This Giants rookie is mastering chess — and he could be just the piece the team needs right now

New York Giants cornerback Darnay Holmes playing chess in Los Angeles while he was still a student-athlete at UCLA.Seth Makowsky
 

Darnay Holmes is in a meeting room at UCLA, balancing on one foot, a dumbbell in one hand.

Pawn to E4.

Seth Makowsky makes his move.

Holmes has to think fast, and stay standing upright.

Knight to F3

At their training session that day, in the middle of a game-week, Makowsky and Holmes, now a Giants cornerback, are playing a round of speed chess, with distractions. The aim: Get Holmes to make smart, quick, efficient decisions. If it works, it should translate onto the football field, too. Holmes said it does.

He’s been meeting with Makowsky, an elite performance coach and Holmes’ chess instructor, since last year.

Holmes, picked in the fourth round of April’s NFL Draft, is 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, so he’s often dwarfed by opposing wide receivers, and that won’t change in the NFL. He might be outmuscled, but he vows he won’t be outsmarted.

“He’d refer to himself as a player, not a piece,” Makowsky said. “That’s because he wants to be the player making the moves, not a piece that’s acted upon.”

Holmes is a unique prospect, if not for his skills, than his mind, and he’ll bring personality to a Giants defense that has lacked it for most of the last decade. He wasn’t a first-round pick, so the expectation isn’t for Holmes to be a superstar, though he’s in line for a more significant role in the wake of Giants cornerback DeAndre Baker’s arrest.

Either way, this is no typical fourth rounder, and there were no questions about his maturity coming out of college.

That starts with his background.

When Holmes was 10, he walked into a hospital room where Darick Holmes, his father, was bedridden, shot seven times during a drug deal gone wrong. His father survived, and then Holmes thrived.

As a freshman at UCLA, he let his mom sleep in his apartment when she was evicted from her home. He’d often sleep at the team’s facility — piling pillows and blankets for a makeshift bed — so she could have a bed to herself in his apartment.

Holmes graduated from UCLA in 2 1/2 years with a degree in African American studies.

He was drafted by the Giants on April 25, and is projected to earn more than $4 million, per Spotrac, over the life of a four-year contract, whenever he signs it.

Meanwhile, once a week for roughly two hours, Holmes continues to study chess.

He should fit in well to a Giants locker room that welcomes different forms of competition. Saquon Barkley is the driving force behind that. The star running back has an affinity for Connect 4, but has also challenged teammates to play him in chess, too.

Barkley is about to meet his stiffest competition yet in Holmes, who is learning chess as a means to improve the way he thinks on the football field.

“We learned how to compartmentalize every move that he made and if he made a mistake, we just moved to the next one,” said Makowsky, who also trains quarterbacks Deshaun Watson of the Texans, Dwayne Haskins of the Redskins, and Eagles rookie Jalen Hurts. “We learned quickly, but we moved to the next move. What he got from that is the concept of: He may make a mistake, which he’ll learn from, but he’ll never let something break his spirit.”

That last part, about spirit, is a lesson learned from his father.

So, the question is asked: At 21, was he like Darnay, playing chess in his spare time?

Darick Holmes cackles.

The short answer: No.

“At 21, I was wild,” he said. “I tell him: If I would’ve [done] everything right, I would be you. That’s what I told him. ‘So, you’re me, doing everything right.’”

‘That Moment In The Hospital Was Life-Changing’

Holmes was tired of waiting. It was Saturday morning, Day 3 of the draft and he still hadn’t been picked. “It wasn’t good for him,” said his brother, Darick Jr. “He was emotional.” He was about to go outside to work out, shirtless in the Palm Springs, California sun, when his father implored him to bring his iPhone.

Once he grabbed it, it vibrated. It was the Giants. He talked to coach Joe Judge. Then, it was official: He was getting picked 110th overall, the 12th cornerback off the board.

He hugged his father, then went around the room. Darick Holmes sunk into the couch and put his head in his hands. He cried. He thought about his own NFL journey, and getting picked by the Buffalo Bills in 1995. His path was much different, though, and full of strife.

“I was trying to hustle,” he said. “Our mindsets were … way different.”

At 19, his mother died and he was left to raise his two siblings. While at Portland State, Holmes’ girlfriend was pregnant with his daughter, Darica. He needed money so he “hustled”, he said.

“I was really focused on trying to get drafted,” he said, “but I was still wild to the point that I could’ve got back in trouble at any time and had that taken away.”

Darick Jr., was born in 1996. Darnay came two years later.

Once his NFL funds ran out, Darick Holmes would feed the family with fast food, going to different spots — Monday: Popeyes, Tuesday: Chinese food, Wednesday: Wings — each day depending on the deal.

Then, when Holmes turned 10, his father was arrested for running a tax-return scam, according to court documents, showing people how to fake documents to steal money from the IRS.

While that case was pending, Darick Holmes was shot seven times during a robbery. His friends had given him $80,000 in cash, according to court documents, to deliver in exchange for marijuana. He was duct-taped and his shoes and pants were taken. He was shot when he attempted to flee.

In the hospital, handcuffed to the bed, he assured his sons that he was going to be fine. It took him more than a year to start walking again.

“Man, that moment in the hospital,” Darick Jr., said, “was life-changing for all of us.”

Darick Holmes turned his life around and was spared jail time for the tax scam, he said, because of his work with underprivileged youth, which he continues through a successful football training business called Proway Training. It has helped dozens of youth achieve college football careers, including Darnay and Darick Jr., who played at University of Arizona.

He’ll be bringing Proway to New York with his son.

“Just seeing my dad, from that moment (in the hospital) on, he was always positive and on the right path,” Darick Jr. said. “He never looked back on it, he never dwelled on it. … He was making sure we did everything we had to do and he was there right with us. I’m glad we were blessed with our dad.

“He preaches to surround yourself with high-character guys,” he continued. “If you surround yourself with bad people … he always used himself as an example for us. He showed us the negative and the positive. He’d say: ‘Look, this is what I did, and look what happened.’ We’ve seen it firsthand. He went on the right path. So why wouldn’t we trust him?”

Holmes said his father’s turnaround had made a major impact on him.

“He was a person who instilled that ‘hustler’ drive,” Holmes said. “That drive to compete each and every day, knowing that there is somebody out there working to take your spot or working to be better than you.

“He always made sure (to say) that you can’t take any shortcuts. If you take shortcuts, when the time comes and you reach that destination, there are lessons that you did not learn. The downfall is always going to be harder than the come-up.”

Chip Kelly: Great ‘Father Figure’?

Chip Kelly’s authoritarian coaching style and outside-of-the box teaching methods haven’t always been appreciated by players. He didn’t last long in the NFL with the Eagles or 49ers, and his short time at UCLA hasn’t been smooth, either.

Still, don’t expect Holmes to rail against his old coach, even if they never had a winning season together. After the draft, Holmes called Kelly a “great father figure of mine.” Kelly and Holmes were on the same frequency.

“I think one of the things you learn from Chip Kelly when you work for him: There are a number of ways to skin a cat,” said Paul Rhoads, the former UCLA defensive backs coach. “Darnay really embraced that.”

Kelly often brought guest speakers to educate his players in a unique way. Makowsky was one of those. Kelly brought him in specifically to teach chess to UCLA’s quarterbacks and he was granted full access to their position meetings and practices. He was also on the sideline at some games.

Holmes wanted to learn, too. He asked Makowsky to teach him. They met for the first time at a hotel restaurant in Los Angeles.

“He’s so tenacious. How do you not help the kid that wants it that badly?” Makowsky said. “How someone plays chess really reveals their personality. When we play, he’s so locked in. He doesn’t get distracted. It’s just like when he plays football, so it’s special to see.”

Soon, the rest of the UCLA team wanted in, too. By the end of the season, quarterback Austin Burton said, more than 30 players would spend their free time in meeting rooms, playing “intense” games of chess, a couple times per week. That was because of Holmes, he said.

“It was chaos,” Burton said.

Holmes might’ve been the best chess player of the bunch, too.

“I like to play fast,” Burton said. “Darnay is extremely smart and tactical. He really thinks through every move.”

‘He’s Doing Everything The Right Way’

It was in Mobile, Ala., at the Senior Bowl, where the Giants decided they wanted to draft Darnay Holmes.

He nearly wasn’t even invited to the all-star event, according to executive director Jim Nagy, because of a rough 2019 season, which even Holmes admits was his worst year.

Holmes injured his ankle early in the season and came back too early. The result: His draft stock dropped.

Before the draft, experts questioned Holmes’ ability to play corner on the outside due to his size and lack of length, but most lauded his toughness and intellect. Some were focused on his 2019 tape, but the Giants liked his tape from the year before — including a game where he played well against Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown, a first-round pick last year — which is what earned him the Senior Bowl invite.

Now, though, his ankle is fully healed. Holmes, he said, doesn’t regret coming back too soon. He did it for a reason.

“He did it for the team and cost himself some money,” his father said. “But he felt the right thing for him to do was to be out there with his brothers on the field.”

That Senior Bowl invite was crucial. In a private meeting, he impressed the Giants with his high energy and football acumen, a person familiar with the session told NJ Advance Media. They liked his devotion to training through chess, too.

Since the draft, Holmes and Makowsky have been holding weekly chess sessions via Zoom, and that will continue through his rookie season.

“In the NFL, everyone is super gifted,” Makowsky said. “I think the mental side, the ability to process rapidly, is more important. So that’s really what we’re grinding on. He’s dedicated to training his mind with the same vigor that he trains his body.”

Soon, Holmes will move across the country to North Jersey, with his girlfriend. The plan is to rent out former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce’s condo. At some point, Holmes will venture into the city. Perhaps he’ll play chess in Central Park. Maybe, his father said, he’ll join him.

Eventually.

“For him to take up chess, that showed me that he’s matured,” his father said. “One of my sayings is: We move with strategy, not emotions. So when he told me (about chess), I said: ‘Ok, so we’re moving with strategy now, not emotions, huh?’ It was a blessing …

“It slowed the game up for him, and he thinks things out a lot more in life. He’s doing everything the right way.”

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