CHESHIRE >> Not too long ago, Tarik Black and C.J. Holmes were just kids running around Hamden Fathers Pop Warner football fields, then rushing back to each other’s houses to play even more football… on their video game consoles.
As they furiously tapped control buttons to make virtual players perform outstanding feats against each other, they dreamed aloud. One day, they’d say, those would be their avatars zipping across high definition screens on football fields across the country.
“Those late night playing Madden or NCAA, we kept telling ourselves: We’re going to do this,” Holmes said. “And as the chips and dominoes fell, it started to open up for us and we ran with it.”
On Wednesday in front of a packed room at Bowden Hall on the campus of Cheshire Academy, Black and Holmes, alongside teammate Samuel Vretman, took their first, official leaps toward realizing those boyhood dreams.
After Vretman, a defensive end from Sweden via Idaho, signed his National Letter of Intent to play for Rutgers, Holmes, a tailback, made good on his summer commitment to play for the University of Notre Dame by signing his letter of intent.
Finally, it was Black’s turn. The heralded, 6-foot-4, 206-pound, four-star recruit at wide receiver made his nationally anticipated decision official when he announced, through a video presentation, that he had selected the University of Michigan from his 30 official offers.
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) December 14, 2016
Teammate C.J. Lewis, another one of their boyhood football friends from Hamden and highly rated (and uncommitted) recruit himself, Periscoped the event and broadcast it for the anxious college football world to see.
When the announcement finally arrived — showing a sketch of Black dressed in Michigan Maize and Blue next to a hashtag #TBtoAA — the crowd, consisting of his family, coaches and classmates roared and mobbed Black, who was beaming from ear-to-ear.
Black placed a Michigan hat on his head and took his place at the front table where he signed his National Letter of Intent. Then he sat back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and exhaled. It was over.
“I’m glad, yeah. It’s been an overwhelming process,” Black said. “It’s definitely been stressful over the years. I got my first offer as a freshman and, now that it’s over, it’s just a big weight off my shoulders. I know where I’m going and I can just focus on going there rather than everything else outside of that.”
Black will play in the U.S. Army Bowl in San Antonio on January 7 and head to Ann Arbor to begin classes later that month.
Dykeman calls Black “the most prolific receiver I’ve ever coached.”
“He’s 6-4, 200 pounds, runs in the 4.4s (40-yard dash) and can catch any ball that’s thrown to him. Start there,” Dykeman said. “He’s got incredible route-running ability. He has an innate ability to get in and out of cuts. He is a matchup nightmare for whoever you are. He is a special wide receiver, there’s no question about it.”
Black said he’d known he would choose Michigan for at least the past month month. And it was no secret to his family or Dykeman.
“I’ve known for quite a while, yea,” Dykeman said, wryly. “But it’s been a process. Right to the end. It’s a bittersweet day. I’m so proud of these kids and outstanding young men. But it’s been fun. It’s been a lot fun.”
Black said the facilities at Ann Arbor, the school’s academic reputation and a blossoming relationship with coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff all factored into his decision.
Harbaugh’s staff conducted a clinic at Cheshire Academy over the Summer and Harbaugh himself visited Hamden just last week while other coaches from his remaining finalists — Alabama, UCLA, Auburn and Stanford — followed to make their last, desperate pitches.
Black, of course, remained unswayed.
“I just felt comfortable there,” Black said. “I’ve been there about five times and each and every time I felt at home. I’ve developed a relationship with their coaching staff over the years. They offered me as a sophomore and ever since then it’s been a great relationship. I really respect Coach Harbaugh and I’m going to have the opportunity to play right away.”
That Michigan’s top outside receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson are both graduating indeed made Michigan that much more enticing to Black.
“That’s my position and it’s up for grabs,” Black said. “So I’m going to go out there and work my tail off and hopefully, next year I’ll be playing.”
Because he committed in August, Holmes’ signing took a back seat to Black’s decision, but it was no less momentous. “Just getting that security, finally having it on paper… I almost feel like I’m going to cry,” Holmes said. “It’s surreal.”
During his recruitment, Dykeman said Notre Dame has compared Holmes, a 6-foot, 200-pound tailback, to former Irish back C.J. Prosise, now a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks.
“He’s a guy who can play tailback, or cross-train as a wideout, that can cause match-up problems, a guy who can get involved on special teams,” Dykeman said of Holmes. “He’s an unbelievable athlete. He has physical strength, size and then matched with unbelievable speed.”
Holmes said the academics and his parents’ comfort with Notre Dame were factors in his commitment to play for the Irish. Even as Notre Dame’s 2016 season went south, leading to significant turnover on Brian Kelly’s staff, Holmes remained resolute.
“I committed to the University of Notre Dame, not Notre Dame football,” he said. “I just fell in love with everything about it. It’s a great program with great coaches and great personnel. Every program has down years. That’s why they recruit players like me, to help them get it turned around.”
Holmes, too, will head to South Bend to begin school in January.
Meanwhile, Holmes said he was proud of Black’s decision. “Man, I’m just glad he found a home. He had a lot of options,” Holmes said. “I wish it was the Irish, but I’m glad he found a place that he was comfortable with. I’m happy for him. He’s going to be a great player.”
If all goes as planned, in two years Holmes and Black could meet on opposite sidelines in South Bend when Michigan travels to Notre Dame Stadium for the 2018 season-opener.
They will have come a long way from those late nights playing video games together in Hamden.
“It’s surreal. Just dreaming about this, you never know if it’s actually going to come true,” Black said. “For it to actually come true for us, it feels great. I’m proud of that guy over there. I can’t wait to see him succeed at the maximum level.
“And I can’t wait to see him in 2018. We’ve been playing on the same team for all of our lives and to see him on the other side of the field, as a rival, is going to be crazy.”