Special bonds can form when two special people are involved. For Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, he found that to be true with a rough and rugged linebacker from Shelby, North Carolina.
Dax Hollifield had just finished his high school career with 629 career tackles and 139 tackles for loss. Multiple colleges were pursuing him, including Alabama, Stanford, and his dream school, Clemson. However, the relationship that he built with Foster over the years was the difference.
“I think that was the scale-tipper in everything recruitment wise,” said Aubrey Hollifield, Dax’s father. “Clemson’s got this, Stanford’s got this… the thing that weighed it, and tipped the scale was coach Foster. That was the bottom line.”
It was a multi-year process for Foster to get to that point. Foster’s commitment to Hollifield from the beginning ultimately earned his commitment to the program.
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“We had invested a lot of time in him, and he invested a lot of time in us,” Foster said. “We did probably more than any recruit that I’ve ever recruited. I probably knew him better than anybody just because I forget how many times he was up here – it was close to 20 times with junior days, and camps, and different things like that, and just all the times we went to see him.”
Aubrey Hollifield, the defensive line coach and varsity basketball coach at Shelby High School, recalls Foster and Shane Beamer coming to school one day to see Hollifield his freshman year. Aubrey Hollifield had long been familiar with coach Foster through coaching clinics and other things of that sort. While Dax Hollifield might not have realized the magnitude of this visit, he saw his father’s reaction and took notice.
“I think Dax saw me light up, it was almost kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy must be really big,” Aubrey Hollifield said.
And so there were the beginnings of the bond. It carried throughout Hollifield’s entire high school career when others came later in the process, and ultimately led to that pivotal moment where he decided to play a little joke on his counterpart.
“The night before, not going to lie, I didn’t know where I was going,” Hollifield said. “The night before he [Foster] was telling me, ‘Dax, if you go to Clemson, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I might come down there and just yank you by your daggum neck.’ The next morning I said I’m going to get coach Foster because that’s the guy.
“I wanted to call him to tell him I was committing. I was going to sell him that I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m just going somewhere else. I acted like that and tried to make it seem like I was going somewhere else, then at the end break it to him that I’m coming to Tech. It was pretty funny. I about gave him a heart attack.”
It was a prank in the biggest moment that couldn’t just be pulled on any coach. It was only made possible because it was made between two people who saw each other on the same level.
“In recruiting, those guys can break your heart,” Foster said. “He kind of had that voice where it was like, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this.’ I was getting ready to throw the phone through the wall and that type of thing.”
But in the end Foster got his guy. He would’ve liked for it to happen a lot sooner, and he joked that he could make up for that at 5:30 a.m. workouts this offseason, but he now had the cornerstone of his defense for years to come.
Love For the Game…And For Welding
Hollifield entered Virginia Tech for his freshman year, and the coaching staff quickly took notice. During press conferences in the midst of camp, Foster and even head coach Justin Fuente both mentioned Hollifield’s work ethic on numerous occasions, when typically they wouldn’t single out players.
The 6-foot-1, 243-pound linebacker got his first extended run in the second half of the William & Mary game, and garnered five tackles. It was the first glimpse that the fanbase had of its prized recruit.
“I love football. That’s my thing,” Hollifield said. “When I’m on the field, it’s different. People ask me all the time how it feels being on the field, and I can’t explain it. It’s amazing to me. I got my first snap against William & Mary and I was just like, ‘Wow, this is pretty crazy.’”
Now 11 games into the season, Hollifield has started four games at the backer position and tallied 50 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and two sacks. While those are no numbers to scoff at, it’s been the energy and enthusiasm that’s had the greatest impact on the Lunch Pail Defense.
“He’s rubbing off on a lot of other players,” Foster said. “I love his energy, and it’s real. It’s daily. He is all in, whether it’s in the film room, whether it’s in the weight room, or conditioning. He’s just not going to finish the drill we’re doing, he wants to win it to push himself to the best of his ability, and that encourages everybody else. That’s what you need. You got to have a guy like that in your program. That can be contagious, and we’d like for that to be.”
Last week against Virginia, Hollifield was seen jumping up and down after making a key play, waving his arms to get the crowd pumped up, and pointing at Cavaliers’ quarterback Bryce Perkins to go to the sideline after he came up limping. It drew Hollifield some hate on Twitter, but he takes it all in stride and says it’s more funny to him than anything.
There’s a care-free attitude in that instance, but otherwise, Hollifield is all-business in whatever route he goes.
“The thing he does do is pour his heart and soul into whatever endeavor he takes on,” Fuente said. “He’s a very, very good student. He’s working to become a very good football player. He pours his heart and soul into both of those. Just one of the things about him that makes him unique is whatever he does take on, he has the ability to pour everything he has into that activity.”
Hollifield doesn’t just pour his heart and soul into football, but there’s also a side hobby of his that Fuente has seen up close and personal: welding.
“The pride in his face when he took me into his shop class and introduced me to his teacher,” Fuente said. “We spent about an hour in there. I don’t know anything about that stuff, but Dax showed me the trailer he made. We’re not just talking about one hinge, we’re talking about big time things. It’s just how he is. Not everybody can be like that. Very few people can devote as much time and energy into whatever endeavor they choose.”
His Father’s Son
Aubrey Hollifield had been coaching his son before he was even old enough to play, and even when he was playing a different position. Even though he was the defensive line coach at Shelby High School, Aubrey would still pull Dax aside, correct any mistakes, and light a fire in him for the next possession. He was also Hollifield’s basketball coach, and the coach’s son title drew the ire of rival high schools.
“My high school rival, Crest High School, they used to call me ‘Daddy’s Boy.’ Constantly, all game long whether it was basketball, football, even in track,” Hollifield said. “I guess they used to think it would get on my nerves, but they used to hate me for some reason. I don’t know why, I feel like I’m a likeable guy.”
While it’s been an odd dynamic with the two separated, both have adjusted, and Hollifield knows that his father is just an eyeshot away.
“He sits on the front row right where the recruits are,” Hollifield said. “He’s always right there. He keeps me going. I always look at him and he keeps me calm. He’s the reason I am what I am today. Everything I’ve done I owe to him.”
Hollifield plays football with a joy and a glowing smile on his face, but he acknowledges it’s actually basketball that juices him up more than anything. Though his playing days are over, Hollifield recalls the days of diving on the floor, and just being a big sweaty mess for 32 minutes. Aubrey Hollifield says his affinity for basketball is probably to blame, but he also points out that there’s a correlation between Hollifield’s work on the hardwood and the gridiron.
“I think basketball was very influential as far as skill development for him,” Aubrey Hollifield said. “Being able to sit down, and play defense, and move your feet laterally, and go side-to-side, I think that’s a big developer for linebackers, and I think all athletes.”
Hollifield and his father still talk regularly, and in every conversation without fail, Hollifield mentions something about coach Foster. Aubrey Hollifield sees Foster’s influence on Dax, and thinks he could even follow in his steps as a college coach. While the father and son duo shared many memories side-by-side for the past 18 years, that uncommon relationship is now in safe hands with another special bond.
“[Coach Foster] is just my guy,” Hollifield said. “He tells me all the time, ‘Dax, you’re my guy.’ That really meant something to me. I trust him more than anyone else to be honest with you. I’m really close with my father, and he reminds me a lot of my dad. I love the man. He’s the reason I came here.”