It came up again this week as the sophomore was introduced to the media at the Gamecocks’ weekly press conference.
The apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. Holcombe’s father Danny was a center for Bear Bryant at Alabama and Max is following right in those footsteps at JSU.
But while he was born with substantial football pedigree, Max excelled at multiple sports as a boy, and the game — even the position — most closely associated with him now didn’t take hold until later than you might think.
“We’d hoped he’d be athletic,” Danny Holcombe said, “but I was kind of hesitant to let him play football. I was one of those dads who knew the kind of beating he took when he played. My wife and I were like, ‘If they come ask us to play, we’ll let him play.’ He came and asked and we got involved.”
Growing up, Max played basketball, baseball and football. Basketball quickly became frustrating under the weight of his physical style and it was the first to fall away. Baseball soon followed.
But football was always there. Holcombe can’t remember how young he was when he started playing, but he can’t remember it not being a part of his life. He recalls going to an Iron Bowl game one year in absolutely miserable weather and loving every minute of it.
His playing experience started in the flag game and by all family accounts, he was good at it. He was a tight end then and it was thought he’d someday catch a touchdown pass.
“He wanted to play tight end and I promised him I won’t make you play center,” Danny said. “Then we had a kid go down and I said, ‘Son, I need you to do it.’ He moved over and has been there ever since.”
At JSU, Max was thrown into the middle of a patchwork offensive line as a redshirt freshman and now is developing into an all-star caliber center. He has started all 17 games he has played for the Gamecocks, tied for fifth among active JSU players.
Much like his favorite NFL player, longtime Colts and current Packers center Jeff Saturday, Holcombe’s not the biggest guy up front — he’s 6-3, 271 — but he’s made it his mission to know everything that’s going on.
“My whole philosophy is if you’re going to learn something, you just have to jump in head first; sink or swim,” he said.
JSU offensive coordinator Ronnie Letson called Holcombe “the most complete center” he has had in the nine years since he returned to the program at understanding how all things work during a game.
“We have calls for a quarterback and Max is able to call it before we do,” Letson said. “Sometimes those offensive linemen get a mindset on what’s right there, but he can see outside of just that box and understand why people are doing things to us.”
Holcombe’s position coach Adam Ross — a former Gamecocks center — called him “the glue” of the offensive line. Last season, that line helped the Gamecocks average 383 yards of offense a game. This year, they have produced a 100-yard rusher in four of the last five games, and over the past two weeks have controlled the ball for nearly 78 minutes while converting 19 of 36 third-down situations.
“He makes it all work,” Ross said. “He gets everybody on the right page.
“It’s not surprising because he comes from a great family and they’ve instilled a work ethic in him that I just try to help carry on. He is sharp. It makes things easier to try to instill on him exactly what we’re doing for the week and let him run with it.”
The elder Holcombe said he’s proud having a son follow in his football footsteps. That pride swells every time he settles into a stadium — no matter how long it takes the family to get there. Last week they drove all night to watch Holcombe and the Gamecocks play an early-afternoon game at Eastern Illinois.
“I’d sit there and it’s like, wow, he’s so much better than I ever thought I’d ever be or was,” Danny said. “But that’s what you want to see. I’ve always told him try to be better than what I did. I told him if you’re going to do it, be the best ballplayer you can whatever level you’re at, (be) the best student.
“The thing his mother’s most proud of is he’s making the Dean’s List. I’m always on the OVC website and the biggest thrill I got was when I saw his name on the Commissioner’s List. We’re just so proud of what he’s done and how he’s handled everything. We’re just seeing a man growing up before our eyes.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.