He followed the legend of his All-American father at Cornell University and, along the way, Joe Holland has become something of a legend himself.
The interviewer was given the phone numbers for the ex-Cornell football star, the same guy who then graduated from Harvard Law School.
Could the numbers be right? The home number was in the "212" area code - New York City. The work number was in the "914" area - in this case, White Plains in Westchester County.
Now maybe the interviewer was being unfairly biased, but he thought to himself, "Don't most New York metro lawyers do their days in the hustle and bustle, and then retreat to the burbs at night?"
Not Joe Holland.
Driven by the values instilled in him by his parents, the dominant theme of Joe Holland's life has been giving something back to the community, or as he said with a Biblical reference, "To whom much is given, much is required."
The story of Joe Holland begins with his father. Jerome Brud Holland was a football All-American at Cornell in the late 1930s. A March 1970 article about Brud Holland, the only one of 13 children from his family to go to college, stated it simply and sadly. "Jerome Holland was not offered a job upon graduation; he was not even interviewed. This -- because he was black -- and American industry had no place for the educated black man in 1939."
Faced with the unavoidable obstacle of skin color, Brud Holland chose to further his education with a masters degree from Cornell and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. He began his working life as an educator, eventually holding the presidencies of two institutions of higher learning -- Delaware State College and Hampton Institute.
It was during this time that Brud Holland and his wife, Laura, began to raise a family. Joe was born in 1956, and at age seven he got his first taste of Ithaca, N.Y., attending his father's 25th Reunion. "I remember going over to the football field and running around," Joe recalled. "So I guess that was when the Big Red seed was first planted," he laughed. "It was really that love of football that I remember from my childhood years. It was an early passion."
Holland showed his talents at the Pop Warner level in Virginia. His mother still likes to tell the story of how Joe, who was the biggest and fastest player in the league, caused other parents to get together and have the rules changed. After his first year in Pop Warner, a 125-pound weight limit was enacted, and Holland no longer could play. The next athletic hurdle came Holland's way when his father became Richard Nixon's choice as U.S. Ambassador to Sweden. Joe was 13 at the time, and for three years he lived in a country where "football" was played with the feet. "They put me out on the soccer field, and I kept wanting to grab the ball with my hands so the best position for me was in the goal," said Holland. Needless to say, he wasn't too keen on the European version of football.
The Hollands moved back to the States for Joe's junior year at Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, N.Y. Joe missed the coach-mandated preseason camp by one day, and that meant he could not start any games during his junior year. The rule may have not been too smart, but the coaching staff soon realized that getting Joe into games was. Holland played everywhere both sides of the ball -- as a junior and was dubbed the "super sub."
No substitute role as a senior, however, and Joe wound up averaging more than 200 yards a game as a running back. He earned the attention of some of the top college football programs in the country -- Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State and Michigan. His choice came down to Michigan and Cornell, and he chose to take the athletic scholarship to Michigan.
"I have to say that I had visions of the Rose Bowl dancing in my head, but after a year there I was ready to come home," said Holland. "I was the only ballplayer on the team from New York at the most competitive position -- running back. I found myself getting lost in the crowd because I was a good player, but I wasnt head-over-heels so talented that I stood out in a crowd."
"Coming home" in this case meant transferring at Cornell. Because of NCAA rules, Holland had to sit out as a sophomore. A torn hamstring muscle hampered his junior season, and as a senior he was the blocking back in head coach Bob Blackman's I-formation offense. The Ivy League had a rule at the time that said a student could get an extra year of athletic eligibility while enrolled in graduate school. Holland took advantage, and the fall of 1978 became his year to shine.
He finished the year with 1,213 yards in the seven Ivy games, still the fourth-highest single-season rushing total in Ivy League history. Two games, in particular, stood out. Against Harvard, a game played in a driving rainstorm, Holland set what is still the Ivy League record for rushing attempts in a game with 55.
"I guess I wasn't aware just how much I had carried the ball. About the middle of the third quarter, my legs started cramping up," remembered Holland, "and that had never happened before. I can remember after the game, [Cornell won, 25-20, on Holland's game-winning touchdown run, his fourth of the day to go with 244 yards rushing] on the bus ride back, my muscles stiffening up. And by the time we got back to Ithaca, I had to have some guys literally help me from the bus."
The Harvard game was the fourth of the year, and Holland's "dream season" came to a close with a 263-yard performance against Pennsylvania in the finale. "My parents had been so supportive through all the low times," said Holland. "They came to all the games when we were losing. The fact that we were able to turn it around and have a winning season ... it was really special."
Holland earned third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press after he finished second in the country in rushing and scoring to Oklahoma's Billy Sims, the Heisman Trophy winner that year. He also was named Academic All-America for the second straight year.
Football was not quite finished for Holland after that big day against Penn. He played in the Japan Bowl senior all-star game and got some interest from professional teams. But the teams did not want to waste a draft pick because they knew that Holland had been accepted at Harvard Law School the previous year. Harvard allowed him to defer a year, but that wasn't going to happen again. Holland decided to forego the free agent offers and headed off to Harvard.
Following Harvard, Holland had plenty of opportunities to "go for the big money" as he put it, but there was something else at work in his head. "Growing up in the South during the 1960s -- Virginia was not right in the heart of the Civil Rights movement -- but I was exposed to the issues of the movement," Holland said." When I was making the decision about how I wanted to start my career, I wanted to make my life count for something important. As God has blessed me, I wanted to reach out and bless others."
So while many of his peers went off to large corporate firms, Holland moved to Harlem and opened up his own law practice. "My motivation in going was to make a difference. There were some pressing needs that I wanted to try and meet. I decided the best way to meet those was to develop some initiatives that were responsive."
He established his law practice, but then he also founded a homeless shelter. Holland was quick to point out that his philosophy was not simply housing, but "holistic housing" housing not as an end, but as a means to restore the whole person. His HARKHOMES project continues to aid the homeless. Connected with that, he established the BETH-HARK Crisis Center for addicts and ex-offenders.
Holland also created some small businesses to create employment opportunities for the community as well. Among those businesses is a Ben and Jerrys Ice Cream Store, which was featured in the Sept. 14, 1992, issue of People Magazine.
The Cornell Cooperative Extension-Harlem Literacy Project arose out of Holland's involvement as a trustee of the university. Cornell students come to Harlem in the summer to provide literacy training.
About a year ago, Holland was approached by a not-for-profit agency to help in the production of a video series. It is a series of 10 lectures based on the practical life skills curriculum he developed at HARKHOMES to help individuals, as he says, "move from a life of crisis to a life of self-sufficiency." He calls the curriculum, "Holistic Hardware."
If all that werent enough, Holland was appointed by New York Governor George Pataki to serve as State Housing Commissioner in 1995 and 96. "I came into it at a time when there was a budget deficit in New York," Holland said. "The mandate that the Governor gave us was to downsize. We worked through those challenges and were able to come up with some new initiatives that ensured affordable housing was out there."
His political career, which meant a great deal of time away from home, was pleasantly short-circuited by his marriage in 1995 to Alisa Holland, and, later, the birth of the couples daughter, Shelby. They continue to live in Harlem, and Holland does not event mention the possibility of leaving.
Holland also gets a lot of enjoyment out of his being a playwright. "Homegrown," a play that he wrote based on his experiences with HARKHOMES, ran for 14 weeks in 1992 at the National Black Theater in Harlem.
And, he is one of only three Ivy Leaguers -- Princeton's Bill Bradley and Cornell's Ellen Mayer Sabik are the others -- named to the GTE/CoSIDA Academic All-America Hall of Fame, and he remains an active member of their Speakers Bureau. This story will not end on a self-serving note, especially given the subject himself, but Holland had this to say about the Ivy League. "I see it as the best of both worlds as far as athletics and academics. I never made it to the Rose Bowl, but I've gotten so much in return."
— Chuck Yrigoyen