Seven high school football teams from Southern Arizona were in attendance in the crowded Sabbar Shrine banquet room Saturday afternoon along with the coaching staffs and some family.
That made for some noise even though one team — Maryvale High School from Phoenix — could not make it to Tucson after its bus broke down near Casa Grande.
One by one, a head coach was announced from Tucson High, Rio Rico, Pusch Ridge, Catalina Foothills, Buena, Flowing Wells and Canyon del Oro. Each coach interviewed on stage one of their standouts. The introductions of the coaches and players received a loud roar.
Amid the clapping and hollering, one voice was distinguishable above all others.
Julius Holt’s heartfelt message to the high school football players: Make realistic goals, never quit on those goals, focus on academics and be true to coaches, mothers, fathers and grandparents.
Holt, a former Arizona standout who is the director of the Tucson Youth Football and Spirit Foundation, is the 2019 Signature Coach Award Recipient for the Coaches for Charity, a local non-profit organization that claims in its literature that it “celebrates school spirit, focus on teamwork, healthy competition and to raise scholarship funds for students-athletes to be awarded at each game” of its Kickoff Classic.
That Classic gets underway Thursday night with Flowing Wells playing at CDO. Other spotlight games for the Coaches for Charity are Friday with Tucson hosting Maryvale, Buena traveling to Catalina Foothills, and Pusch Ridge hosting Rio Rico.
The emotional Holt — former Arizona teammate Ricky Hunley jokingly warned the crowd over the loudspeaker via a phone call that Holt had a penchant for tears — went into detail about his rough upbringing in the mean streets of Washington, D.C.
He talked about the hardships of losing his mother and father 30 days apart by the time he was in middle school.
“I had a lot of reasons to be angry with a lot of people,” he said, his voice quivering as he tried to hold back his emotions. “I did some things that weren’t nice, weren’t good … but it was the way I survived growing up in the inner-city of Washington, D.C.
“I can tell you, as young men, sitting in this room right now, don’t take your high school coach, don’t take your counselor, don’t take your parents, or anyone else who is trying to help you, for granted. I’m going to tell you that. Don’t do that.”
Holt said O’Leary made sure he went to school every day by picking him up every morning at 7 a.m.
“Nun came in from Ithaca, N.Y., (and) came in and turned our program around at Cardoza,” Holt said. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. … I played football so I wouldn’t go to jail and that’s the truth.”
Holt spoke of being “five minutes away” from being arrested with his late brother, who spent 17 years in prison. He said he was to meet his brother at a skating rink but was five minutes late because — being the proper person who he is — he ironed his clothes, including his jeans and trench coat, before heading out.
“By the time I get up there, it was shut down … nothing but police and the whole nine,” Holt said. “My brother did some things that he shouldn’t have done and I know if I had been there with him, I would have probably been doing those 17 years.
“I always ask myself, ‘Why was I five minutes late? Why did somebody choose me to be five minutes late?’ I’m thankful for those five minutes.”
He mentioned he did serve six months in juvenile hall for another incident when he was 15 or 16 years old. His grandmother, who lived to be 99, was at the courthouse to visit him when Holt had to go before the judge.
“The thing that changed me for the most part is when my grandmother reached out to hug me and the Marshall wouldn’t let her touch me,” he said. “That stuck with me because that was somebody who loved me that I couldn’t touch. .. That changed the way I looked at things.”
Holt’s voice was at its highest when he encouraged the players to think of winning the state championship as their goal.
“You don’t need to believe that but you need to think that,” Holt exclaimed. “Every morning that you get out of bed, you have to believe that you are going to be somebody. That was the approach I had to take.
“I had to change my mindset and think I was not going to let the streets get the best of me. I was not going to let negative people get the best of me. I was going to be somebody. I was going to surround myself with good friends.”
Holt encouraged the youths to hug and kiss their parents every night and every morning. “Tell them you love them,” he said.
“I don’t know what that feels like,” he mentioned, reflecting on the death of his parents when he was young.
He recounted the last day of his mom’s life. He left the house earlier that day disagreeing with his mom about something and mumbling under his breath about her as he left the house.
“Guess what? My mom died that night (from an aneurysm),” he said. “The last thing that I can think about is what I said under my breath. I never told her I loved her that day … I never told her that.
“Don’t take things for granted, man. Tomorrow ain’t promised to none of us.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.