By Joseph Staszewski
Thomas Holley learned what it means to be a fighter and a leader from a relative who embodied both attributes on Sept. 11, 2001.
And the Abraham Lincoln football defensive end continues to draw motivation to persevere from his uncle, Albert Benjamin, a member of the city Department of Correction’s Emergency Response Team, who pulled one of his co-workers from one of the burning World Trade Center towers 12 years ago.
Since 9/11, Benjamin has developed debilitating health problems and has trouble getting around. He has been to just one of his nephew’s games, but that doesn’t keep him from being a major factor in Holley’s life.
“He’s been my biggest motivation for pushing,” Holley said. “He’s been my best friend. He looks out for me. He is always checking on me, taking care of me.”
The Jamaica resident had a moment to reflect on all the people who helped him to get where he is, including his mother, his uncle, Scott Benjamin, and his grandparents, after signing his National Letter of Intent to play football at the University of Florida Jan. 5 at Lincoln as part of National Signing Day.
Holley’s mother, Candace Benjamin-Holley, believes her son has drawn strength from her older brother’s experiences, actions and advice that you never leave a man behind.
“I think he carries that mantra onto the field,” Benjamin-Holley said. “He is a warrior and he always carries his team on his back. He’s always lifting them up, and I think a lot of that comes from him.”
Benjamin isn’t someone Holley tells many people about. His teammates and head Coach Shawn O’Connor had never heard of the uncle, who was a first responder on one of the country’s most tragic days.
Benjamin, however, knows them. He keeps up with his nephew’s accomplishments as best as he can. Holley always updates his uncle about personal achievements and the team’s success whenever he visits.
“He always keeps up with me in the newspapers,” Holley said. “He always cuts out the pages that I’m in. He’s putting together a little scrapbook, just to show me how proud of me he is.”
There is good reason to be.
Holley, who never played football until transferring to Lincoln in Coney Island from Christ the King as a junior, garnered 31 scholarship offers from some of the top colleges in the country after playing just eight games. The Under Armour All-American initially committed to Penn State in December before de-committing in late January and announcing his plan to head to Florida once Nittany Lions head man Bill O’Brien became coach of the Houston Texans.
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Holley is the third-ranked player at his position and 63rd in the nation overall by rivals.com. Holley, who had 67 tackles and seven sacks this season, helped lead Lincoln to the Public School Athletic League City conference football city title. He has played just 21 football games in his career after shifting his focus away from basketball two years ago.
O’Connor believes the decision to switch to Florida was an easy one for Holley because it had originally been a choice between the Gators and Penn State.
Holley, dressed in a Florida hat and T-shirt, said he was nervous and excited at the same time for Signing Day.
“I couldn’t sleep last night at all,” Holley said. “I was just happy. I felt I made the right decision.”