COVINGTON, GA -- As trophies and awards fill his room, and picture albums chronicle the successes of a youth football player who seemed to have 'it' at an early age, one would think tracking the trajectory of Alcovy senior running back NaTorien Holloway would be easy.
Holloway's story isn’t so cut and dried, though.
The talented running back -- the area's leading returning rusher for 2019 -- doesn’t have that traditional rise-to-glory tale to tell as, perhaps, some of his peers do. Even more than his undeniable talent, it's been his grit and determination to make something of himself for his family's sake that's made the difference.
Holloway’s is a story that is rooted in his quest to make those around him proud, but also to capture his piece of happiness for himself.
It didn't take the now 5-foot-7, 170-pound tailback long to make a believer out of those closest to him.
Back when Holloway was streaking up and down the field at Stone Mountain's Wade Walker Park as a four-year-old flag football player, it was apparent to everyone, including his mother, Tocha Holloway, that NaTorien Holloway was a football player.
It was on that same field three years later, where the Alcovy ball carrier had his origin story moment.
“When I knew it was real, he had to be about seven years old,” Tocha Holloway said. “And he shot up the football field. And I was running up the sideline with him going to the end zone."
According to Mom, she got more than just a physical workout as she chased and cheered on her son that day.
"Parents, of course, had to stay behind the fence," she continued. "But when he got the ball in his hand, I was running on the sideline, you know, helping him run to the end zone. And that special moment after he made the touchdown, he looked at me, and he pointed at me. So that is when I realized that maybe, you know, this kid may be something special.”
The next near-decade of youth football for would prove to be one that, looking back, his family now holds in great reverence.
Going from playing recreation football with the Union City Eagles at Ronald Bridges Park and acquiring a championship, to the Central Dekalb Jaguars, NaTorien was getting used to winning.
In 2014, during his seventh-grade year at Stephenson Middle School, the Jaguars were the Region 3 champions, going undefeated in region play. In 2015, Stephenson repeated as region champs, went 4-0 in region play and went as far as the semifinals in the playoffs losing to eventual Dekalb County champion Cedar Grove Middle.
Despite his diminutive stature, the young back was starting to make a big name for himself.
“My mom and my pops, they put me in [the game early],” Holloway said. “I used to play for CJ -- Central Dekalb. I played for numerous rec teams. I love the physicality [of the game]. You get to take your anger out on the field, you know. The competitiveness and being physical. I always loved the game growing up because I was always -- I wasn’t big but, I always had a size for it, and I used that as my advantage and kept working.”
It’s safe to say that Holloway’s competitive nature was bred in a culture of winning, and it’s that foundation that has created the player and person that is slated to be the likely featured back for a retooled Alcovy football team in 2019.
However, setbacks and pitfalls often come with success. And in Holloway's case, once middle school turned into high school, the tough stuff arrived in bunches.
Peaks and Valleys
Upon enrolling at Stephenson High, there was no freshman team, so Holloway and his family decided it best for him to go back to Central Dekalb. It was there that the Jaguars had a 10-0 season and won the 14U championship.
When the Holloway family moved to the Covington area from Stone Mountain in 2017, NaTorien missed the Alcovy football season that year. In his sophomore campaign, Holloway split time between the junior varsity and varsity squads.
Under former Tigers head coach Chris Edgar, that team's varsity bunch posted a 3-7. Holloway would get the ok from coaches to dress for games, but he only saw the field in garbage time.
Holloway got his first taste of varsity football last year when he burst on the scene during his junior year with an impressive, 64-yard, 12-carry rushing performance against a stout defense in Alcovy's 2018 season opener. He then ripped off three straight 100-yard rushing performances against Rockdale, Eastside and Salem.
In that last outing, Holloway won Covington News Player of the Week honors after rushing for a career-high 160 yards on 22 carries and a score in Alcovy's dramatic 23-20 win over Salem. All told, in his first four games last year, Holloway totaled 485 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and it looked as if things were finally starting to settle down.
Unfortunately, that Salem game would prove to be the high-water mark for both Holloway and his Alcovy teammates. The Tigers would lose their last six games and score just one more offensive touchdown the rest of the season.
For Holloway? With an offense struggling to find identity and a team and coaching staff battling chemistry issues, he would only muster up 163 rushing yards over that final stretch -- only three more yards than he ran for in the Salem game alone.
The lack of team success and the tensions that emerged was something that made him take some time to adjust -- more mentally and emotionally than anything.
Even though he tried to hide the frustration of that last half of the season, there was one person who could see past that facade -- his mother.
“He's very passionate about the sport,” Tocha Holloway said. “NaTorien is that kid that he will do whatever it takes. If you want him to sit down, if he needs to sit down, he wants his teammates to shine. That's what he does. It’s not [just] about giving credit. You know, it's about working together as a team. And that is all he knows is to come together as a team.”
The changes to the offense hit everyone, and Holloway in particular, hard. There were people close to Holloway strongly suggesting that he should transfer schools.
Holloway chose to stay at Alcovy. His “head down” approach allowed him to stick it out with his team through all of the turnover. And his mom was also one of the driving forces behind his resiliency.
“I told him, this is where we started, and this is what we're going to finish,” Tocha said. “You don’t run when things get tough. We don’t run when things get tough. You’re going to stick with it, and you’re going to stay there. And that’s what we plan to do.”
The only constant is change
New Alcovy head football coach Jason Dukes bellowed for his starting tailback in his trademark baritone voice as his team lined up in the school’s gym preparing for what they thought would be a routine running of drills.
They all looked at each other, answering that they didn't know, wondering where the player who has never missed a practice or a team workout was.
Unbeknownst to the players, the coaching staff and Holloway were engaged in a little theater, playing out a prank they had drawn up in Dukes’ office that afternoon.
Dukes and the coaching staff asked for Holloway to meet him in his office, and as he showed an enthusiastic Holloway the jerseys, he laid out the plan to scare the team a bit and then spring out the jerseys, with Holloway modeling -- it went off without a hitch.
While coach Dukes reveled in the confusion and worry he had caused, a few moments went by and out emerged Holloway donning Alcovy’s new black and gold home jerseys for the upcoming season.
Once the tension cleared and Holloway was bouncing with pride at center court, the gym filled with the cheers of a collection of mind-blown teenagers as they ran to form sort of a standing dog pile around the team’s leading rusher.
These the moments we live for! Something so simple as getting New uniforms. And to see the reaction from the kids! man that’s love! 🙏🏽💯🏈🦍 #AlcovyFootball— Coach Zay (@ATLRecruits) July 23, 2019
Big S/O to @CoachPapaDukes for coming in changing the culture & program! @CovNewsSports @RNC_Sports @GabrielStovall1 pic.twitter.com/qWU3YRJ9j4
Choosing Holloway felt right for Dukes for a couple of reasons, but one being for what Holloway means to the team.
"By nature of who he is and the position that he's in, the fact that he's a senior and he's a talented kid that a lot kids love and respect, he was the perfect choice," Dukes said.
According to a Tigers’ coaching staff member, Dukes’ original plan was to wait until the start of the season to debut the jerseys, but he was impressed enough by the group’s work over the summer to push up the showing.
He was also worried that keeping the acquisition of the jerseys a secret would prove to be too difficult.
“We’ve been asking for [the jerseys] for a good little minute,” Holloway said. We didn’t think [Dukes] was actually going to do it and that surprised all of us.”
The plan worked so well that Holloway and the team's excitement led them to run a lap on the exterior of the gym and the back inside on a heavily rainy afternoon.
This is the kind of culture that Dukes has brought with him during his first offseason at Alcovy since being hired in January. Dukes has preached that he wants to win, but he also wants buy-in from his staff and players.
At this point, "the family" is a common sentiment in the world of football and teams rarely abide by those principles. But those around the team suggest that Dukes and his staff have entirely walked what he has talked.
A new environment with familial chemistry has fueled the Tigers. Starting center Christopher Simmons, one of the longest-tenured players on the team, is keen to the changes that have transpired under Dukes.
“I see a lot of improvement in development," Simmons said. “I’m the only returning starter from last year [on the offensive line], and all of the new guys under coach Dukes, we’re getting stronger, [working] with better technique and discipline as a unit.”
"....Who I do it for"
NaTorien has a special relationship with his football family, yes, but it's trumped only by the bond he enjoys with his blood family. That's the reason why the new coaching regime at Alcovy hasn’t necessarily sparked anything new in him, as his passion for the game has never waned.
That's because Holloway is playing for a bigger purpose -- with a larger vision in mind.
For Holloway, he sees the opportunity football affords as a way to “make it for my family.”
For both Holloway and his mother, college is the end goal for the burgeoning football star. Whether through football or pursuing a degree -- majoring in business and accounting -- Holloway says he is determined to be a first-generation college student.
Dubbing her his "biggest supporter" and an "extraordinary person", Tocha Holloway has attended all but one of Holloway's career games. Even though he says that on the field he blocks out all of the noise, when he looks back at game film, her voice is unmistakable.
His family might be his biggest motivators on the field. Holloway and his brother Malachi both help to take care of their younger autistic sister.
"I got to take care of them," Holloway said. "Because my sister [is seven-years-old] and my brother, he's 16. Even when I do make it, I’m going to still provide for both of them or at least be somewhere in life where I know I could say ‘I bought my mom or my siblings this’ -- and be happy about it. And be the difference in my family."
When his grandfather Michael Miley -- Tocha's dad, a military veteran and a former football star in Mississippi -- passed away in November 2018, a week before Thanksgiving, NaTorien took the news hard. The two talked about life and football and Miley has supported Holloway throughout his life -- he looked at Miley as his mentor.
It's his grandfather's voice he hears in his head as he goes through life, Holloway says.
“He always had that mindset and believed that I can make it,” Holloway said. “[He always said] I was different than a lot of other people. And that just pushed me even more.”
Holloway remembers playing pad-less tackle football after practices at his grandfather's house, and he says that raw physicality and energy is what increased his love of the game.
In memory of his passing, Holloway penned a poem for inclusion in his grandfather’s obituary. In it, he wrote, "You served this country well, allow me to finish what you started. You will always be a Who-I-Do-It-For factor in my life.'"
During his last trip to Mississippi to visit him, Holloway recalled that his grandfather charged him to not allow his height to be his downfall, but rather as a way to uplift himself.
Holloway now sports a new tattoo of his grandfather's name.
Last chance for glory
In his last season in prep football, the recruiting process hasn’t been one to remember.
With no offers to speak of at this moment, Holloway has attended several camps and performed well and has taken the constructive criticism from the scouts and coaches to heart.
His height is the subject of much scrutiny, but also his flexibility -- something he says he continues to work on.
Holloway’s work ethic is unmatched, and sometimes it worries his mother just how hard he approaches his improvement. He can be seen attending two practices in one day, and then once he’s home there’s a good chance he’ll be at the middle school in the neighborhood running routes.
Holloway wants the team to be as great as it can be, and he sees himself as one of the catalysts that can affect winning. Now coming up on his senior season, Holloway can see the mental aspect of his game take another level.
“I play totally different now,” Holloway said. “Last year I was more of an inside, zone back. Now I'm more balanced. I can do outside [and] inside. [I can] read the defense better. I can read plays before they even [happen].”
Holloway says he's watching more film, and it's translating on the field as he’s hitting gaps in the line faster, according to those who have watched him this summer. The physical back who relishes taking contact is becoming more open to using evasive tactics to make bigger plays.
He has also been more open to diversifying his offensive game and is looking to be a receiving threat this season as well -- hence the route running. Holloway credits some of his improvement, and the team’s, to Dukes putting players in positions that best utilize their skills, rather than them picking for themselves as in years prior.
The Alcovy offensive line is where Holloway is putting the bulk of his trust, and it's hard for him to contain his smile when conversations turn to them.
“We're like brothers, really,” Holloway said. "Even when we’re in the locker room, we’ll be [joking around] and stuff. It’ll be the defense against the offense, and like the line -- you know, everybody is trying to get on me because I’m short -- but the line, they’ll be like, ‘Hey get off my running back,’ so we'll all get into it."
No back is complete without the help of a stout offensive line, and with Dukes, a former college and NFL lineman, constantly preaching that he wants them to be “the most dominant on the field,” both Holloway and the line work to make the relationship work.
“[Holloway] is our brother, man,” Simmons said. “We block for him. Every day in the weight room, we’re pushing each other. He’ll come over and tell us we’re not doing enough, and we go over and tell him when he’s not doing enough. We push each other, make each other better. Because if we look good, he looks good, and if he looks good, we look good.”
Watching former teammates from his youth football days get offers hasn’t been easy for him, but Holloway is determined to put that aside to help the team achieve its collective goal, and if the offers come, he says he’ll be grateful.
“I can't predict anything, but I can say I see and feel like this is going to be the year Alcovy changes, and this is going to be the year that everyone is going to see us,” Holloway said. “We're going to actually stand out – because nobody -- honestly nobody respects Alcovy, but I see us changing day by day.”
This season, though, Holloway is looking to push the limits of what he believes he can do even further.
“I set [for] myself way higher goals than last year,” Holloway said. “This year, I'm aiming for at least 1500 yards [and] 20 touchdowns.”
The football years for Holloway have produced frustrations, high achievements, and heartbreaks. He has faced all of it with the same demeanor and attitude without getting too low or too high.
“I look at myself as a leader but I also look at like, if I make a mistake, then everybody is going to follow behind me, so I try to keep my head straight, make positive decisions, being positive, coming together and make sure everyone is doing the thing they're supposed to,” Holloway said.
"But I don't look at it as an individual thing. Because there are 11 people on a field, and one person can mess up that whole play. So that's why I say I don’t look at it individually -- to me, it’s a family thing, to be honest.”
For him, it’s all a part of his building legacy.