Around midnight on August 31, 2013, Brian Holloway Jr., then a sophomore at the University of South Florida, received a Facebook message from a friend that included a photo of some kids partying against a backdrop he vaguely recognized. Alarmed, Holloway Jr. searched for “party” in Twitter’s search bar and when he found too many results, tried “Stephentown” instead, revealing scores of tweets from dozens of kids, a handful of whom Holloway Jr. recognized from his days at nearby Berlin Junior/Senior High School. The online chatter confirmed what Holloway Jr. already suspected: A rager was going off at his family’s home in Stephentown, New York. Holloway Jr. immediately called his father, Brian Holloway Sr., a former NFL offensive lineman turned motivational speaker/tech entrepreneur, and told him they “had a code red.” He sent his father a series of tweets and Instagram photos that showed the usual detritus of a teenage party — red Solo cups, table dances, and a whole lot of smirking selfies. The elder Holloway told Junior to start compiling every piece of social-media evidence he could find. The next day, Holloway, who lives with his wife, Tammy, and his two youngest sons in Lutz, Florida, flew to upstate New York and found a ruined home.
After assessing the damage and talking to law enforcement, Holloway decided to take the high road. He invited partygoers and their parents to the property to see his beer-soaked carpet, his shattered windows, his busted sink. He wanted to tell them about how important the home had been to his family and put the kids to work on the cleanup. The exact number of kids who showed up for Holloway’s work day varies depending on whom you ask, and Holloway’s own account has changed on a few occasions, but whatever the number was, whether one or two or eight, the poor showing prompted Holloway to take drastic action. He set up a website, HelpMeSave300.com — named after his mission to “save the lives” of the 300 kids who had invaded his home — where he posted screenshots from the Twitter and Instagram accounts of alleged partygoers, some of them minors. The photographs of out-of-control kids, the buzzworthiness of a social-media story involving a former professional athlete, the videotaped and photographed record of the damage done to his house, and Holloway’s distinguished career in the NFL all provided talking points for the media. Holloway, whose LinkedIn profile includes a note about “Viral Social Media Marketing,” extended the narrative by providing constant updates on HelpMeSave300.com about the cleanup efforts and the effect the damage to the house had on his family. By September 18, the tale of a typical party with a large, but not entirely atypical, amount of damage done to the foreclosed summer home of a former professional athlete went national. Holloway’s story appeared on CNN, NPR, Fox News, TMZ, ESPN, and dozens of newspapers and websites across the country. For the most part, the articles written and the TV segments aired during the early days of the coverage took Brian Holloway at his word. These kids ruined his beautiful house. They used social media to amplify both the scope and the violent excesses of the party. They would now learn an important lesson, and if you had a teenage kid, maybe you should consider what he or she does on the Internet.
There are two stories about the party in Stephentown. The first, the one we already know, stars an accomplished, morally stout man who took a stand against a horde of teenagers whose minds had been destroyed by Molly and social media. But that redemption saga holds up for about as long as a quick, three-minute segment on the news or a newspaper column about these goddamn kids these days. Prod just a little bit more, even gently, and Brian Holloway’s quest to save 300 lives starts to fall apart.
The second story about the party in Stephentown is worse.
The Holloway home sits on 200 wooded acres in an undisturbed stretch of the Berkshires, just a five-minute drive from the Massachusetts–New York border. The soft hills and muted, practical houses with their small windows and cords of firewood piled up next to the driveways have a hypnotic effect, where it feels as if the winding road will never end and you could drive for years in the same setting, one small town sliding into another in tranquil infinity. A squat, white farmhouse sits atop the Holloway property, flanked on either side by an outbuilding built of graying clapboards overrun by black mold and a horse barn that has long since settled into a comfortable, asymmetrical ruin. A low-slung porch overlooks a sloped pasture where the Holloways’ rescue horses once ran. The beauty of the Holloway home in the fall feels private and earned — no one tree, as orange as it might be, is an event unto itself and although you’re conscious that what you’re seeing is both photo- and vacation-worthy, you don’t feel the internal pressure you might feel at Yosemite or the Grand Tetons to take it all in at once.
Brian Holloway bought this place in 1981 with the signing bonus he received as a first-round pick out of Stanford. He wanted to find a spot where he could protect his future family from the trappings of football stardom. “When you’re a left tackle,” Holloway explained to me as he walked me around the property, “your entire life is spent thinking about protection, and when you’re a first-round pick, your family is always going to be at risk. I didn’t want to get kidnapping insurance, so I bought this place instead.” At the time, Holloway was not married and had no kids, but he envisioned raising a big family in Stephentown because he claims to have seen great potential in an area that was just a two-and-a-half-hour drive to both New York City and Boston. He lived in Stephentown during the offseason, got married, and raised four kids. After Holloway and his first wife got divorced, he raised a second family with his current wife, Tammy, who had a daughter of her own from a previous marriage. Eight Holloway children spent time at the property in Stephentown, and although the family moved all around the country, eventually settling in the Tampa area, Brian Holloway always felt a bond to the home he had bought at the age of 22.
Holloway still cuts an impressive figure. Six-foot-seven, barrel-chested, with a pinkie missing from an on-field encounter with Karl Mecklenberg, Holloway is one of the rare accomplished men whose bulk can steer the dynamics of a conversation by physical presence alone. A distinct gravity sags through everything he says — even when he’s talking about teenagers or social media or Instagram, Holloway peppers his speech with the military metaphors he picked up from his childhood in an Air Force family. This hard talk, tempered with the authority of his Stanford education, turned Holloway into a young leader in the Patriots locker room. At the age of 23, he was elected to serve as the vice-president of the NFL Players Association. Playing to the left of Hall of Fame guard John Hannah, Holloway helped establish a New England running game that peaked in the 1985 season when the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl to play the Chicago Bears, a game Holloway claims New England lost, at least in part, because the team’s passing offense had been installed by Michael Jackson.1
Holloway played for three more seasons, made another All-Pro team, and finished up his playing days with the Raiders. He remained and still remains a voice in the NFL Players Association and took part in a head-injury lawsuit filed in 2011 by 18 players against the league and the Riddell Sports Group, a company that made and distributed helmets. After his football career ended, Holloway took on work as director of community relations for the New York State Division of Youth, an organization that works with juvenile delinquents. He ran through a few football broadcasting jobs in the mid-’90s and credits himself with starting the first sports blog for NBC’s sports website. After the aforementioned divorce in 1997, chronicled by Robert Lipsyte in the New York Times, Holloway quickly remarried and had three more children. Dedication to at-risk youth has been a through line in his life — he worked with kids throughout his playing career and set up his house in Stephentown, in part, as a place where parents and kids could come to hang out. (Holloway and his wife Tammy still keep boxes of Similac in their pantry in case young mothers want to come over with their babies.)
So when Brian Holloway posted the social-media information of teenagers online and promised to arrest the 300 because he wanted to save their lives, the narrative, however odd and hyperbolic, lined up with a career of noble action. If you believed Brian Holloway, the constant TV and newspaper interviews, the constant updating on HelpMeSave300.com, and “the grassroots movement of people across the world” were part of a coordinated effort to fight the terribleness that social media had spawned in today’s youth. “I have to take a stand,” Holloway explained, “against the urgent undertone of destruction that’s happening in our communities. If I don’t do that, I become them. I become just as guilty and egregious as the students and the parents that have completely abandoned the post of being accountable to call out the greatness in their child.”
All this made for good copy, but from the outset, Holloway’s story did not line up with his rhetoric. When the story of the party at the Holloway property first broke, the main images of the damage done at the party showed a wall in the horse barn that had been covered in graffiti, damage done to the hardwood floors in the house, and a window that had been smashed in. Brian Holloway certainly has no control over what media outlet uses which photo, but by posting the images without any explanation, he allowed reporters, producers, and editors to assume that all the damage shown had been done by partygoers. This was not true. The walls of the barn had been something of a running guestbook for the Holloway family — kids who visited the home would spray paint their names on the wall. It’s true that partygoers spray painted the walls of the barn, including one message of “Fuck the Po- [illegible]” but at least some of the graffiti shown in the images posted on HelpMeSave300.com had been there for years.
On the day I arrived in Stephentown, a contractor who had helped restore Holloway’s floors took me through every scratch in the hardwood and every crack in the tiles. He wanted to show me the difference between new damage and old damage (extant scratches in a hardwood floor are darker in color from the dirt impacted into them over time), but while there were certainly scratches of different colors on the floors, there was no proof that they came from the partying kids. The contractor, a Patriots fan who says he cut Holloway a great deal, said the damage done to the floors alone would cost somewhere in the range of $17,750, but that estimate included a complete refurbishing of floors that already carried a great deal of wear and tear.
The overall condition of the house only further complicates Holloway’s estimate of $20,000 to $30,000 in damages. All the window frames in the property’s main house are in the latter stages of rot, large cracks run through the paint on the siding, and the two outbuildings — the rec center and the barn — are splitting apart from leaks in the roofs. “If someone actually bought this place,” a construction worker who lives in the immediate area told me, “they would just tear all this down and start new. You can’t save any of this.”
Since launching HelpMeSave300.com, Holloway had been organizing work parties for people in the community to come by and lend a hand in the cleanup, and during the two days I spent in Stephentown, approximately 30 volunteers, many of them youths, came by to pitch in. The majority of the damage from the party had already been fixed or could only be handled by professionals, so Holloway had the volunteers work on parts of the house that had not been touched by partygoers. The walls of the rec room got a fresh crimson paint job and trash got hauled to the Dumpster. “The sad thing about all this goodwill,” another worker at the house said to me, “is that we’re just prettying this place up for the bank.”
On October 29, two weeks after my visit, the Holloway home sold at foreclosure auction to the Berkshire Bank, which purchased it for $400,000. It was the sole bidder on the property. After the auction, the Albany Times Union reported that Holloway owed Berkshire Bank $1,006,348.80. He had also built up a backlog of unpaid property and school taxes, totaling $45,131.
The finances of the HelpMeSave300 movement demand even further questioning, in particular Holloway’s decision to have checks meant for “breast cancer awareness” made out to “HelpMeSave300.” Even if a portion of the donated money does, indeed, go to breast cancer awareness, wounded veterans, or any of the other unspecified charities that have been listed on Holloway’s site, that goodwill does not change the fact that a former NFL player who had a successful second career as a motivational speaker and consultant appears to have solicited community donations to help fix up a second home that had long since fallen into foreclosure. Brian Holloway prides himself on his transparency and pointed out on several occasions that he posts his email address and phone number on all his different Internet and social-media presences. But he has not once given the public any indication of where the money raised by HelpMeSave300 has gone, and he did not respond to repeated inquiries to name any specific breast cancer awareness organizations that might receive the money.
This much is true: Some of the people who came to the party on August 31 trashed Brian Holloway’s home. They knocked a sink off the wall, broke windows, completely ruined a carpeted area, and stole a stone statue of an eagle (later returned). From a legal (and arguably ethical) standpoint, the actual amount of damage done to the property and its bank status should be a secondary concern to the charges of breaking-and-entering and the wanton disrespect shown to what had been an open, safe space for kids in the community.
But it was Brian Holloway who turned the Stephentown party into a one-man national media campaign. It was Brian Holloway who repeatedly used phrases like “shock and awe” to describe what was going to happen to the 300. It was Brian Holloway who told me that he was going to “arrest them all.”2 The story of the party in Stephentown should have been a note in the local news about the ransacking of a famous local figure’s home. Brian Holloway, and Brian Holloway alone, turned what happened to his house into a national conversation, complete with its own fund-raising drive and media campaign. And within that context, his selective narrative and the wild accusations he leveled at partygoers, which included stories of sexual assault and date-rape drugs, none of which were backed up by the evidence presented in front of the Rensselaer County District Attorney’s Office, take on a much more intentional, troubling tone.
What follows is a sampling of the tweets that alleged partygoers, some of whom are underage, received after their information was posted on HELPMESAVE300.com.
@randonthomas Trashy lil bottle rat sloot. Ew.
— Jaywan Inc. (@JaywanInc) September 18, 2013
@mannndddaaa Shut up ya lil SMUT. You tweeted from the party. You and your lil wigger friends. You’ve all been reported and turned over.
— Jaywan Inc. (@JaywanInc) September 18, 2013
— Bob Roberts (@pasta_creator) September 21, 2013
— Jack McDevitt (@lord_awesome) September 20, 2013
— StarChamber (@_Star_Chamber_) September 21, 2013
@taylorthorntonx coming after you for the house
— Anonymous Revenge (@AnonymousKarma1) September 19, 2013
Above all things, Brian Holloway believes in the power of great men. In casual conversation, he quickly brings up his friendship with the Kennedy family and all the Fortune 500 companies for which he has consulted, and although many skeptics in the area, including some who came to the house to help out, suspect Holloway of using the party as a way to raise money to get his house out of foreclosure, the reality of HelpMeSave300 skews much more grandiosely: Brian Holloway, idolator of great men, seized this opportunity to turn himself into a national figure hell-bent on a vague, bizarre mission to “save the lives of kids” who had attended an illegal party in his home. “This place,” Holloway said, referring to the property, “could be a hallmark, or, say, a fountainhead for the moment when America discovered just how scary and dangerous social media can be. And how provocative it can be in the minds of 12- to 17-year-olds.”
During our running conversation, Holloway referenced Ayn Rand on multiple occasions, particularly in reference to his long-term business plans. He claimed that Steve Jobs and other “Wall Street and tech types” had been interested in turning Stephentown into a sort of self-selecting outpost of the Hamptons, modeled after Atlas Shrugged, where leaders in all industries could convene as a society of free and creative thinkers. And in true Objectivist spirit, Holloway tried to turn HelpMeSave300 into a business opportunity. He talked to people he calls “IT professionals” to develop a “suite of software” that would allow parents to track and monitor all of their children’s social-media interactions.
There is no clear way to state the mission of HelpMeSave300 because Brian Holloway’s logic only tracks with those who would believe that a 15-year-old who attends a party has so seriously put her life at risk that her parents should thank Brian Holloway for somehow saving her from an early grave. For some semblance of clarity, I asked Holloway what he thought the appropriate punishment would have been for a kid who had come to the party for an hour without the knowledge that it was illegal. Holloway told me what his father would have done to him: “He would have beat me, took me to the house so the owner could beat me, then he would make me scrub the house with a toothbrush, raise the money to cover all the damage, and then turn me in to the police and say, ‘Here, arrest him.’”
All that fire and brimstone has been undergirded by a deep current of self-victimization. In addition to all the television interviews Holloway has given, he has also put up the testimonials of his children, who discuss how the party affected their lives. On October 8, a YouTube message from Brian Holloway Jr. was posted on HelpMeSave300.com with the headline: “Brian Holloway Jr. DROPS OUT of college- ‘This Became Too Serious.’” In the video, Holloway Jr. explains that all the media obligations that came with HelpMeSave300 caused him to fall behind on his schoolwork. “We would get chauffeurs and stuff to take us to Manhattan to broadcast the next day,” Holloway Jr. explains. “So Manhattan is a three-hour drive, so when we’d arrive it was already midnight when we arrived, so I’d be up till two o’clock broadcasting, giving you guys information, updating you guys, and then before I’d go to sleep I’d realize I still had homework and I’d be up another hour doing homework and then we’d have a five o’ clock show, so it’s been really crazy, everything that’s been going down.” After explaining the process of leaving school for a semester in good standing, Holloway Jr. says, “I found myself asking this question: Is my schoolwork today more important than someone else’s life tomorrow?”
And that, for the most part, has been the Holloway family’s message to the public: We will endure this tragedy to help save your kid’s life. What that might mean has never once been made clear.
Later, we sat together in his kitchen. I asked Holloway if he knew that some of the kids whose information he had posted on HelpMeSave300.com had been receiving bullying and threatening messages.
HOLLOWAY: I had nothing to do with that. That is the tremendous, dangerous, and wretched underground river of danger and deception that is all part of the social-media world. All parents need to be aware of that. That has nothing to do with me. You step into that room, that’s part of that room.
KANG: But you did post their profiles on your site. Some of these kids are minors …
HOLLOWAY: I just put up what they put up.
KANG: Do you really feel like you had nothing to do with it?
HOLLOWAY: What goes on in that real treacherous, predatory world of social media, that has nothing to do with me. They’ll bring that on themselves. I mean, can you imagine the social-media stuff that would be directed towards my family since this? I don’t read it, but I know it’s out there. Do they care what happens to my family?
KANG: Well, I’m not asking if they care …
HOLLOWAY: Well, of course they don’t care.
KANG: … I’m asking if you care.
HOLLOWAY: It’s not my responsibility. It’s their parents’ responsibility to get that handled. I would not want anyone to get hurt. [Long pause.] And unfortunately, they put themselves in harm’s way and that’s the thing that’s the most scary about all of this. And HelpMeSave300 is going to be a voice that lets children and parents be aware of how predatory and what vulnerable positions they put themselves in by participating. [Long pause.] I’m sure those kids don’t care about my death threats and I’m sure their parents don’t care, either.
KANG: Sure, but you’re an adult. And those kids are kids.
HOLLOWAY: Well, they didn’t care about my death threats when I was 10 years old. And mine were real.
On my last day in Stephentown, I met a serious man who had come to the house to help with the cleanup and restoration. Holloway had asked him to describe to me what had happened at the police station when the party’s ringleaders were brought in. With a healthy measure of disgust, the serious man, who would only identify himself as a Jets fan, reported that those recently arrested youth had been laughing with their parents and bragging to one another about all the media outlets who had reached out to them. On his way out of the station, the serious man stopped in front of the kids and their parents and called them all assholes. He told me Brian Holloway was a great guy and that it had upset him to see what the partygoers had done to Holloway and his family.
For all serious men, the ubiquity of smartphones, social media, and the Internet has opened up a widening gap between parents and their children. And while it’s easy and alluringly postmodern to slough all this off and say that all times in American history are the same as other times in American history, I wonder if there are really many among us who do not worry about what happens when one generation’s message to the next gets blocked off by that dirty cloud kicked up by our information addictions. Holloway’s mantra of discipline and accountability has resonated with thousands of frustrated parents who wax nostalgic for the days when kids could be disciplined in the old-fashioned way. To them, the photos of kids dancing on tables, the accounts of the damage, and Brian Holloway’s tough, militaristic rhetoric confirmed what they had always suspected: Kids were up to no damn good on that Internet.
This same conversation takes place everywhere — in the comment sections of any story about irresponsible kids, in political arguments about education reform, in tech forums about some new app that makes it easy for you to keep up with your friends and family. With HelpMeSave300.com, Brian Holloway, despite his constant claims that he is “not a hero,” positioned himself at the head of that discussion — and while there may be serious problems with the veracity of his story, it would be foolish to question his convictions. His history of helping troubled youth should not be downplayed or ignored, and although both the method and the brutality of his message ultimately betrayed a man who, in the words of a construction worker who had been at the house for two weeks, “just seemed like he was flailing,” the issues he brought up were worthy of discussion. Brian Holloway should have been the ideal moderator.
One of the many tragedies of the party in Stephentown was that Brian Holloway, believer in great men, got in the way of the Brian Holloway who has dedicated his life to improving the lives of troubled youth. His tireless efforts to expand a teachable moment into a buzzy media campaign warped the truth of what actually happened to his house, and, ironically enough, proved the point he had been trying to make all along. If we agree with Brian Holloway and believe that the speed with which people can dispense information through the Internet and social media has led to a ruinous upswing in irresponsible behavior, what is the more troubling example of the trend, HelpMeSave300.com or a collection of tweets from teenagers at a party?
One question has nagged at me since my trip to Stephentown. What happened to Brian Holloway? How did a man with such a lengthy history of doing right in the community turn into the man who launched this online campaign for god knows what? Where had Brian Holloway, historical good man, gone? In the aughts, I was a high school English teacher without a clue about how to relate to or discipline my students. Watching Holloway interact with the kids who came to help with the cleanup bordered on a revelatory experience: He was the embodiment of the role model he claims to be — authoritative, consistent, and compassionate. Lipsyte, who traveled with Holloway to a juvenile detention center back in the ’90s, reported something similar. But I can find no authority, consistency, or compassion in HelpMeSave300.com, only self-victimization and the perhaps delusional flailings of a man short on time and money.
In our conversations, Holloway vacillated wildly between his talk about saving lives and his rants about what had been done to him and his family. Despite his stature and his training as a speaker, I noticed that Holloway almost never looked me directly in the eye. Instead, his gaze darted back and forth — one second he’d be looking over my shoulder down the driveway, the next he’d be sizing up the construction workers who had been hired to fix the roof. Entire journalism courses should be taught on all the various problems with interpreting a subject’s eyes, but as I listened to Holloway talk about social-media dangers and 9/11 and the Latin Kings and the kidnapping insurance he felt he might need as a left tackle on the New England Patriots in 1981, I could not ignore the weight of his paranoia. And here, I also tried to sympathize with Holloway. As a minority who grew up in a predominantly white area of the South, I am familiar with the seething anger that arises after any violation of body or property and all the sometimes irrational, sometimes spot-on assumptions you make about why it happened to you. I also know that I, who grew up in a college town in the ’80s and ’90s, had it much easier than Holloway, who told me about how, in eighth grade, he had been the first black student to pass a placement test for an elite private school in Alabama and the death threats his family had received.
It felt as if I were talking to two men — the impressive if somewhat scattered Brian Holloway who walked me around his idyllic property in the Berkshires and the ranting Brian Holloway behind HelpMeSave300. The only thing the two men shared was their murky, amplified rhetoric of persecution. Messages of overcoming adversity, whether racism, bullying, low self-esteem, or Internet addiction, can be found throughout HelpMeSave300.com, including a children’s book Holloway wrote about his childhood days in Hawaii, and a 12-step program he published for the students who came to the party. In Step 10, Holloway writes:
In choosing this pathway, which is totally up to you; this incident will grow and spiral into something bigger and more dangerous. What I’m saying is; a lot of bad things start happening that are not good; in other words it’s like a new and dangerous AP (application) of self-defeat/destruction is downloaded on your hard drive, a series of thought virus (disguised as a Trojan) basically, that morphs and changes, attacking good intentions, great opportunities, good decisions and then the Trojan releases all it’s drones and basically infects and kill everything; like that movie World War Z. In short it’s like those gaming scenarios when the WARRIOR turns upon themselves; but this time it’s not a game; it actually happens and you devour others. That’s what happened to Terrell Owens, OchoCinco and Hernandez with the Patriots. That’s the only way to totally and completely KILL a DREAM and destroy the greatness GOD put in your life.
After I asked him for the names of any breast cancer awareness organizations to which he planned on contributing, Holloway cut off all communication with me, save the following forwarded email.
Back in 1983, my mother wrote you a letter explaining the path I was heading down as a young teenage football player. You took time out of your schedule to educate 4 young adolescents heading down a questionable behavioral path. You opened your home to us and we helped you clean out your barn. You hosted a BBQ for us and took us into your ‘man cave’ and let us ask you questions about your life experience in the NFL. I wish I had been old enough to hear your message and had been able to take that to heart at the time. But today, I still remember and respect the words your shared and I am trying to pass along the same message to my daughters. One of which is a junior at Northeastern University studying behavioral neuroscience. While the other is navigating through her junior year of high school in Lee, MA. I am proud to say that your words that I was unable to understand at the time have resonated through to me during my military service in the Navy during the first gulf war and Somalia. I am in awe that some of the parents whose children disrespected your home and family have ridiculed your actions surrounding this incident. Especially not knowing what a great man you are and how you respect others honesty and integrity to do the right things.
To this day, you are still sending that same message you shared with myself and 3 others so many years ago. I currently live in Lenox, MA and wanted to reach out to you after seeing the recent news. I would be more than happy to help out at your home if there is still work to be done. If nothing else, to reflect on the impact that visit back in 1983 had on my life.
God bless you and your family.
I still cannot reconcile the two Brian Holloways. I suppose there are two of all of us now, but knowing that brings me no closer to a satisfying conclusion.