Four years ago, Joseph “Ocho” Holder strolled onto Penn’s campus with no assurance that he would ever get the chance to represent Penn on the football field.
A standout high school athlete out of Jersey City, N.J., Holder captained his high school basketball team and received offers to play both football and basketball at a few smaller colleges.
But Penn beckoned. After gaining admission without the nod from the football program, young Joe decided that a Penn education and the prospect of playing Division I football were too much to turn down.
Like so many others who have had their abilities doubted, Holder turned his uphill battle for a roster spot into a source of motivation.
“I never really brought it up and was never really treated differently,” he said. “It was just a case of me trying to go there and work everyday and show people that I belong. It was definitely additional motivation for me every day to go out and work hard because it was something I had to earn myself.”
By his sophomore year, Holder started to show the coaches what he could do. He appeared in nine games and finished fourth on the team in receiving yards. “I’d worked hard, earned my playing time, and [my junior year] was supposed to be my breakout year, for lack of a better term,” Holder said.
But it was not to be. In just the second game of the 2010 season against Villanova, Holder went down with a leg injury, ending his season.
“Quite frankly, I was devastated,” Holder said. “To go down with the injury like that, it kind of shakes your whole microcosm because you’re used to playing football all the time, you’re a walk-on, you’ve earned your way, and you’re about to start and something like that happens.”
On the brink of the apex of his football career, the receiver was left wondering whether he’d ever be able to play football again. One doctor told him one thing, the next another.
Relegated to crutches and a lengthy recovery period, Holder was buoyed by a support system of Penn football coaches, one that he never took for granted.
“They could have given up on me,” Holder said matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t recruited, it wasn’t like anyone had that much stake in me, but they stuck with me … They made sure I was okay, whether it be academically, whether it be emotionally, whether it be football-wise.”
Though he’s put a full season of football between him and the injury, Holder still has occasion to look back while moving forward.
“It’s something that still affects me to this day,” he admits. “But you know, I keep moving. It made me a better overall person … I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Had things gone according to plan, Holder wouldn’t still be a member of the Penn football team. He’d have graduated last year, and the current Penn wide receiving corps would not be quite as deep. However, the injury early in Holder’s junior year left the door open for a fifth year.
The process was arduous. The Ivy League (along with Penn) can be mighty particular about who gets an extra year of eligibility. Holder learned just weeks before the season that he’d been cleared.
Not only did Holder’s injury afford him a fifth year at Penn and personal development, it also gave rise to Holder’s blog, the Ocho System.
“My injury was a traumatic time and it made me look back at essentially what I was putting in my body,” he said.
That reflection gave Holder the idea and substance for the Ocho System, a general healthy lifestyle blog that caters to the student perspective.
Academically, Holder is taking advantage of his extra time with a new minor, Consumer Psychology, a joint minor between the College of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School.
As a fifth-year senior who’s affectionately called Grandpa for his age and wisdom, Holder has embraced a new role on the team.
“This year, I definitely am taking more of a leadership role,” he said. “The onus is kind of on me to not just elevate my game but to try to bring everybody up with me because it’s going to be a total team effort.”
In Penn’s first game against Lafayette, Holder pulled in three receptions for 38 yards. Despite some quarterback struggles, Holder is excited about Penn’s new-look offense. As a veteran, he’s resolved to take more ownership of this season than ones past.
“I’ve grown as a person through Penn football, which is the most important thing,” Holder said. “That’s what Coach Bagnoli says — he says he’s trying to mold men. So I’m really lucky to have had that experience.”