Life in the Trenches
By Jeff Holland, 3/7/00

Hit in the groin, spit on, punched, late hits, personal fouls, cheap shots, racial slurs, profanity, trash talking, and the occasional "charley horse". Nope, I’m not talking about a John Rocker family reunion.  I’m talking about playing defensive line on a Division I-A football team, or as some call it - "life in the trenches".

I’m sure you’ve heard all of the clichés about playing in the trenches - trash talking, very physical play, etc. I can tell you from experience, that all of the clichés are pretty much true.  Although, you don’t get hit in the groin or get your eyes gouged as much as you might think. (After watching last year’s Miami game, I’m glad that I didn’t play running back…cough… ..cough…Nate Webster)

Playing in the trenches was always a physical, hostile and at times a dangerous environment. I hope that this article will give you some insight about what my experiences of playing in the trenches was all about, and maybe after you read this article, you might have a little more respect and admiration for what defensive lineman and offensive lineman go through on every play…

Trash talking…

When I played, I hardly ever "talked trash" or "showed off". I didn’t need to beat my chest to know I made a good play. The only times that I would talk trash, use profanity, or use the occasional "charley horse" was when the other team started the trash talking. In most games, I would hardly ever do any type of trash talking. Then again, there were some teams that would just bring out the worst in me.

Overall, Virginia Tech isn’t a trash-talking football team. We pretty much take after the attitude of our head coach, Frank Beamer with  a "hit-them-in-the-mouth between the whistles" type of attitude.  Don’t get me wrong, there was ALWAYS some trash talking going on during almost EVERY game that I played in. It’s just part of the game.

Go back and read the first sentence of this article. I wasn’t joking!  All those things happened to me at least once during my 3 year playing career. A good example of "living in the trenches" is when we played Maryland in 1993.

The Maryland team from 1993 was one of the worst trash talking teams I ever played against. They weren’t really any good, except for their quarterback, Scott Milanovich. Usually, teams that talk a lot of trash can back it up, so I couldn’t understand why Maryland talked trash that game.

Some of the lovely things that I experienced from that game were racial slurs, profanity (that would make a drunken sailor jealous), punched in the groin, and several late hits. Plus, as some of you might remember, there was a bench clearing brawl that resulted in some players from both teams getting ejected from the game.

I must admit that I was right in the middle of the brawl. It all started after we had blocked a field goal attempt. I was running off the field and the I suddenly heard a big roar from the crowd. I turned around and saw a fight start. I think it might of involved cornerback, Tyronne Drakeford, but I could be wrong. Since I was already on the field, I said, "what the hell!"  Plus, I wasn’t too happy with the way the Maryland offensive lineman had been playing that day.

If it wasn’t for the heroics of Tech defensive tackle Bernard Basham, I might have gotten injured. Bernard pulled me out of a group of Maryland players that had surrounded me and ripped my helmet off. They were throwing punches at me (don’t worry, none of the punches connected).  I was sort of scared that if anyone watched the video of the brawl, then I might have gotten suspended for a game. Fortunately, I didn’t.

You may also recall that same weekend, there were several other bench clearing brawls - Miami/Colorado, UNC/N.C. State, and I think Virginia and another team had one too. Soon after that weekend, the NCAA made a rule that if you were in a fight in one game, then you would be suspended for that game plus the next game. After that rule was made, you hardly ever saw a bench clearing brawl.

Another team that loved to talk trash and play "dirty" was ECU.  My hatred for ECU ranks right behind UVA. Some of the reasons are personal. Some of the reasons have to do with their fans and head coach, but mostly it’s the way their offensive lineman played.

It’s difficult to explain to anyone what I mean about the way their offensive lineman played. You have to actually go through it to fully understand it. If you could just watch some of the film from that game and other games they played earlier that year, then you would see that their offensive lineman loved to go for the knees of the defensive lineman. This is entirely legal in college football, but in my opinion it’s borderline "dirty". Fortunately, no one on Virginia Tech got injured.

On the other hand, I only played against ECU once, in 1994. I was injured and missed the 31-12 win over ECU in 1993, and Virginia Tech didn’t play ECU in 1995. So to give ECU the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was just the 1994 edition of ECU.

(SIDE NOTE: I agree with what Will has said about the upcoming game in Greenville this September 7th being one to "be concerned about." I believe ECU has a hatred for Virginia Tech. During my career (1991-1995), ECU thought of Virginia Tech as a "name team" that they could easily beat. Plus, they had beaten Virginia Tech in 1991 and 1992. They are gonna be ready for Virginia Tech come September 7th.)

Another good example of what "living in the trenches" was all about was the 1994 Gator Bowl versus Tennessee. Tennessee’s offensive lineman were very good, but in terms of sportsmanship, they rank at the bottom of my list. In this game, I got spit on, punched in the face, and it seemed like every other word coming from a Tennessee offensive lineman was a profanity.

When I got spit on and punched in the face, I looked at a nearby referee and said, "Did you see that!"  The response I got was, "Oh…you brought that on yourself."  I was thinking to myself, "What the hell is going on!?"  I do believe that the referees for that game were from the SEC…hmmm…

Not only do offensive lineman talk trash, but usually other players from other positions get involved. One example is Pittsburgh’s quarterback in 1993, John Ryan. He did his talking the week before the game. We all know what happened that game…a 63-21 blowout.

Another trash talking player that comes to mind was Larry Holmes, a receiver for Virginia in 1993. I despised players like him. He loved to run his mouth, show off, and "beat" his chest when he made a good play.  I wonder what happened to Mr. Holmes in 1994???

Without a doubt, the most trash talking non-offensive lineman that I ever faced was Ray Lucas, the former Rutgers quarterback and the current NY Jets quarterback. He loved to run his mouth, especially when they rallied back in the 1993 and 1994 games. It was a great feeling to beat them 3 years in a row, especially in 1995 when we won convincingly, 45-17. Just go back and watch the 1995 highlight video and watch the video clip when defensive end Hank Coleman (I think) sacks Ray Lucas.  That play summed up everything nicely that day…

And finally, no article about trash talking would be complete without talking about Virginia and Miami. Miami will always have that trash talking mentality, although their offensive lineman didn’t talk a lot of trash in 1993-1995. As for Virginia, well should anyone expect anything less from an in-state rival in which several of the players from both teams either knew and/or played against each other in high school?

In 1993, there was a lot of trash talking between Virginia Tech and Virginia.  In 1994, not much trash talking went on between the offensive and defensive lines. But in 1995, there was a lot of trash talking by both teams.  We almost had a brawl or two during that game. Go back and watch the video from this game and watch the players closely to see what I mean…

One thing that I remember from the 1993 Virginia Tech-Virginia game was that a Virginia fan had sent Virginia Tech defensive tackle Bernard Basham a letter bragging about how Virginia was going to a better bowl than us even though Virginia Tech beat Virginia, 20-17. Virginia went to the Car Quest Bowl (which is now the Bowl) that year, and Virginia Tech went to the Independence Bowl.

Ironically, Virginia got pounded by Boston College (doesn’t Virginia always get pounded when they go to a bowl in Miami?) and Virginia Tech blew out Indiana. Isn’t it ironic how things ended up that year?

Individual Offensive Lineman…

Some people have asked me, who was the best offensive lineman I have ever faced in college? The worst?  The nastiest?  etc…Well, here goes:

Q: Which offensive lineman that you played against was the nicest?
A: no such thing

Q: The nastiest?
A: Rich Braham, #78, offensive tackle for West Virginia (officially 6’5", 290 lbs, but in reality probably more closer to 6’7", 330 lbs).  He was the meanest/toughest/best S.O.B. I ever played against. A (dis)honorable mention goes to the entire offensive line from the 1994 Tennessee team.

Q: The best sport?
A: I never played against one

Q: The worst sport?
A: By far, Cy Ellsworth, #64, offensive guard for Syracuse (6’4", 283 lbs). J.C. Price and I played the same position and we faced this guy 3 straight years (1993-1995). We kicked his ass in 1993.  He returned the favor in 1994, and then there was "round 3" in 1995.  If anyone has video tape of the Syracuse game in 1995, go back and watch it and watch how #64 plays, especially the late hits/cheap shots (especially to J.C. Price).

And coming in a close second in no particular order: Ray Lucas, quarterback for Rutgers; Larry Holmes, wide receiver for Virginia, the entire offensive lines from Maryland 1993, ECU 1994, Tennessee 1994, Virginia 1995 and Miami 1993-1994.

Q: The best, and why?
A: Rich Braham (WVU) was the best. He treated most of us on defense like little kids that day. If anybody has a video of this game (1993), go back and watch #78.

Coming in a close second place in particular order: John Summerday, offensive lineman from Temple, Dan Neil, offensive lineman from Texas, the entire offensive line from Tennessee 1994, and I hate to say this, but, year in and year out, Virginia usually had the best overall offensive line that I played against. Boston College’s offensive line is also very good every year.

 It wouldn’t be right not to mention my fellow teammates: Jim Pyne, Bill Conaty, Gennaro Dinapoli, Chris Malone, Jay Hagood, Todd and T.J. Washington, William Boatwright, and Eugene Chung…let me tell you, going against offensive lineman like these everyday in practice for 5 years gets very frustrating…

Do offensive lineman really hold???

There are several unofficial guidelines, which I discovered for myself, that a defensive lineman should follow:

  1. Every offensive lineman holds. If you hear an offensive lineman say that he doesn’t hold then he is lying.
  2. In reality, a holding penalty could be called on every play, but it’s never going to happen.
  3. Complaining to the referee about an offensive lineman holding does absolutely no good.  Don’t waste your time complaining to a referee.
  4. If you get held, it’s your own fault.
  5. After a player with the ball is tackled, DO NOT stand near the pile. An offensive lineman can and will hit you if you’re standing near a pile (former Virginia Tech offensive lineman, T.J. Washington loved to do this). Always fall on the pile. 

And here’s my ultra-secret tip of the day:

If you can, try to listen to the quarterback when he is in the huddle, sometimes (if the crowd isn’t too loud) you can hear him shout out the snap count/cadence. This will give you a huge advantage over the offensive lineman and allow you to time your "get-off" with the snap count.  I used this trick sometimes…

Memorable Plays and Not-So Memorable Plays
(that didn’t make the highlight reel)…

Some of my more memorable plays besides the touchdown versus Virginia in 1993 or the Independence Bowl field goal block were…


Bowling Green…my first start…my first game…my first time playing in Lane Stadium…overwhelming for the first few plays…

Pittsburgh…I accidentally knocked down one of our defensive backs, Okesa Smith, as he is making a tackle on the running back…the running back went on to run for a touchdown … Whooops!

Miami…my first sack…too bad I was offsides and it didn’t count…

West Virginia…West Virginia quarterback Jake Kelchner scrambled from the pocket and I was zeroing in on him and was about to "knock his head off", and then at the last second, he saw me and ducked…I banged my knee into him…and it didn’t feel too good…

Temple…my first official sack…

Syracuse…one of my best games…I had 2 sacks and several tackles…2 of my friends from back home were in attendance, plus my sister, her boyfriend, and mom were there too…


Southern Miss…one of my better games…it was great to comeback from a 14-0 deficit in front of a hostile crowd…

Boston College…one of my best overall games…we played great defense…for 59 minutes and 50 seconds…

West Virginia…played very good…when I watched the video tape of the game, ESPN commentator, Mike Gottfried, referred to me as "Jeff Hilliard"…D’oh!

Syracuse…J.C. Price and I usually rotated during each game.  I saw him running onto the field, so I began to run off the field and the "turf monster" got me…I tripped and fell right on my face…

Temple…one play sticks in my mind…I made a tackle without touching the running back…I pushed the offensive guard so far back, he knocked over the running back…that was awesome!

ECU…one funny play happened…George DelRicco was making a tackle, and I was running towards him hoping to get a good hit on the running back…at the last second, the running back turned a little, and I end up hitting George pretty hard…Whoops!


Miami…played very well…what a great day in Hokie history…My mom and sister were in attendance…

Akron…not many starters played much…By halftime, my day was done, but I tried to sneak back in the third quarter for some more tackles and sacks…Coach Todd Grantham quickly realized that I was back in the game, so he gets someone to come in the game for me…he wasn’t too happy about that…

West Virginia…played well…the whole defense played very well that day…nothing like shutting out West Virginia on their Homecoming…

Syracuse…played very well…I made another tackle without touching the running back…I pushed #64 Cy Ellsworth so far back in the backfield, the running back couldn’t go nowhere and fell down…I was credited with the tackle…and most importantly, we (J.C. and I) kicked the crap out of Mr. Ellsworth that day…

Strange things can happen…

Every now and then during my playing career, I experienced some strange and sometimes weird things. For instance, sometime late in the second half of the 1994 Gator Bowl versus Tennessee, when the game was practically over, I gave a Tennessee offensive lineman a "charley horse". It happened after a running back was tackled and everybody piled on top of each other.

At the time, I was so frustrated by the score of the game, and considering the fact I wasn’t impressed with the "sportsmanship" of this fabulous Tennessee team, so I reached down and pinched the hell out of one of the Tennessee offensive lineman’s leg. It was pretty hilarious to hear the guy scream. That was the extent of how "dirty" I played.

Another example was when we played West Virginia in 1993, a couple of strange/funny things happened. First, I accidentally jumped off sides (one of only two penalties I ever had in my 3 year career) and stepped on the offensive guard’s hand. It was funny to hear him scream and whine like a little kid. He complained to the official, but nothing happened.

Secondly, after a West Virginia running back was tackled and a big pile ensued, Cornell Brown took one of the West Virginia’s player’s shoes off and threw it 20 yards down the field. It was hilarious. No penalty was thrown, but then again, is throwing a shoe a penalty?  If anybody has a video tape of that game, you can actually see the shoe come flying out of the pile.

One of the strangest experiences I had while playing defensive line was when we played Syracuse in 1993. It was in the fourth quarter with game practically over. One of the Syracuse offensive lineman struck up a conversation with me during the seconds before the quarterback hiked the ball. I can’t remember which lineman it was. Basically, he complimented how good the food was at the Farmhouse (apparently, Syracuse ate there the night before), and he said we had some of the best looking cheerleaders he had seen. I didn’t say much, except for "Thanks".  Was else could I say?  I was pretty dumfounded by him starting a conversation with me during the game.

Death Row…

That’s what we defensive lineman called ourselves in 1995. I believe Cornell Brown, Hank Coleman and Jim Baron were the ones who started the nickname. What the hell!  It was a cool nickname, and it stuck. We even got mentioned in the 1995 highlight video.

The camaraderie between the defensive lineman that year was incredible.  We were such a tight-knit group. We had been playing together for 3 years. The "attack" defense started when we were all freshman and sophomores. We were 2-deep at every position on the line. We constantly rotated throughout every game. We had a great coach whose job was made much easier due to the fact of the seniority and experience of the defensive lineman. Within the group of defensive lineman there were a couple of superstars, a couple of very good players, and some good quality starters. Hmmm…sounds very familiar…kind of like the Virginia Tech defensive line in 1999.

1995 was such a special year, especially for the defensive line. The camaraderie we had was so special and unique. Playing with the same people for 3 years is a tremendous advantage. The communication that we had on the field between us was extraordinary. I knew exactly what Hank Coleman, Cornell Brown, Lawrence Lewis or Waverly Jackson was doing by them just saying one word.

Sometimes, Waverly would just say my name and I knew exactly what we was thinking (i.e., if we had a blitz on or a particular defensive line stunt). Knowing and having confidence in the player beside you is a tremendous benefit. We (the defensive line) as well as the linebackers and secondary in 1995 were very experienced and a close tight-knit group on the field.

In 1995, there were some complex schemes that the defensive coaches came up with, which probably couldn’t have been implemented in 1993 or 1994. But, since we were so experienced, it allowed the defensive coaches to some things that they couldn’t normally do.

My relationships with the other defensive lineman, other defensive players and the coaches in 1995 is something that I will always cherish. This past group of defensive players reminded me so much of the defense in 1995. Both defenses in 1995 and 1999 had guys who had been playing together for 2-3 years. Believe me, that is very important.

I’m also excited about all the young players on defense for this upcoming year. Don’t worry, have faith in Coach Bud Foster & Co. It isn’t going to very long before they are very good…

Playing in pain…

Did I ever play in pain?  You better believe it. I used to live in the training room, along with other players like George DelRicco, J.C. Price, Bill Conaty, William Yarborough, and Mike Bianchin (just to name a few). The late Eddie Ferrell (God rest his soul), was like a second father to many of the football players because we practically lived in the training room. The following is a list of major injuries I had, when I got the injury and how long it took to heal (if ever):

* Groin - injured during "2-a-days" August 1993 - did not completely heal until late fall 1994. (Injuring your groin takes a long time to heal and I don’t recommended this injury to anyone.)

* Knees - always had knee troubles - never really healed up. During the 1993 season, I would bruise/fall on one of my knees during almost every game. I would be in very severe pain for a few minutes, then after that it would okay. In fact, my knees still give me trouble today when I walk up stairs.

* Left interior cruciate ligament - 2nd degree tear during 1995 spring game - did not heal until right before "2-a-days" began.

* Lower back - injured in Oct 1994 when we played Miami - got carried off the field on a stretcher. For a few seconds after it happened, I couldn’t move at all…very scary. I had to stay in bed for the entire next week (fortunately we had an open week). I could barely walk. The week after that, we played Rutgers.  My back was surprisingly okay,  BUT, my back has not been the same since then and probably never will. When I stand up for a long period of time and don’t move around, my back tightens up really bad.

* Lower back (part 2) - when we played Virginia in 1994, three weeks after injuring my back, I got hit hard by Virginia offensive tackle, Chris Harrison. I had my head down and he hit me hard.  I felt a shiver down my spine and fell face first onto the field.  I couldn’t move for a second or two. I was thinking to myself, "Oh God, here I go again."  Fortunately, I regained feeling after a few seconds, got up and went on to the next play. This is the first time I have ever mentioned anything about that play.

* Wrist - I lost count of the number of x-rays I had done on my wrist. I would injured it either during practice, a game or lifting weights.

* Collarbone - injured in one of the last practices before the start of the 1995 season - it bothered me the first couple of games of 1995.

* Calf muscle - I injured this on a Thursday practice before the game with ECU in 1993. I fell down during practice and landed on my calf muscle. It didn’t hurt at the time, but the next morning, the muscle swelled up tremendously. I couldn’t walk.  I could only "hobble". Let me tell you, the coaches were not pleased with me that day.

* Turf Toe - a day or two before the spring game in 1994, I stubbed both of my big toes playing volleyball. "Turf toe" is an injury you do not want to have. I could barely run and the spring game was only a day or two away. I put on three pairs of thick socks which cushioned some of the pain, and I just played through the pain.

* Fingers - I can’t remember how many times I got my fingers jammed, but this one time I do remember. During a scrimmage in spring 1995, I dropped back into coverage (yes, we defensive lineman sometimes drop back in coverage) and Jim Druckenmiller threw a pass over the middle.  I put my hand up to knock it down, which I did, but…Druckenmiller threw the ball so hard, he jammed 4 of my fingers very bad. That was the first and last time I tried to knock down a Jim Druckenmiller pass.  I learned my lesson!

As for the most physical team that I played against, well…it has to be West Virginia. I based this conclusion on how sore I was on the day after the game - Sunday. My muscles and joints were very sore on the Sunday after we played West Virginia during my three years of playing (1993-1995).

That’s about it. And remember, these were just the major injuries I had. The list doesn’t count all the minor injuries, scrapes, bumps and bruises. Also, I was one of the lucky ones in terms of injuries. I never injured my shoulders or ankles. The knee ligament tear that I had required no surgery. I only missed one game due to an injury (ECU 1993). You should have seen what the players I mentioned (above) had to go through. Moms and Dads, are you sure you want your kids to play football???

Jeff Holland was a defensive tackle for the Hokie football team from 1991-1995.  He played a key role in the rise of the Virginia Tech defense and on the Hokie bowl teams from 1993-1995.


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