Shortly after Kobe Holley’s fourth-grade school year ended, his life was changed forever.

His mother, Jennifer, who along with her husband, Clarence, of 25 years, adopted Kobe at birth and instantly became his parents. They raised their only child until tragedy struck when Kobe began third grade.

Jennifer was diagnosed with ALS shortly after they moved to Stillwater. Less than two years later – on May 26, 2012, Jennifer passed away at the age of 46.

“I think I was only 10, and it didn’t hit me at that moment,” Kobe said. “I didn’t go into shock or anything. It took a few years for that to happen. I think I was too young to be super sad about it.”

It’s been more than seven years since Kobe lost his mother and Clarence lost his wife of more than two decades. Clarence was proud of how well Kobe handled the tragedy at such a young age.

The father and son have moved on with their lives – with Jennifer’s life always in their hearts – with Kobe beginning his final year of high school and Clarence getting engaged to Vanessa Howland.

“Kobe and I have talked about this a bunch, but God’s plan was that I was supposed to be his dad, Jennifer was supposed to be his first mom, Vanessa is supposed to be his second mom and it’s been a good plan,” Clarence said. “He’s been fortunate to have two great women in his life and one ornery dad who fusses a lot.

“He’s had a great blend of great women and a consistent card-carry, you-better-get-this-right dad. He’s had good cop/bad cop the whole time, and I’ve typically played the bad cop role, and he’s handled all of that really great.”

Changing roles

After Jennifer passed away, Clarence received a text message from an unknown number. The message asked him if he wanted to get back into coaching. Clarence wasn’t interested in coaching elementary children as he did when Kobe was young.

However, Clarence responded to the text and asked a simple question, “Who is this?”

It was Stillwater High football coach Tucker Barnard, who was relatively new on the job. Clarence joined Barnard’s staff with Kobe still years from entering high school.

Fast forward to 2017, Kobe was working out and preparing to be a wide receiver while his friend, Garrick Martin, was planning to be the junior varsity quarterback during their sophomore season. However, a lack of depth in the Pioneers’ secondary forced Barnard to move Kobe to a defensive back position. Martin joined the secondary a year later.

Kobe was playing behind a pair of upperclassmen until Steven Gentry broke his leg during the middle of the Pioneers’ game at Lawton. He was thrown onto the varsity field in a game that wasn’t going in the Pioneers’ favor.

“It was scary,” Kobe said.

Stillwater lost the game and began preparing for Choctaw the following week. Clarence was faced with a conundrum a parent doesn’t want.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Do I put my kid in or do I put someone else in?’” Clarence said. “Who’s going to say something like he’s only out there because he’s the coach’s kid? I don’t really work here and I don’t want Tucker to have to deal with that.”

He didn’t have to make that decision. As the Pioneers auditioned several players for the secondary, Barnard came over and told Clarence that Kobe needed to start.

It was a game Kobe won’t forget, although he doesn’t remember the end result of a one-on-one with the Yellowjackets’ quarterback.

“The first game we had to play was against Choctaw and they’re quarterback was one of the best wrestlers in the state,” Kobe said. “My dad would not stop talking about it. I saw him running right at me, and I just dove at his legs, hoping to take him down.

Kobe secured a spot in the secondary, and the rest is history. Before his junior season, he was joined at the safety spot by one of his best friends.

Garrick Martin moved from quarterback to wide receiver to safety, where he started as a junior last year.

“When I moved here, he was my first friend,” Kobe said. “I went over to his house like the third day I moved here. We’ve always played the same sort of position, so it’s helped a lot growing up with him.”

Martin and Kobe gave the Pioneers a dynamic duo at the back end of their defense that combined for nine interceptions last fall. It’s a pair Barnard can rely upon once again.

“They’re like brothers and they even fight like brothers,” Barnard said. “I think they love each other like brothers, too. They really get us going in the back end of the defense – really directing a bunch of traffic.”

Becoming better

During the past two seasons, Kobe has developed into a talented safety for the Pioneers. He is even moved down into the box to help the Pioneers pressure the quarterback or stop the run, and that’s a role his dad believe fits Kobe’s playing style.

One reason he believes that is because it’s something he noticed when Kobe and his classmates were beginning their athletic careers.

“The first thing I would say – like a lot of those kids like Gunnar (Gundy), Garrick and Jack (Smithton) – they’ve been playing a lot of sports at a high level since they were itty bitty kids,” Clarence said. “I know there isn’t a huge transfer of fourth-grade basketball to high school football, but the importance of learning to guard a guy, play through the ball, anticipate passes and watch what an offense is doing, are things all of those kids have been doing.

“Kobe was a dude even when he was little and he was never afraid to run into a crowd and has always played eyes wide open, which means he could be a good tackler. God gave him decent size, decent speed and good hands. So put all that together and he’s done real well.”

As Kobe has grown older and improved, Clarence has noticed many things as his defensive coordinator. One of those is Kobe’s ability to never be a player opponents can choose as the one defensive back to challenge.

“He does, like a lot of our kids, a nice job of never being a guy I can put a target on,” Clarence said. “In other words, they can’t watch a video and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to get after 20.’ He does a nice job of never putting a target on his chest.”

Barnard has also enjoyed watching Kobe learn and grow as a player. He’s seen it since Kobe’s elementary days when he played with Barnard’s oldest son, Carter.

Since Kobe became a starting safety, Barnard has seen his competitiveness and confidence grow. Those are two of the traits that make him the player he is today.

“He’s obviously a good football player with good ball skills,” Barnard said. “He is our snapper on punts. He’s skilled enough where he could play receiver. He was also a back-up quarterback at one time. There are a lot of physical traits about his game, but I think what’s turned him into the player he’s become is more about desire and competitiveness. He also carries a swagger on the football field that’s contagious.”

Father or coach?

Although Kobe has found a starting spot as a safety, he admits he was hesitant to move to the defensive side of the ball, because that’s where his dad coached.

After nearly two years playing for his father, Kobe is happy with the choice, even if the coaching carries into their house after games and practice.

“It’s different, like it’s probably different for other people,” Kobe said. “I love him as my coach. There’s no one I’d rather have as my coach, but sometimes we’ll go home and he’s still the coach. He’s still getting me prepared, so it all works out.”

Clarence took a similar approach to their relationship, and even laughed when asked about coaching his son.

“Dude, it’s the coolest thing, ever,” Clarence said. “It’s a challenge and probably more for him than for me, because he’s with his buddies. It’s a cool deal.”

Clarence added he’s proud of the person Kobe has become, because he’s seen him become a great teammate, classmate and citizen. He’s seen all of that as his father, but moreso as his coach – a role he’s cherished.

“He’s transitioned through a lot of things growing up,” Clarence said. “What I would say is I can’t imagine a bigger blessing than getting to, one, be a part of winning all these games. The fact that Tucker lets me be up here is the best. It’s the coolest thing ever. The fact that he will let us do the stuff we do, because some of the stuff will leave you scratching your head. Just getting to coach your kid is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most rewarding.

“You take pride in watching your kids develop personally, emotionally, mentally and athletically. You take pride in seeing them have success as a coach. That’s what you live for. … You live for senior night when that kid is absolutely thrilled that you coached him. That’s the cool part of doing this. Winning games is secondary. It’s way more fun now than it was when he was a 10th-grader and I was holding my breath every play thinking please don’t let him get exposed. It’s cool. I’m sure Coach Barnard would say the same thing about Carter (Barnard).”

Barnard said he understands how coaching Kobe can be a positive and negative.

“I’m sure it’s a blessing and a curse that he’s at home with Coach Holley having to watch film,” Barnard said. “He definitely has an understanding of how our defense works and we’re trying to accomplish.”

Next level

Although Kobe’s senior season has yet to begin, he is already thinking about playing football at the next level, and colleges are have shown interest in him. Several NCAA Div. II programs in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma have offered him a scholarship.

“Whenever I got my first offer this summer, it hit me that I could be playing at the next level, so I focus more on my game,” Kobe said.

Kobe and Clarence took a road trip to visit four colleges during spring break. They traveled to Pittsburg State University, Missouri Western State University, Washburn University and Emporia State University.

It was a week of sitting in meetings, talking to coaches and watching practice. It was eye-opening for Kobe.

When they arrived at MWSU, Kobe asked his dad if there were any safeties better than him at the school.

“He wasn’t being a wise guy,” Clarence said. “He was being serious. I told him I was going to reserve comment, and after practice we’ll talk about it.”

They sat through meetings and Kobe began to notice the size of the players. About 10 minutes into practice, he knew the answer to his previous question.

“He said, ‘Dad, we ain’t got to wait until practice is over – they’re all better than I am,’” Clarence said. “I said, ‘Yeah, but they’re 22 years old. It’s not that I want you to get intimidated by it, but just know this is what it looks like. This is what you’ll look like if you do what these guys did for four years.’”

Kobe admitted he has a school at the top of his list, but he’s keeping his options open. For now, he’s just focused on Friday night’s season opener and his senior year at Stillwater – playing for his father one final time.

“I think I’ve just put more focus into the sport,” Kobe said. “I’m not worrying about stats or anything. Last year, I was thinking about how many picks can I get or how many tackles can I get. I’d rather just help the team win this year. I also think my level of participation in meetings and other things has helped better myself as a player.”

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