By KYLE MELNICK
BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota — As a senior playing for the Wootton High School football team in Rockville, Maryland, wide receiver Mack Hollins dressed in a suit and tie and carried a briefcase around school everyday.
All of his friends questioned his attire, but they became used to it after two weeks.
“You dress for the job you want,” Hollins told Capital News Service, “not the job you have.”
Hollins has continued those quirky actions as a rookie wide receiver with the Philadelphia Eagles.
He played with a Rubik’s Cube to stay calm when speaking with Super Bowl media this week. He always rides his bike to the NovaCare Complex for Eagles practice, and he’s encouraged his teammates to buy Nintendo Switches so they can play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with him.
Hollins’ different personality correlates with the unusual path he took to the NFL.
Wootton is best known for its academics, rarely producing Division I college talent.
Hollins didn’t receive any Division I scholarship offers out of high school or after his year at Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Virginia. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill admitted Hollins, where he walked onto the team and stood out on special teams.
After completing his roundabout route to the NFL, Hollins and the Eagles will play in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.
“Mack was a home run,” said Marcus Berry, North Carolina’s former director of player personnel. “In the nine years I’ve done it, he’s one of the highlights of my career. I’m not surprised by any of his success.”
Hollins didn’t play his junior year at Wootton for an incident he didn’t specify, which Wootton coach Eddie Tolliver said prevented him from receiving college attention.
Wootton hasn’t groomed another NFL player in Tolliver’s seven years leading the program, so college scouts didn’t spend much time watching Wootton’s games.
But Hollins’ dad, Richard, connected with Berry through their ties of playing football at West Virginia University. Hollins’ speed impressed Berry, and he encouraged the Rockville native to attend preparatory school for a year to gain more exposure.
Hollins learned how to long snap at Fork Union, just so he could get on the field at some position.
Still, Hollins didn’t receive any Division I offers after his season at Fork Union. He emailed about 100 colleges, and while some of the coach’s secretaries responded, Berry was one of the only coaches to respond himself.
Hollins attended North Carolina, and Berry, still impressed by Hollins’ upside, did everything he could to help Hollins make the team.
“I can’t be in college just reading books,” Hollins said, “and not doing something with my extra time.”
Larry Fedora had just taken over as head coach of the Tar Heels, and he wanted 12 speedy wide receivers to fit his multi-tempo, no-huddle spread offense, and there was only one roster spot available.
Berry stood up for Hollins at the team’s pair of meetings to decide who to pick for that final spot.
Berry guaranteed Fedora that Hollins would be on scholarship by the end of his scholarship year, and Hollins gave himself two years to earn a scholarship because of the burden of paying out-of-state tuition.
North Carolina chose Hollins, and Berry’s prediction panned out, as the Tar Heels placed Hollins on scholarship entering his sophomore year.
“When he first got here, I didn’t know if he could catch. I didn’t know he could tackle,” North Carolina strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez said. “But watching him run, it was like, ‘We got to find something for this guy to do.’”
Hollins separated himself with his work ethic. He won every sprinting drill, and after finishing his conditioning training, he would run on the treadmill.
Sometimes, he would go through the conditioning drills twice, when some players couldn’t even finish their first round.
Coaches worried about Hollins’ ability to catch, so he spent 30 extra minutes before and after practices working on the JUGS machine.
Behind Hollins’ 6-foot, 4-inch frame and agility, Berry said, he developed into one of the best special teams players in North Carolina history. He was one of the team’s top two receivers by his sophomore year, and he led the country with 24.8 yards per reception his junior season.
The Eagles selected Hollins in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
“The other guys on the team were like, ‘Man, you have to chill out. You’re not going to make it through,’” Berry said. “He would literally win every race. It just got to the point where it was like, ‘Just do what Mack does.’”
Hollins still visits Wootton when he’s home, serving as a mentor for the current players, a role he didn’t have as a high schooler since no other Wootton player was in the NFL.
The players were nervous to talk with Hollins before he started working out at the school often between graduating from North Carolina and reporting to Eagles training camp.
“He inspires me,” Wootton wide receiver Elijah Trent said, “because he never lost sight of his dream.”
Hollins has made his biggest difference in the NFL on special teams, although Philadelphia special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said it usually takes about three years to become a great special teams performer.
Hollins has served a defined role as a big-play wideout in a crowded receivers corps, recording 16 catches for 226 yards.
Eagles safety Jaylen Watkins said Hollins reads defenders’ hand placements in practices and often makes slight adjustments on his routes to get open.
“Some NFL players are flashy,” Watkins said, “but Mack likes what he likes.”
Even as Hollins cracks jokes throughout meetings, his teammates and coaches respect the journey that has led him to the Super Bowl.
“You can just tell the way he runs routes he’s a smart guy,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said. “He’s not overly fast or anything, but he’s very crafty and finds a way to get open. He’s going to be around here for a long time.”