Before he was the big recruiter, he was the big recruit. The best tight end prospect some coaches had said they’d ever seen. And that’s why our story starts up here, one thousand feet in the air on the roof of the tallest building in Los Angeles — the one that had the highest rooftop helipad in the world. The year is 1999 and USC football stinks.
This whole official visit already had seemed too far-fetched, even by Hollywood standards. Petros Papadakis, a USC running back and team captain, had been sidelined for the season with a broken foot that had required several surgeries. His most significant contribution to the program that year would occur when his coaches pulled him out of the hospital to reel in a top prospect.
“I crutched into the Biltmore Hotel and took three shots of whiskey,” Papadakis said (he had been on crutches at the time).
From there, the Trojan coaches took him and his recruit, Alex Holmes, away from the others in town that weekend to the roof of LA’s Library Tower, now known as the U.S. Bank Tower.
“Are they showing us the view of LA?” Holmes asked.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Papadakis said. As the two confused players stood high above downtown Los Angeles, they began to hear music. And then a helicopter appeared. In it were members of the Trojan marching band, playing the USC fight song.
“What is happening?” an incredulous Holmes said, before saying those magic words to himself: “I’m coming to USC.”
“It was like ‘Apocalypse Now’, and I was a free man on morphine,” Papadakis remembered. “Alex will probably say Carson (Palmer) was his host because he was more famous, but they pulled me out of the hospital to get him.”
“Petros is not lying,” Holmes said.
This is how USC landed its prized recruit in the class of 2000, a player who then-Trojan head coach Paul Hackett said had “the ability to redefine the tight end position.” His name is Alex Holmes, and he would end up having a far bigger impact on the Trojans’ championship teams for his role off of the field as “The Closer,” the secret weapon for reeling in all of USC’s top recruits.
But the story of the most connected man in Los Angeles extends far beyond the time he spent playing football.
The son of a former Michigan player, Alex Holmes didn’t grow up a big sports fan. A Southern California native, he didn’t start playing football till high school, but he quickly proved to be dominant. At 6 feet 3 and 300 pounds, with the agility of someone a hundred pounds lighter, Holmes excelled as a running back/receiver for Harvard-Westlake, one of the top academic high schools in the country. As a junior, he caught 46 passes for 990 yards, averaging 22 yards a catch. On defense, he piled up 130 tackles with 23 tackles for loss as a middle linebacker.
His dad’s old college coach, Bo Schembechler, kept calling. The younger Holmes admitted he didn’t have any idea who Bo really was or why it was such a big deal that he was calling him. Holmes almost went to Michigan, committing to the Wolverines on the first day of his recruiting trip. But then on the final day of his visit, it got cold — or at least cold by his standards. Holmes and some coaches walked across campus to a burger place, and he noticed some women sunbathing. He was shocked.
“I told (Michigan assistant) Brady Hoke, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t come here,’” he said. “I’d never been in the cold before. It was probably 50 degrees but it might as well have been negative 50 to me.”
Holmes then considered UCLA. He visited Westwood, but he said the Bruins made the mistake of putting him on a trip with 10 recruits who’d already committed. When the Bruins staff focused so much attention on Holmes, and not their other recruits, Holmes said those guys looked at him like, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’
So the Bruins couldn’t close the deal with Holmes either.
“It came down to USC and Stanford and it was my trip (to USC and being up on top of that tower) that put it over the top for me,” said Holmes.
By his 2001 sophomore season, Holmes, down 30 pounds, caught 22 passes and developed into an excellent blocker. That was also the year Pete Carroll took over the program. USC went 6-6, but big moves were going on behind the scenes as a powerhouse was reawakening. A program that hadn’t been ranked in the AP Top 25 for a half-dozen years was primed to break through. Recruits were buying in, and Holmes was playing a key role. The USC staff had recognized Holmes had unique traits that would make him the perfect recruiting host.
Before Boulderwood and Deion, there was Hollywood and Pete Carroll
He “got” L.A. And in a lot of ways, he understood L.A. — and USC — even better than the coaches did.
“Alex was a great recruiter. I always thought he could’ve been a great coach,” said Ed Orgeron, USC’s recruiting coordinator at the time. “He knew every place in town. That’s when texting just came out. He was always texting. Once we put Alex on a top recruit, I don’t know what exactly happened, but I know this: Any five-star we put Alex on, he was gonna get if we wanted him.”
Shaun Cody, the 2000 USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year, was Holmes’ first big recruit. Cody, a defensive tackle, grew up the son of a die-hard Notre Dame fan. He was also the turning point recruit for the Carroll regime, starting a trend of West Coast blue-chippers opting to stay home again.
“Ed Orgeron pulled me aside and screamed at me in his way and said, ‘No matter what, we have to get this guy!’ And I said, ‘OK, we’re gonna get him’,” Holmes said. “That kind of kicked it off.”
“I actually knew of (Holmes) back from playing against him in high school when he was this 300-pound tailback flying around,” Cody said. “It was impossible to tackle this giant brute.”
On his visit to USC, Cody was blown away. “He knows everybody, or at least knows everybody who is important. He knew how to get into everywhere. He was definitely the fun factor of it. It felt like he was always in charge of recruiting.”
Holmes was put on every top recruit USC sought: Matt Leinart, Mike Williams, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Whitney Lewis, Jeff Byers, Dwayne Jarrett, Dominique Byrd, Lawrence Jackson, Keith Rivers. There were only two recruits Holmes said they didn’t get: Adrian Peterson and LaMarr Woodley.
“Those were the only guys I ever lost, and Adrian had committed (to USC),” Holmes said. “He was coming, so imagine Adrian, Reggie and LenDale on the same team. But on signing day, the papers didn’t come in and we were freaking out. I basically had to call (Peterson). He said, ‘My father told me that if I go to USC, he can’t watch me in prison.’ The coaches were like, we gotta get him. I said that’s an impossible decision; I didn’t want to put any more pressure on him. LaMarr Woodley didn’t want to be away from his family. Everyone else, we got.”
“Alex just had a great understanding of the school,” added Mike Williams. Williams, a Tampa native who left USC as a first-round NFL Draft pick and is now a high school head coach in Florida, said Holmes had a unique ability to connect with people from all walks of life. “He really understood what Coach Carroll and them were trying to get done. He was like this mayoral type. Hell, I just needed something done the other day, and I called him and he goes, ‘I got a guy.’ He just made a call and made it happen.
“He’s still That Guy.”
For LenDale White, Holmes provided his eye-opening night when the two of them, along with Williams, went to the House of Blues. The star running back from Denver, who had also been also considering Texas and Michigan, said he was one of those guys who loved to party.
Holmes knew exactly what to show him. That night Shaq and Jamie Foxx were among the folks they ran into.
“Alex’s slogan was, ‘Don’t be dumb. You’re gonna be a Trojan,’” said White. “He believed in SC even when SC didn’t believe in SC. He said, ‘I was here before Pete got here.’ You’re looking at him like, if he can go through the ups and downs like he does and loves SC the way he does, there’s no way I don’t wanna be in the trenches with this guy. If it wasn’t for Alex Holmes, I don’t know if I’d have been a Trojan.”
Coaches script official visits to the last minute and have specific itineraries of who the player will be with when, where and for how long. That was not Holmes’ style.
“To be honest, I never planned anything,” he said. “It was really, ‘Hey, this is what I would be doing even if you weren’t here, so just come along and hang out with me.’”
The cost of a big night out in L.A. is much different now than it was 20 years ago. Holmes became close friends with several of L.A.’s biggest club promotors. He also became close with alumnus Brian Kennedy (the man the Trojans practice field is named after) who was the head of L.A.’s Sunset Commission, a group of businesspeople that would discuss matters related to the famous Hollywood strip.
“One of the first things he did was introduce me to all the owners of all the clubs and restaurants,” Holmes said. “I became friends with them. I said, ‘Hey, we’re broke kids’ —this was all before bottle services and stuff like that — and I would get us in without waiting and show everyone a good time.”
“I just had full access to everyone,” Holmes continued. “On Adrian Peterson’s visit, I was with Puff Daddy and introduced him to Puff. The head of the House of Blues at the time was Eric Burkhammer, an SC guy. I was able to go to House of Blues and see Kanye (West) before he was Kanye. I was so deep in the social stuff of the fabric of LA. It wasn’t weird to me because those are the people that I was hanging out with outside of school.
“Obviously, looking back now as an adult, it was crazy.”
Holmes’ juice around Los Angeles was legendary inside the USC athletic department.
“Did he ever mention Playboy Mansion?” asked a former Trojan administrator, when the subject of Holmes as USC’s closer came up in a phone call. “There were always rumors that he had access there and he hung out there too. I honestly don’t know. I just know they didn’t invite me!” (“I don’t want to comment on that,” Holmes said in response.)
Carroll loved the Hollywood connections that he made at USC and because of USC. It’s why Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell, among plenty other celebrities, became fixtures at games and practices. That certainly helped recruiting, as did Holmes’ relationships in Los Angeles. The program’s ability to leverage them gave USC a unique advantage.
“I had unfettered access to everything. I had no money. I certainly wasn’t famous like Reggie (Bush) and some of the guys. I was a good player but I probably would’ve been a better player if I didn’t spend so much time going out,” said Holmes. “I knew the right people at the right time. I was very fortunate to go to the schools that I went to. I feel like I’m a pretty genuine guy, and I thought that I was providing value and they were providing value to me.”
Ultimately, the connections he made with his recruits just helped get their attention on what USC could do for them, Holmes said.
“In college football, there are probably four or give schools in the same class as USC, but those other schools are not in Los Angeles. You can replicate the football experience here at a couple of other places, no doubt, but you cannot replicate being in this media Mecca. You can’t replicate the weather. You can’t replicate the girls. I didn’t say that last part to the parents but I did say it to the recruits.
“I just sold the school, and I think that’s why I was so successful.”
Holmes’ NFL career lasted two seasons. He flourished off the field, getting married and launching successful businesses. In 2011, he co-founded Wild Hair Media, a social media company catering to celebrity and athlete clients. He was an early investor in some significant start-ups that included Hyperice and Ring.
In 2018, his wife Lesley became pregnant with their first child. Everything seemed to be going fine until she had her 20-week anatomy scan. Doctors found that their daughter, Seraphina, had tumors on her heart called rhabdomyomas. They said it was likely she had tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), a rare genetic disease.
“They told us she’s going to go into heart failure and pass away,” Lesley said. “And it was too soon to deliver. At the time, there wasn’t any recognized treatment. They just said that there’s nothing we can do.”
Alex and Lesley were devastated. The tumors on Seraphina’s heart were growing very quickly. Lesley, an attorney who had been taking time off, scoured the internet to learn everything she could about TSC and cardiac rhabdomyomas in hopes of doing anything she could for their daughter. While researching on PubMed, a search engine of biomedical literature, she came across a case report published by Johns Hopkins.
“It was our very same situation,” she said. “TSC baby. In utero. The doctors said they were going to give the mom this specific drug, sirolimus. I’m reading this (like), ‘Oh my gosh! This is it!’”
It was Alex and all his connections that linked the family with Dr. Mark Sklansky, chief of pediatric cardiology at UCLA. Alex knew the wife of Dr. Philippe Friedlich, the director of neonatology at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, who told him that he was friends with Dr. Sklansky.
“That’s how we got to see Dr. Sklansky the very next day after our scan,” Lesley said. “I really believe that Dr. Sklansky was the champion. I was the crazy mom (reading these articles) who was like, ‘Can we try these medications?’ and I’m sure the doctors were all rolling their eyes, but he actually got really behind it. At first, he was apprehensive but he was the one who sat us down and said, ‘Now is the time.’”
Lesley started the medication in mid-December 2018. On Christmas Eve, they went in for a scan to measure tumors. Seraphina’s tumors had started to shrink. Seraphina was able to continue growing and developing in the womb until about 36 weeks, at which point doctors delivered her. After Lesley gave birth to Seraphina, the Holmeses started hearing more around their TSC community that doctors were using this drug in similar situations. Seraphina’s case study had been written up, and another case in Canada had come out while Lesley was taking the medication.
“Now, there are treatment options,” Lesley said. “We ended up being the third documented use of this medication. Now, it’s like the norm. There’s tons of families in our community like ours, where now they are not being told—Oh, there’s nothing else we can do. We feel very honored Seraphina played a role in that. It’s amazing.”
Lesley is a very religious person. She met Alex when she was a freshman at USC. He was a redshirt senior. They had a mutual friend and then had a class together. She believes all of this has happened for a reason. That they were meant to be together, to have this miracle baby, and now, Alex and Lesley can really realize their true calling.
Seraphina is now 4 1/2. She just started Pre-K, and Lesley said she is thriving there. Unfortunately, she had seizures return earlier this year. They have found a medication that is helping, but the family is now considering brain surgery. Texas Children’s hospital has the best neurosurgery team in the world for TSC, but they also have a long waiting list. Thankfully, The Closer still has connections at his disposal. As Lesley noted, “Alex knows somebody, so we may need to call in a favor.”
The concept of brain surgery does sound scary, but Lesley says that for a lot of kids with TSC, if doctors can identify the growth in the brain causing the seizures, they can be removed. “That’s a better option. We’re on that path right now. It’s been a little bit of challenge, but she’s doing very well. She’s happy and healthy otherwise. ”
Their efforts for Seraphina and to help families dealing with TSC have become their mission. Lesley is now on the board of the TSC Alliance, an organization that was invaluable to their family when they needed it most. Alex is using his connections to help raise awareness and money. In one year, they raised over $100,000 for the organization’s annual walk, and are determined to do much more.
“In my lifetime, we will cure it,” Alex said. “I live a very modest life by design because nothing else matters. What’s incredible about that as we’re on this journey, for the last four years, parents heard the same thing that Lesley and I heard. That your child is gonna die and there’s nothing that you can do, but because my wife didn’t accept that, there are hundreds of kids now surviving. We are going to cure her disease in my lifetime. The impact that Seraphina and Lesley have had on the world is real.”
“His connections can now be used for something so important,” said Lesley. “For our daughter and this entire community of people. It’s all come together and meant to be.”
(Top photo of Alex Holmes (right) in 2004: Kirby Lee / Getty)