Green Bay Packers defensive end Vonnie Holliday returned to his locker at Lambeau Field after an April minicamp practice to find his name plate and personal belongings piled up in the middle of the locker room. While Holliday was on the field, the locker's previous tenant, recently retired Reggie White, had returned for a nostalgic visit. As a joke, and with some of his old teammates watching, White had tossed Holliday's belongings onto the floor and howled with mock indignation about a second-year player stealing his locker and trying to make Packers fans forget about the NFL's alltime sack leader.
The joke may be on White. "Vonnie could eventually have a bigger impact on this team than Reggie did," says Green Bay All-Pro strong safety LeRoy Butler. "We need him that much. You watch, Vonnie will have people forgetting about Reggie in no time."
On the morning of the 1998 draft the Packers traded their first-and second-round picks to the Miami Dolphins to move up 10 spots and grab the 6'5", 300-pound Holliday with the 19th pick. Though he had played only tackle at North Carolina, Holliday played right end and right tackle during his rookie season, and he finished with 39 tackles and eight sacks. Even though he played inside on most passing downs and missed four games late in the season with a broken right fibula, Holliday still matched Tim Harris's club record for sacks by a rookie, set in 1986, and finished just two votes behind Oakland Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
"I'm still in awe when I hear my name and Reggie White's in the same sentence," says the 24-year-old Holliday, who grew up in Camden, S.C., with a poster of White on his bedroom wall. "I'm sure it would probably be great if I could have just half the career Reggie had. But you know what? I'm not going to settle for that. I want to be better than Reggie White. I want to surpass what he did." Holliday does not have as much brute strength as White, but his explosiveness, 36-inch-long arms and viselike grip help him dispose of blockers and get into the backfield.
Despite his impressive rookie performance, Holliday has stayed humble and focused, traits he acquired while growing up as the only boy in a house with five women (his grandmother, mother, aunt and two older sisters). "When you grow up with five mothers," he says, "being lazy or having a big head is just not an option."
In Green Bay last season, Holliday was mentored by White, who got him to relax when the frustration of learning a new position was wearing on him. To prepare for opponents, Holliday still watches hours of film of White, and he has developed a rush move of his own that may one day rival White's infamous Club. At the snap, Holliday pops the blocker in his chest, then tries to pull the off-balance opponent past him. "Vonnie is intelligent, he's strong," White said in 1998. "To be honest with you, he kind of reminds me of myself when I was young."
White finished his 14th, and final, season with 16 sacks, giving him a career total of 192�. The righteous Reverend thanked God, of course, but Holliday also deserved much of the credit. By the fifth game of the season, opponents occasionally began to double-team Holliday, leaving a single blocker to handle White. In fact, when that broken leg kept Holliday out of all but two snaps of the Packers' final five regular-season games, White was limited to two sacks. Before the injury the familiar Lambeau chants of Regg-ie, Regg-ie had changed to Vonn-ie, Vonn-ie.
"It's indescribable what Vonnie meant to our defense last year," says Butler. "If [the New York Giants'] Michael Strahan is the Number 1 defensive end in the league, then Vonnie is 1B. He could very easily average at least 10 sacks a season for a long, long time."
During this year's training camp the Packers initially asked Holliday to play White's left-end spot. When coaches felt comfortable using veteran Vaughn Booker there, Holliday returned to the right side, where he can take better advantage of his speed. Under new defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas, Green Bay plans to use less straightforward, two-gap rush packages and more stunts, with Holliday freelancing more.
"Vonnie is so quick and strong and such a hard worker you can bet he's going to get a lot of accolades during his career," says Thomas. "I refuse to compare him to Reggie. It just isn't fair. But I will say this: In 10 years, when young players come into the NFL, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if the guy they will all be trying to live up to is Vonnie Holliday."