to go, but I’m kind of glad he’s off my meal ticket. We can afford to go to the movies now. I want God to do great things for him.”
The elder Holland said he tells his children every day that he loves them.
“I let them know that I’m in their corner, no matter what,” he added. “Every day I tell them I love them. We started doing that when they were babies. We don’t leave the house without saying I love you.”
Andrea is equally proud of her son.
“We’re really proud,” she said. “I’m like his number one fan. We’re happy and excited about it. I don’t want him to go. It’s so far away, but I want him to get an education.”