FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Each word is imprinted in blue ink on the backs of Santonio Holmes' hands, etched in between sketches of bricks. He pointed to the lettering with pride, as he explained their origin. His inner strength can be summed up in two words: Muck. City.
"The symbol of the bricks is just the hard work,'' Holmes said, as he strolled through the hallways of the Jets training facility en route to an afternoon meeting. "And the way the words are placed inside of that, it's almost like it can't be broken based on what I witnessed, everything I've been a part of throughout the streets of Belle Glade [Fla.]. It's all in between these bricks.''
He and his hometown, aka "Muck City" for it's acres of sugarcane soil, are forever linked. But Holmes is clear about his priorities and his future.
"I represent Belle Glade, but at the same time, I've got to take care of myself because I don't want to go back there," he said. "Regardless of how much I love it, I represent it and I talk about it, I ain't going back there."
For Holmes, tomorrow's wild-card game against the Indianapolis Colts is just the first step in his journey to becoming a champion for a second time. The former Pittsburgh Steeler and Super Bowl XLIII MVP knows these moments are few and far between for most players. It took Jets fullback Tony Richardson 15 years to win his first playoff game. But if the Jets can figure out a way to outsmart quarterback Peyton Manning and outmaneuver defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, they'll likely avenge last year's 30-17 AFC title game loss to the Colts.
Wide receivers coach Henry Ellard thought he had all the weapons he needed during the Jets' playoff run last season. But things are different now.
"Santonio put us over the top," he beamed.
It was Holmes who rescued the Jets four times this season with late-game heroics following his return from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
With the Jets trailing Denver in Week 6, he drew a 46-yard pass-interference penalty at the 2 with 1:16 left to set up LaDainian Tomlinson's winning score. Three weeks later, Holmes' 52-yard reception in overtime set up Nick Folk's winning field goal against the Lions. Holmes then caught a 37-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds left in overtime to beat Cleveland and in Week 11, he caught a 6-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining, to lead the Jets past the Texans, 30-27.
Ellard said he'd be surprised if Holmes - who has amassed 746 yards on 52 receptions (14.3 average) this season - didn't come up big against the Colts.
"This is the time that he lives for," said the coach, a former receiver for the Rams, Redskins and Patriots. "In the offseason, he trains for these moments. And that's what allows him to be a champion because of his mindset going into a game like this."
Football is football, said Holmes. It's the same game he played in the backyard when he was 4 years old. His passion for the game and his focus haven't changed. The only thing that has is the size of the crowds he plays in front of.
Save the occasional drop, he's remained unflappable in big-game situations. The most impressive play to date, of course, was his game-winning touchdown catch for the Steelers against Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII. And that's why Jets coach Rex Ryan wanted him.
"When they asked me (about trading for him), I was like, 'Please, this guy's beaten me, not once, not twice but three times in one year," Ryan said, referring to his 2008 season as Baltimore's defensive coordinator.
But Holmes' past success is just that - in the past. He said he can no longer "relate" to his time in Pittsburgh. He and the Jets are focused on what lies ahead. And they're eager to shine.
"Not everybody is awarded a chance to go to the dance and we got an opportunity and we can't blow it," Holmes said. "We all have been brought here with one goal in mind from Day 1, which was make it to the Super Bowl. A chance is here, the slate is clean . . . Let's roll."