EDITOR'S NOTE: The following was the cover story in the Gameday program from Aug. 24, when the Broncos took on the St. Louis Rams.
Let the record show that Jan. 12, 2013 was the afternoon when the age-old adage of lightning never striking twice in the same place was strikingly disproven.
On the same frigid afternoon – under the same paramount circumstances – a 5-foot-5, orange blur bearing the number 11 streaked across a wintry football field twice and ignited a crowd of 76,732 in roars that reverberated off the Rocky Mountains.
The Broncos’ electrifying speedster totaled 248 return yards on the afternoon, punctuated by a pair of scintillating touchdowns – a 90-yard punt return in the first quarter and a 104-yard kickoff return to begin the second half.
It was the first time in NFL postseason history that a player returned multiple kicks for touchdowns in the same game – a performance that was swept away into the bitter January night at the game’s conclusion.
The lasting, agonizing images that ultimately accompanied Holliday’s heroics are what almost everyone – Holliday included – will remember from the playoff game.
“What sticks in my mind is that we lost as a team,” Holliday said. “We just have to be better this year, as a team and get ready to go.”
However, Holliday refuses to dwell on the Baltimore loss – or revisit his record-setting performance – because his focus is squarely fixed on getting better and moving on.
“No, I don’t do it like that,” he said. “We just have to come out and work and be better. Be a better team than we were last year.”
Small Stature, Big Impact
It only makes sense that Holliday would swiftly put the Ravens game behind him. It’s par for the course for him to leave things behind on the football field – although generally it’s the defenders who are chasing him.
Counting the two touchdowns in the Ravens game, Holliday took four kicks back for scores in just 10 regular-season appearances and one postseason game with the Broncos in 2012.
There’s no mistaking the threat Holliday poses to opposing special-teams units every time he trots out to return a kick – all you have to do is ask the men who have to kick to him.
“He’s unbelievable,” Broncos kicker
But what makes Holliday’s performance in 2012 more impressive is that he did it while switching teams, teammates, playbooks and football terminology in the middle of the season.
Holliday was assigned to the Broncos via waivers on Oct. 11, 2012 after being released by the Texans five games into the season.
Four days later, Holliday was returning punts in a Broncos uniform during Denver’s 35-24 victory over the Chargers on Monday Night Football.
“Man, it was tough,” Holliday recalled. “It was tough just coming from another team and just getting thrown into the fire. The curve was tough, but you had to get it going. Just the transition was really difficult.”
Despite the steep learning curve – and a fumble in his first appearance as a Bronco – Holliday quickly maneuvered the challenges and started making an impact.
He provided a pivotal spark in Denver’s 31-23 win at Cincinnati on Nov. 4, taking a kickoff back 105 yards for a touchdown on the opening play of the second half.
One week later, lightning struck again. Holliday broke off another touchdown on a 76-yard punt return at Carolina in the Broncos’ 36-14 win.
By the time Holliday recorded his unforgettable performance against the Ravens, the Broncos’ secret weapon was hardly a secret anymore – and he certainly had the attention of kickers across the NFL.
“We played him earlier in the season (while Holliday was with the Texans) and I know we didn’t want the ball in his hands,” Prater recalled.
And, as several teams found out in 2012, when Holliday gets free in the open field, there’s not much anyone can do to slow him down.
“You just try not to get embarrassed too badly,” Prater laughed.
Born to Run
There’s no mistaking Holliday’s blazing speed as the key ingredient to his success as a returner.
Simply put, he’s one of the speediest players on the gridiron today – or on any surface, for that matter.
An eight-time All-American in track at LSU, Holliday won the 2009 NCAA men’s 100-meter dash with a time of 10.01 seconds.
But Holliday’s passion was playing football – and, as Holliday fondly recalled, even as a youngster he was always the fastest player on the team, whether it was in the front yard or on the gridiron.
“Always, that’s how it was,” he chuckled.
However, because of his diminutive size – at 5-foot-5, he’s the shortest player in Broncos history – his mother wouldn’t allow him to play organized football until junior high school.
“I had to talk her into it. Going into my eighth-grade year, I had to talk her into it and she finally gave in,” Holliday recalled, adding with a laugh, “I think she’s alright with how it turned out.”
Once his mother finally permitted him to play football, Holliday – naturally – hit the ground running.
In his senior year of high school, Holliday rushed for 2,210 yards and 34 touchdowns – and averaged 27.6 yards per punt return.
His success on the football field only continued at LSU, where he was a special-teams standout, returning a combined total of four punt returns and kickoff returns for touchdowns.
And now, at the professional level, opponents still are having trouble catching the shifty returner.
‘There’s Nothing Like It’
Holliday has his sights set on more of the same in 2013, noting that spending a full offseason with the Broncos has him feeling more comfortable with the team’s operations.
“I’m mainly just looking to do more of what I did towards the end of the season last year,” Holliday said. “I’ve been able to be here (for a full offseason) and get familiar with everything, learn everything.”
Holliday has taken some snaps at wide receiver in addition to his role as the Broncos’ return man.
Ultimately, however, he’s looking to contribute in any way he can to help the Broncos win – a concept that’s quite familiar for Holliday.
At LSU, Holliday was part of the team that won the 2007 BCS National Championship – and now he seeks a championship at the professional level.
“Everybody has to be on the same page,” Holliday recalled when asked about the most important components of a championship team. “Everyone has to have the same thing on their mind. Everyone has to buy into the program and be ready to go.”
For Holliday, that means providing the same gamechanging sparks that he was able to ignite for the Broncos in 2012.
And for fans, that means to keep an eye peeled for orange-and-blue streaks flashing across NFL fields in 2013.
After all, you never know just when lightning will strike again.
“Oh, man. The feeling is just great,” Holliday said. “You see the holes open up and then once you hit it and you’re in the open field, it’s just amazing.
“There’s nothing like it.”