CONEY ISLAND — When Thomas Holley began his junior year at Lincoln HS, the basketball star hadn’t played one high school football game.
Eight games later, the Fresh Meadows native is a household name for college football recruiters from coast to coast and is now trading hoop dreams for a shot at being a gridiron great.
Holley is a five-star recruit listed as the top-ranked player in New York state and the third-ranked defensive tackle in the country in the Class of 2014.
The 6-foot-4, 290-pound senior at Lincoln has offers from Alabama, Clemson, Mississippi, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, USC, Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Ohio State, Penn State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Rutgers, among a host of Division I schools.
“The fact that after just eight games played I’ve jumped on top of the radar so fast, it’s been keeping me humble and hungry,” Holley said. “It’s definitely a blessing and an incredible feeling.”
Holley is a novice when it comes to football. It’s a sport he’s wanted to play since fifth grade, but because he was so big, he wasn’t able to compete against kids his age. Instead, he was told he’d have to play in the high school division.
His mother, Candace Benjamin Holley, nixed that idea immediately.
“My mom was scared to death of that,” he said.
So Holley put his football dreams aside and continued to excel on the basketball court. After just two years at Christ the King HS in Middle Village, he had schools like Marquette and Iona recruiting him.
Still, Holley realized that basketball, in the big picture, wasn’t likely going to take him very far.
“There’s not too many 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 power forwards in college and the NBA,” Holley said. “I was only going to get so far so I had to try something different.”
That something different was football. With his mother’s blessing, Holley went to preseason camp with Christ the King, but transferred to Lincoln soon after.
That’s where Shawn O’Connor, the school's 13-year football coach, first met Holley.
“I saw a big kid with his mom and I started talking to him,” said O'Connor, who is also a dean at the school. “He didn’t know I was a coach and I said what’s your plan? He said, 'I play basketball, but I want to try football.'"
Holley’s footwork, athleticism and conditioning came from the basketball court. Those skills, as well as the fact Holley is a relative football novice, make him a must-have prospect.
“He hasn’t even come close to his ceiling,” O’Connor said. “I think he can be very, very good because he’s a hard worker and a good learner.
“The first practice you could see he had great feet for a guy his size."
After completing the mandatory 15 practices needed to compete in the PSAL, Holley scored a touchdown following a forced fumble during week five at Flushing.
“I think that’s when I figured this might be the sport for me,” Holley said. He also racked up 10 tackles and a sack that year.
O’Connor sent out Holley’s highlight tape, a picture of the two together to showcase his size as well as Holley’s transcript to college coaches.
After a few days, the University of Massachusetts was the first to offer Holley a scholarship. Florida State, Miami and Florida were the next to follow.
“I was getting three or four scholarship offers a day,” Holley said. “That definitely sparked everything for me. That put fuel in the fire and kept me going, kept pushing me.”
Holley said he plans to take some official visits in December — after he tries to lead Lincoln to the city championship in his first, and last, full season of high school football.
“It’s a great feeling to know sometimes you get knocked down from one thing and [you have] the ability to get back up and strive and be even better than you were,” Holley said.
Lincoln kicks off its season against Curtis HS on Saturday at noon.