E.J. Holub personified everything Texas Tech football is about

STILLWATER, OK - SEPTEMBER 25: The Texas Tech Red Raiders flag flies outside the stadium before the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys September 25, 2014 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Cowboys defeated the Red Raiders 45-35. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
STILLWATER, OK - SEPTEMBER 25: The Texas Tech Red Raiders flag flies outside the stadium before the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys September 25, 2014 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Cowboys defeated the Red Raiders 45-35. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images) /

Saturday, Texas Tech football lost a legend when former offensive lineman and linebacker E.J. Holub passed away.  The Lubbock native was the personification of everything Red Raider football stands for.

I never got to see E.J. Holub play for the Red Raiders with my own eyes and that’s a shame.  His collegiate career ended 30 years before my life even began.  But regardless, I can say with no hesitation that he was the personification of everything I think of when I think of Texas Tech football.  Saturday, the two-time All-American center (1959-60) and the first Red Raider ever inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame passed away at 81 leaving behind a legacy few can match.

We all know that West Texas is a vast and rugged place.  It takes a special type of person to carve a life for themselves out on top of the Caprock.  That’s why Texas Tech has been such a remarkable success story.  Isolated and often treated as an afterthought, everything that has been accomplished at the intersection of University and Broadway since 1923 has required a degree of toughness and grit that only a precious few can muster.

Without question, no player to ever represent this school on the gridiron was tougher than Emil Joseph Holub.  The Lubbock High graduate was nicknamed “The Beast” by his Red Raider teammates and it is easy to see why.

At times, it must not have seemed like Holub was human.  After all, what mortal man would endure 17 operations just to continue playing the game he loved?  And the surgeries of that era were far more invasive than the ones today’s athletes have on what feels like a routine basis. 

His first of 12 knee surgeries came in his senior year of high school and scared many high-profile programs away from recruiting him.  Back then, blown-out knees were usually thought to be career-ending.

But just like his hometown university which was thought to never have a chance of success out in the badlands of Texas, Holub proved his detractors wrong.  He went on to become a four-year starter at center and middle linebacker before being drafted by the NFL’s Dallas Texans and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

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With the Chiefs, he started Super Bowl I at linebacker and Super Bowl IV at center making him the only player to ever start two different Super Bowls on opposite sides of the ball.   All the while, he was playing at the highest levels of the sport, he was doing so with a body that had taken the type of abuse that would have crippled most men.

"“I don’t think I ever stayed in the hospital as long as the doctor wanted me to,” he told Jim Lassiter of The Oklahoman in 1982."

In today’s world of players refusing to play because they don’t like their helmets or because they forgot to put on flip-flops at their cryotherapy appointment, we could sure use more players with Holub’s mentality.

But it wasn’t just in football where he was the living embodiment of what we all romanticize Texas toughness to be.  Despite a pair of knees that had less cartilage in them than a set of ball bearings, he managed a 40,000-acre ranch in Oklahoma after his playing days.

There, he became known for busting horses with the same type of ferocity and relentless with which he busted opposing ball carries.  Many people over the years have called themselves cowboys but Holub didn’t have to call himself anything, everyone knew what he was all about.

Legendary former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka was one of the people that learned first-hand what type of a person Holub was when he rode his horse into Ditka’s Dallas-area sports bar.

"“They kept asking me – because back then I dressed Western and it wasn’t customary back then – they always asked me where my horse was,” Holub said in a 2013 article by Ray West Brook of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.“Ditka kept riding me, so I just took my horse and went in there.”Holub added, “I just loaded Cowboy in the trailer, drove up there, and unloaded him in front of the place.”"

Holub was as genuine as he was original.  A man of no pretense living in a society that was more likely to reward the absurd than the genuine, Holb inadvertently became one of the most colorful and legendary Texas sports figures of his time simply by staying true to who he had always been, a West Texan who thought that fortitude was a requirement for life, not a unique trait.

Texas Tech has had its share of stars over the years.  Donny Anderson, the “Golden Palomino” was the program’s first superstar and national cover boy.  With his blonde hair and All-American looks, he was to football in the 1960s what Pat Mahomes is today.

Gabe Rivera was the most physically dominant player the program has ever produced.  The 300-pound defensive tackle who could outrun most running backs was the type of athlete that we will never see again in scarlet and black.

Zach Thomas was the embodiment of the underdog, a player overlooked because of his lack of size or measurables.  Just like the school he starred for, he defied the odds to become one of the most recognizable names in the game.

But no one will ever be a better example of what Texas Tech University and Red Raider football are about than E.J. Holub.  He wasn’t flashy.  He didn’t draw attention to himself.  He never had anything come to him that he didn’t first earn.  Yet he managed to find something inside that kept him from quitting when almost anyone else would have tapped out long before.

When people today think of Texas Tech football, they think of Mike Leach, Michael Crabtree, Kliff Kingsbury and the modern-day offensive revolution that can be traced back to Lubbock in the 2000s.  But those that really know this program, as we do, think of so much more.

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When I think of Texas Tech football, I think of E.J. Holub and how I wish I could have seen him play.  But though I have only heard about him from those that did, I know that I would want no one else to personify what our university is all about than the man who might have been the toughest to ever play the game of football.