When he first showed up as a freshman at New London High School, Ernest Holloway looked like he was auditioning for the role as the twin brother of television nerd Steve Urkel.
Seven years younger than his brother Isaiah, an imposing looking member of New London's 1991 and 1992 state championship football teams who carried the nickname "Mad Dog," Ernest was tall and skinny, complete with oversized glasses and a fascination with computers. Those traits didn't necessarily help him earn the popular vote.
"Especially when I first got into high school. My appearance … and I had some level of intelligence. That was, like, a big problem," Holloway said.
When it came to track and field, which would eventually be Holloway's pathway to college, there was another matter with which to contend. Holloway envisioned himself as a sprinter and had to be dragged to the starting line for his first 400-meter race.
"I accidentally qualified for states," he said with a laugh of the event that would eventually win him a New England championship.
Holloway, 30, is now an engineer for IBM, living in Austin, Texas, and attending graduate school at the University of Texas at San Antonio in pursuit of his master's degree in computer science.
He owns a own home in Austin, keeps an apartment in San Antonio to save on the commute and is engaged to Myneeka Cook. These are busy times for Holloway, who also holds dual bachelor's degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from UConn, graduating from New London in 2000 and UConn in 2006.
Former New London track coach Leo Facchini refers to him often as "Professor Holloway," eliciting a laugh from his former pupil.
Nearly each time the two talk, Facchini tells Holloway, "Ernie, you're the best there ever was." Holloway is grateful for the praise, thankful to keep in touch with Facchini, now a dear friend and one of the only people remaining who still calls him "Ernie."
But Ernest Holloway will never forget where he came from.
"The interesting thing about life is that when you see people that accomplished something, athletes, a performer like Michael Jackson, you only see the end result, right?" Holloway said in a telephone conversation last week. "You never see what it was like when they were trying to build up to that.
"Where I was many years ago … it is a blessing, it is amazing to be at this point. Keeping working at something, sometimes it sucks, sometimes you want to give up, but eventually your dreams will become a reality. There are some days where you just want to go home and cry, but that's a part of the process."
Holloway and his brother were raised by their grandparents, Mary and the late James Holloway, who had eight children of their own before adding two grandchildren to their everyday lives.
Prone to negativity, he said, when things weren't going right athletically, Holloway learned to believe in himself under the guidance of Facchini, winning the New England championship in the 400 in a school record 48.67 seconds as a senior, a mark that still stands.
Holloway earned a full scholarship to UConn, split between academics and athletics, in addition to community scholarships he earned while in high school.
Over his fifth and sixth years of college, Holloway pursued his second major. And while completing his track eligibility after redshirting with a broken leg, he also worked at the UConn book store, served as a student track coach and worked at the dining hall "busting suds and mopping the floor," he said.
"It was pretty crazy, but also very rewarding," Holloway said.
"In terms of commitment to excellence, just plain work ethic, he did a lot more with a lot less," Facchini said of Holloway. "There's a lot of ways to get to your destination. His wasn't the worst, but it wasn't the best. I joke about it (Holloway being the best there ever was), but it's the truth. I can't think of a superlative greater to describe the kid.
"He led by example. By the time he left, the kid was respected by every person in this building."
When Holloway reflects on New London, he thinks of his grandparents. His grandfather, who died in 2005 after a fight with cancer, used to make up reasons for his wife to stay home so he could drive Ernest back to college, just the two of them. Then he would call his grandson when he got home to let him know he arrived OK.
"I get choked up about it. I always called him my 'road dog,'" Holloway said. "I always say I'm tremendously blessed to have my grandparents in my life. Anything good people see in me, I get it from them."
Holloway also had his mom, Cynthia, in his life, as well as his uncles, a few of whom still lived with his grandparents when he was a little boy and who were the first ones to hook him on computers. His uncle Robert loved computers. His uncle Larry was "Mr. Fix-It," giving Holloway the impression he could fix things with magic.
As for Isaiah, he may have looked tough - "like, he came out of the womb like that," Holloway said with a laugh - but he was the first one to encourage his brother.
"I had a tremendous amount of support from my family," Holloway said. "You go home and it's kind of like a safe haven. Like, 'Here's what we know you to be.' My best friend Justin, he always had my back.
"I always acknowledge that the only reason I got to where I am now, is so many people giving to help me grow: my teachers, my family. You know how they say, 'It takes a village to raise a child?' It's very true. I had people that believed in me in New London. They opened up their hearts and their wallets to fund me.
"I'm very proud of where I'm from."
Holloway would walk from his home on Terrace Street to Mr. G's for food and sometimes he would run or ride his bike all the way to the high school for track practice. Those are the things he misses about New London.
Upon his graduation from UConn, Holloway was invited to be the high school's commencement speaker.
"Remember where you came from and who helped you along the way," he said in his speech that day. "Remember to give back, to inspire and to help others. Blessings are not meant to be kept in a box. They are meant to be passed along."
Said Holloway, who graduated second in his class and was a member of the National Honor Society, of what he learned growing up: "Other people are doing certain things that might not be positive, but that's not all that New London is. … We're still kids and there's nothing wrong with being hip and cool and fly, but not at the expense of education, not at the expense of setting yourself up for success in life."
Holloway won Eastern Connecticut Conference titles in the 200 (22.49 seconds) and the 400 (49.29) his senior season at New London. He was first in the 400 and second in the 200 at the Class M championship before finishing second in the State Open in the 400 to Pomperaug's Erik Benson.
It was the New England meet, held in South Portland, Maine, which Facchini calls Holloway's best day. Holloway beat Benson to take the 400, then came back to finish third in the 200, despite having to run trials, semifinals and finals in that event.
"At the second turn (in the 400) he goes by me and I'm howling at him," said Facchini, who recalled that Holloway got off to a slow start at the Open, which cost him the title. "He takes off like a shot. He wins by at least two lengths. … He never shot his mouth off. He just showed up and worked. That's why he's the best there is."
Just as soon as Facchini had Holloway believing in himself, though, Holloway arrived at UConn and had to learn the same lessons all over again from a different source, UConn coach Greg Roy.
Holloway, who went on to captain the Huskies, maintains a close relationship with Roy, as well, he said. He is still a part of UConn's record-setting outdoor 4x200 relay team, which ran a 1:25.00 to finish second in the IC4A final at the 2002 Penn Relays.
Upon his graduation from UConn, Holloway went to work for Freescale Semiconductor in Austin and wound up in the product engineering department, writing testing software to insure product safety in cars. For the past year he's been at IBM, now involved with software development for mobile phones.
Facchini said he knew Holloway had officially made it when he announced he was moving to Austin. Then, a few of Holloway's belongings never arrived; he told Facchini it was OK, he could buy new things.
"Mr. Facchini used to say 'Ernie, the worst thing you can do in life is shortchange yourself by giving up," said Holloway, who attributes a great deal of his success to the lessons he learned in athletics. "Mr. Roy's version was, 'Tough times don't last, tough people do.'
"Not just for track and field, you have to believe in yourself to able to do anything. … I came from 'this' and I wasn't sure how I was going to get there. It's a blessing."