RALEIGH — Torry Holt couldn’t catch his voice. A touchdown pass in the Super Bowl? Piece of cake. A punt return in the biggest upset in N.C. State football history? Can of corn.
But on Aug. 9, when Holt sat with his brother, Terrence, in a conference room of their office in downtown Raleigh, there was finally something Holt couldn’t catch.
On that day, the Gibsonville natives and Eastern Guilford graduates, who have been working for nearly 20 years with their cancer foundation, awarded $30,000 in scholarship money to three college students.
“That morning when we awarded those scholarships was probably one of the most emotional days that we’ve had as a foundation because of the relief that we saw just fall off the shoulders of those parents, as well as the kids,” Torry Holt said. “The kids were like, ‘Yes, I can get into university and I can go pursue my dreams.’”
Torry Holt, 43, and Terrence Holt, 39, have spent years developing their Holt Brothers Foundation to support the Triangle cancer community. They’re also businessmen and run Holt Brothers Construction in Raleigh.
But many know them for their athletic achievements. Both made their marks in football, first at N.C. State and then in the NFL. Torry will be inducted into the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 10.
KidsCan! is the name of the initiative the Holt brothers started in 2000 and run through their Holt Brothers Foundation to help families who are dealing with cancer. They work with four hospitals in North Carolina — three in the Triangle and one in Alamance County — and another in St. Louis, where Torry was a star receiver in the NFL in the 2000s.
They also work with a national program called Camp Kesem, which is an overnight camp for kids in similar cancer support programs. The programs are free to the families and are funded by the Holt Brothers Foundation. The program’s premise is that “kids can” still accomplish their dreams while their parent or guardian is battling cancer. It’s a personal passion project for Torry and Terrence.
Their mother, Ojetta Holt-Shoffner, was only 43 when she died two days after Christmas in 1996 after a 10-year fight with lymphoma.
So there was a pay-it-forward joy on that Friday morning in August, but also a touch of sadness and an overwhelming sense of “Mom would be proud.”
Dealing with a diagnosis
There is no tobacco to be pulled on the 13th floor of the One City Plaza office. The Holt brothers are far from their modest roots in the small town of Gibsonville, but they are never really far from home. There’s a piece of them, even as adults, for Torry, Terrence and their older sister, Tasha, still in the back seat of of their mom’s AMC Concord, smiling because she took the long way home so they could listen to the radio. And there’s a big piece of them that is stuck in 1986, when Torry was 10 and Terrence was 6, when she sat them down and told them about her cancer diagnosis.
“We cried,” Torry said. “We cried all night. The only thing we knew about cancer is death.”
The boys thought they were going to wake up the next day and their mom wouldn’t. They didn’t know anything about cancer. The next morning, she got up and went to work for her regular shift at the yarn mill.
“My mom was so tough and so strong,” Torry said.
From their mother, they got the gifts of patience and an unyielding work ethic. There’s also a sense of the importance in being there for those who need you.
“She was everyone’s anchor in the family and the neighborhood,” Terrence said.
Wolfpack for life
The odds of one them making it out of the tobacco fields in Gibsonville, where they used to work for $5 an hour to help make ends meet, were high. But for both of them to get to the NFL? You’re better off trying to find $1 million in a scratch-off ticket.
But Torry, in 1997 and ‘98, was the best player in the ACC. The performance in N.C. State’s memorable upset of Florida State in 1998 alone could have gotten Torry the Hall of Fame honor. But 20 years later, there are still ACC receiving records with his name on them.
Torry wasn’t the biggest or fastest receiver, but he refused to be out-worked. He was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 1999, No. 6 overall, and he helped turn a losing team into the “Greatest Show on Turf.” The Rams were Super Bowl champions in the 2000 season, and Holt had 109 receiving yards and a touchdown in the win. Hence, the nickname “Big Game.”
Terrence joined Torry at N.C. State in 1998 but made his own name on defense. As a safety, he was an All-ACC selection as a junior in 2001 and again as a senior in 2002. He was one of the leaders on defense and special teams in ‘02, when the Wolfpack set a school-record with 11 wins. The most telling stat about Terrence’s career at N.C. State is he blocked seven kicks. The Lions took Terrence in the fifth round of the 2003 draft, and he spent six years in the NFL.
For their second careers, the brothers run a construction business in Raleigh. From their father, Odell Shoffner, a Marine and entrepreneur, they get their risk-taking spirit and positive energy. Their construction company, with Terrence as the president, helped renovate Reynolds Coliseum and Union Station in downtown Raleigh and has current projects with N.C. Central University, West Charlotte high school and the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.
You could describe Terrence as the more serious of the two. “He was always using his brain,” Torry said.
There is a yin and yang between the brothers. Just one peek at their offices gives you a clue of the dynamic. Terrence’s is clean and immaculate without so much as a pen out of place, compared to Torry’s that’s covered with memorabilia and photos.
“We realize and appreciate how different we are,” Terrence said.
They can see different traits from their parents in each other. Their mother’s courage was an inspiration, but they didn’t know how to emotionally deal with what she was going through with her cancer treatments. That’s a primary part of the KidsCan! program.
“We were jacked up emotionally,” Torry said. “Fortunately we had sports. That anxiety and tension, we’d take it out on the opponent.”
But in their lives after football, they’ve learned to communicate about their own fears from what they went through with their mother’s fight. They each have deep, car-commercial voices. Torry could narrate the phone book. But more important than the delivery is their empathy. For the Holts, it would have been easy to just put their name on the foundation and donate money. They’ve gotten involved at the granular level.
When Sharon Delaney was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, her sons were in eighth and second grade. Delaney, who had known about the Holts from her work as a TV broadcaster in the Triangle, was moved by their emotional investment in the program.
“When they get up and talk about the ‘why,’ it’s so heartfelt,” said Delaney, whose sons went through the KidsCan! program at Rex. “It’s not a script. It’s very authentic when they talk about their mom and the ‘why.’ “
It was during Torry’s rookie season when a member of the Rams’ public relations department suggested he check out the charitable organization in St. Louis that KidsCan! is based on.
“That meeting changed my life, and it helped us to be able to help others that were going through the same thing we were going through,” Torry said.
The programs meet once a month at the five different sites and help about 20 people at each meeting per hospital. There’s a practical purpose to it but there’s also the bigger picture. The foundation has been around long enough now that there are kids who have participated in KidsCan! who have returned to work with the program.
Laurel Engel was 10 when her father, Ron Hillen, was a patient at the Rex Cancer Center in 2002. She remembers going on a tour of the chemotherapy facility and meeting Torry.She said the monthly meetings felt like a safe space for her to be around other people who understood what was going on in her life. Cancer is a terrible club, one no one willingly joins. Once you’re in, though, you realize how many other amazing people are going through the same experience as you and your family.
“We’ve all been hurt by cancer and are not scared to talk about it,” Engel said.
Engel is 27 and now works as a bereavement counselor at hospice care, in part because of her experience with KidsCan! She also helps as a children’s counselor for the KidsCan! group at Rex. “We encourage the kids to think that way, to pay it forward,” Torry said. “If we have enough kids doing that the program, in our opinion, will continue to grow.”
‘They’ve given us hope’
Angela Nunn is a first-grade teacher in Durham. She is a Duke fan and didn’t know anything about the football exploits of the Holts. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, her daughter, Trinity, and son, Aiden, went through the KidsCan! program at Duke University Hospital.
Nunn was contacted by the Holt Brothers Foundation about helping out with some of her household bills, so she decided to Google them. She didn’t type “guardian angels” in the search field, but she could have.
“Cancer is a bad, bad monster but some wonderful blessings have come out of this journey,” said Nunn, 54.
Nunn’s search results gave her more insight to the Holts’ story. When Trinity, a freshman at UNCG, won the scholarship through the foundation in August, Nunn was overwhelmed.
“Oh, my God, Trinity and I, everybody started crying immediately,” Nunn said. “We had no idea.”
With the Holt brothers, it’s always about more than their football fame or a simple financial transaction.
“They’ve given us hope,” Nunn said. “You cannot put a price on that.”