Joe Rivera is in Floorham Park, NJ covering the Jets pre-season for Sporting News
Valentine Holmes misses home.
On the opposite end of the globe from where he was born and raised, there’s a lot about Australia he misses: his wife and puppy dog, the weather, the beaches – even if it’s winter there currently – chief among them.
But there’s something that’s been on the superstar rugby league player’s mind since jumping across the pond and joining the New York Jets this offseason.
“Probably coffee, is the main thing,” Holmes told Sporting News, with nostalgic eyes. “The one thing I always think about is coffee. They don’t really do nice coffee here – sorry.”
In a nutshell, that’s Holmes: calm, collected, unconcerned. He welcomes the stage of the big city and the big moment. While coffee is a good wake-up call, the 24-year-old rolling the dice on an NFL career probably comes on like a brick to the face.
Going from being a record-breaking superstar in the National Rugby League to trying to break in with an NFL team is no easy task, but Holmes has made his presence felt with the Jets. As part of the NFL’s International Pathway program, Holmes has found himself in the mix returning punts and getting a few snaps out of the backfield as a running back.
A gridiron is just a bit different from the rugby league field, on which Holmes set records and won premierships. He was a member of the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, making his pro debut at age 19 and was a winger for the premiership squad in 2016. Holmes also helped secure a World Cup for Australia as a member of the Australian rugby league national team in 2017. “Helped” might be an understatement: Holmes was the tournament’s top try scorer with 12, a record. He also set the record for tries, with six, in the semi-final matchup vs. Fiji.
Those records, respectfully, mean nothing in Florham Park.
Holmes is starting from Square 1 in a brand new sport and is competing in a loaded running back room – lead by superstar free-agent signing Le’Veon Bell and veteran Ty Montgomery – and finding a niche as a punt returner. While he’s competing, Holmes is finding a lot of value in learning, as well – and his teammates are a big part of that, including fellow Aussie and Jets punter Lachlan Edwards.
“(Lachlan) helped me out when I first came in April for preseason,” Holmes said. “He just let me know what it’s like, what to get used to. ‘It’ll get easy as you stay longer, you get to know the boys.’ I don’t really see too much of him, because he’s a punter. He goes to different classrooms and trains at different times. But I catch up with him every now and then at lunch.”
The learning didn’t stop with Edwards, though.
“It’s awesome – just coming to training every day, hanging out with the running back class, even these other boys, all the offensive players,” Holmes told SN. “It’s awesome just to rub shoulders and communicate with them, learn off each other.
“Just today, I was learning off of Le’Veon Bell, Ty Montgomery, Eli (McGuire) and (Trenton) Cannon, what they were doing. It’s been great since being here, they’ve been helping me out a lot.”
The education seems to be paying off and turning some heads. Montgomery believes Holmes is the “LeBron James of rugby.” Coaches and teammates have been impressed with his toughness. But more than his reputation or his aura, Holmes has sure hands and seems to find himself in the right part of the field at the right time – two key aspects to becoming an NFL player – while demonstrating a dose of signature rugby league toughness. It’s caught the eyes of some coaches – including the most famous pair of them in Florham Park.
“He’s picking up the offense, that hasn’t really been his issue,” Gase told media after practice earlier in August. “It’s just when everything starts moving super fast, he’s trying to get used to that, and I think it’s starting to work for him. It’s slowing down for him and I think it just keeps slowing down.”
Gase praised Holmes’ ability to pick up on the playbook – a daunting task for anyone, let alone someone learning a brand-new sport – which is in and of itself an impressive feat. Given Gase’s reputation for being an offensive guru whose scheme features intricacies and high-level concepts, Holmes’ grasp of the playbook is more impressive.
That doesn’t mean that Holmes is guaranteed a spot on the roster come September; Gase stressed that there’s still room for growth.
While Holmes is learning what to do on the field, learning to play it in the biggest sports market in the world just adds to the equation. He’s not totally foreign to the area, after all – he’s actually pretty familiar with New York; he has been to the Big Apple more than a handful of times and got his first taste of appreciation for American football some years ago.
“I was a fan of the Giants,” Holmes said with a guilty smile. “That was the first real, live NFL game I went to – Giants vs. Colts. Since then, obviously they’ve had some real classy players, classy years. That’s the team I’ve mostly supported.”
Holmes’ fandom for football goes beyond just the Giants, though. While he made a name for himself playing rugby league, Holmes wanted to compete in the NFL for a long time, with interest coming to a head back at the international pro day in Los Angeles in 2016. Holmes said roughly 15 teams were interested in him following that workout. It made the decision to chase his dream a little easier.
“What it came down to, I just wanted to test myself as a player, a person, an athlete and see if I can come over here and test myself amongst these guys. So far, I’m here now, just finishing up training camp, I’m just having fun at the same time, enjoying it. It is a lifelong dream.”
Holmes understands that all of Australia has its eyes on him as he trains and tries to steal a roster spot, but isn’t losing sight of who the move to the NFL was really made for.
“I’m just doing this for myself, my family,” Holmes said. “I’m not really thinking about anyone else. Some people are supporting me and following me, some people aren’t. Obviously, I would like to do everyone proud who has supported me, I don’t want to look like a bust out here.”
With the preseason yet to unfold – while the same can be said of Holmes’ NFL career – there are many questions left unanswered. Playing time and position are the most obvious. Holmes is unsure how it’ll shake out. He’s adamant he’ll do whatever the coaches ask of him as he continues to learn and grow. But there’s a simple message he’d like to deliver to as it all happens.
“The best is yet to come. Just hold on.”