Torry Says Goodbye To The Gateway

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: March 14, 2009

ST. LOUIS — One of the more uncomfortable truths in sports is that there are very few graceful exits. From the living legend to the obscure athletic foot soldier, everyone who has ever put on a uniform has felt the sting of being a helpless bystander in your athletic exit strategy.

Michael Jordan knows that pain and so do you. And the indignity doesn’t feel any different when the end comes on a cut list pinned to the bulletin board in a high school locker room or when it flashes across the bottom of a TV screen crawl during “SportsCenter.”

So now let’s welcome Torry Holt and Orlando Pace to the club. Within a span of 72 hours, the last true vestiges of the greatest era in St. Louis Rams history had been handed their walking papers. On Tuesday, seven-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Orlando Pace was cut, and then on Friday afternoon, Holt was also released.

Both Holt and Pace have some good football left in them, but this is an unforgiving business. And when a franchise is in the early stages of rebuilding, high-priced aging veterans — particularly ones with big salary cap numbers — become endangered species.

Too often, the revolving-door nature of the NFL can make these moves harsh and uncomfortable transactions. But both Holt and Pace have to regard their releases like presidential pardons.

I can recall too many conversations with both men over the last few years when the Rams had suffered another humiliating defeat and they strained to recall memories of The Greatest Show on Turf era. Pace, the calm introvert, used to shake his head a lot and shrug his shoulders whenever we talked. The more the Rams lost, and the more dysfunctional the environment became, Pace often told me that those championship days “seemed a million years away.”

Holt was a different personality. He was always an outgoing sort, a showman on the field who loved the big games, excelled in the championship environments and longed for the opportunity to prove that he was not some long-in-the-tooth has-been. Holt retreated out of the spotlight over the past few years, limiting his exposure to the media to brief once-a-week sound bites.

He seethed in private, limiting his exposure because he knew that sooner or later the truth would come out. And the truth was, he hated his last few seasons here because he knew how bad this organization had become and how in over his head Scott Linehan was.

The Rams not so subtly hinted that Holt had not only lost a step, but that his star had faded greatly. He never believed that, and after that final game in a Rams uniform last December in Atlanta when he caught six passes for 90 yards, he wryly noted, “I guess ol’ Torry can still play a little bit, huh?”

It wasn’t so much a question as it was a call to arms for the prideful wide receiver who will one day find his bust in the Hall of Fame, and is still convinced that he’s capable of doing a lot of damage on many more football Sunday.

He was a quietly angry man that day, but that’s not how I will always remember him. Instead, the lasting memory of Torry Holt that I will cling to goes back to a sweltering summer day at Rams Park a few years ago and it captures the very essence of Holt’s professionalism. I’ve told this story a few times before, but it’s worth repeating, because to me it is the quintessential Torry Holt.

It was in the midst of another miserable training camp day at Rams Park, the sort of unbearable heat wave that makes you feel like you’re smothered under five wet horse blankets. Yet there was Torry Holt running through a pass route drill as if it was the final drive of the Super Bowl.

There were no passes being thrown in this drill. It was all about simply running the perfect route — 10 yards up, break it off on a 3-yard slant to the sidelines.

As the drill began, the line was filled with all these faceless, undrafted rookies who were in the back of that same line. They wore odd numbers on their backs that suggested their status as pure practice fodder. Yet they were the ones who ran this drill with no sense of urgency at all, like they were the millionaire Pro Bowler with a gaudy NFL legacy.

Instead of making precise breaks and running perfect routes, they rounded off every break, going to 12 yards instead of 10, coming back to 10 yards, not seven, and infuriating receivers coach Henry Ellard with each mistake.

So what made this moment stick in my mind out of all the countless highlights in Holt’s Rams’ career?

There was No. 81 in the front of the line in full pads and helmet, leading the drill and executing it to absolute perfection with those smooth, elongated strides toward an imaginary cornerback. He stopped on a dime, compacted his body into a muscular coil, then burst back on a precise diagonal to the sideline and hauled in the imaginary pass.

He must have done this five or six times under that broiling August heat, and of course you never saw him sweat. He was running these drills like he was fighting for his job. He was competing with the zeal of a faceless rookie who was hoping to impress the coaches.

In a few days, half those kids were gone from camp and out of football, the most graceless athletic exit of all.

But Holt is still around, still working hard. And yes ol’ Torry can still play a little bit, too.