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Florida signee motivated by heroic 9-11 rescuer

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Thomas Holley truly learned what it means to be a fighter and a leader from a family member who was both on September 11th.

The Abraham Lincoln defensive tackle mentioned for the first time Wednesday that he draws inspiration to persevere from his uncle Albert Benjamin, a member of the Department of Correction’s Emergency Response Team on 9-11, who pulled one of his coworkers from one of the burning towers.

Benjamin has since encountered debilitating health issues related to his rescue work at the site of the attacks, and now has trouble getting around. He has been to just one of Holley’s games, but that doesn’t keep him from being a major factor in his nephew’s life.

“He’s been my biggest motivation for pushing,” Holley said. “He’s been my best friend. He looks out for me. He is always checking on me, taking care of me.”

Holley had a moment to reflect on all the people that helped him get where he is — including his mother, his uncle Scott, and his grandparents — after signing his National Letter of Intent to play football at the University of Florida on Wednesday morning at Lincoln, along with teammates Khendell Puryear (Central Connecticut State) and Malik Andrews (American International).

Holley’s mother Candace Benjamin-Holley believes her son draws a lot of strength from her older brother’s experiences and actions — and his advice that you never leave a man behind.

“I think he carries that mantra onto the field,” Benjamin-Holley said. “He’s a warrior and he always carries his team on his back. He’s always lifting them up, and I think a lot of that comes from his uncle.”

Benjamin isn’t someone Holley tells many people about. He teammates and head coach Shawn O’Connor had never heard of the uncle who was a heroic rescuer on one of the nation’s most tragic days.

Benjamin, however, knows about them. He keeps up with his nephew’s accomplishments as best he can. Holley always updates him on his personal achievements and the team’s success whenever he visits.

“He always keeps up with me in the newspapers,” Holley said. “He always cuts out the pages that I’m in. He’s putting together a little scrapbook, just to show me how proud of me he is.”

There is good reason to be.

Holley, who never played football until transferring to Lincoln from Christ the King as a junior, garnered 31 scholarship offers from some of the top colleges in the country after playing just eight games. The Under Armour All-American initially committed to Penn State in December before decommitting in late January and heading to Florida after Nittany Lions head man Bill O’Brien left to coach the Houston Texans.

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Holley is the No. 3 ranked player at his position and rank 63rd in the nation overall by Rivals.com. Holley, who had 67 tackles and seven sacks this season, helped lead Lincoln to the Public School Athletic League City conference football city title. He has played just 21 football games in his career after shifting his focus from basketball two years ago.

O’Connor believes the decision to jump to Florida was an easy one because the schools were so close when choice for Holley originally came down to the Gators and Penn State.

Holley, dressed in a Florida hat and t-shirt, said he felt nervous and excited at the same time about his future.

“I couldn’t sleep last night at all,” Holley said. “I was just happy. I felt I made the right decision.”

Reach reporter Joseph Staszewski at jstaszewski@cnglocal.com. Follow him on twitter @cng_staszewski.
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