Jason Holmes gave up brother's wedding for Australian dream

Jason Holmes (right) goes shoulder-to-shoulder with AFL legend Adam Goodes. Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

IF it weren't for a far-fetched dream in a far-flung land, Jason Holmes would have been by his older brother's side as he waited for his wife-to-be to walk up the aisle.

It was late 2013 and Holmes had to decide between best man duties, and trying to forge an unlikely career in a sport he'd only recently heard of -- Australian Rules football.

Holmes was, and still is, extremely close to his brother Andre, who plays with the Oakland Raiders in the NFL. But Jason's heart and mind had been captured by a sport he hardly knew, one featuring an oddly-shaped ball, quirky rules and brutal physical requirements.

"The three-week trial in Australia was scheduled right when [Andre's] wedding was," the Chicago native told ESPN. "Being best man, it wasn't an easy decision. It was tough on all of us. But him, playing NFL, he understood the opportunity, and sometimes in sport an opportunity arises and that door may not open again for you."

Holmes' decision to miss his big brother's wedding and fly to Australia was the moment when he knew he had to -- not want to -- make it as an AFL ruckman.

"I had in the back of my head 'if this doesn't work, I wouldn't be happy with myself and I don't think Dre would be too happy either'," he said.

The former college basketballer had discovered the sport of "football" only a few months earlier, when he was in his final year of university. He had received an email from a scout, with his assistant basketball coach describing the sport as "some Australian rugby thing".

After watching several highlights videos, Holmes was hooked.

"It all made sense," the 203cm, 100kg big man said.

"I remember thinking 'I wouldn't mind having a look at that, because there wasn't many basketball options [for him]'. It looked amazing and exciting, and I wanted to be a part of it."

The next stop was the U.S draft combine, in Los Angeles. Holmes, who has family in the city, thought it would be a great chance to catch up with them, if nothing else.

Holmes - who, as well as basketball, also played soccer, American football (he was, aptly, a punter) and baseball as a youngster -- impressed the six AFL club representatives in attendance, prompting the next stage of his adventure: a tryout in Australia. In the meantime, he took a Sherrin home with him and trained with an amateur Aussie Rules team in Chicago to prepare for his first visit to Australia.

Training in front of all 18 AFL clubs, his raw athleticism and competitive nature was immediately obvious, with St Kilda showing the most interest. It was from there the Saints offered Holmes a rookie contract. For Holmes, who always enjoyed playing sports outdoors, it was a dream come true.

"I was used to always playing in the gym, indoors, but loved the idea of playing professional football outside in front of massive crowds," he said.

After relocating to a city some 15,000 km away from Chicago, the hard work really started.

As well as the obvious skills he had to come to grips with, such as kicking and handballing, developing his game sense was a priority. "I didn't know where I should be on the ground," he recalls from his early days at the Saints.

Then there were the physical demands of the sport, which requires all players to attain an elite level of endurance. The training sessions were brutal, but Holmes reveled in it.

"I wasn't used to the conditioning," he said. "I was fit when I was younger and knew I had the capacity, but that was very tough. One of the more rewarding feelings is that constant pain, when you've gone out and worked pretty hard. And that's something you don't find in basketball, for example, where you freshen up [regularly]."

The results were noticeable.

"Every trip [back to the U.S.] back home, I got skinner and skinner while still getting stronger and stronger," he said. "[His] family and friends couldn't believe it. The fitness, and the diet change blew them away. This country [Australia] eats very healthily, and America doesn't, and I try to explain it to them and they usually say 'nah, I couldn't do it'."

It wasn't long before Holmes was taking great strides as an athletic, aggressive ruckman. He was soon dominating Victorian Football League matches, and his form eventually forced St Kilda to promote him to the top level - where he becoming the first born-and-bred American to play in the AFL. Far from being overawed, he performed admirably in his debut match against Geelong, before rounding out the 2015 season with two more senior games.

"When that ball bounces, you just go," Holmes said, recalling his first AFL contest. Instinct kicks in." He said playing three senior games late last year served as inspiration for the season ahead.

"I couldn't imagine doing another pre-season, wondering [what it was like to play senior football]," he said. "At least now I know what's expected and what the next level of mental toughness and physicality and endurance I need to get to. I have a baseline now to build on."

Holmes admits he did have some initial difficulties adjusting to life in a new country - "initially, everything was so similar, but it felt so different; now, I can't really feel the difference" - but he now feels right at home.

He has several close friends at the Saints - ironically, three of his close mates are the men he's competing against for the No. 1 ruck spot: Billy Longer, Tom Hickey, and Lewis Pierce - and has found a girlfriend. "She and her family have been really supportive to me. That was a real turning point for me last year."

He's tried explaining Australian football to family and friends back home, with mixed success.

"They don't understand much, but they follow it closely and support me," he says, adding that he and his two brothers, Andre and Mark -- who plays professional basketball in Europe -- struggled to find time to watch each other's matches. He generally only gets the chance to watch Andre's Raiders play when he's back on home soil, while he tries to hunt down YouTube streams of Mark's matches when time permits.

"We've been athletes all our lives, so we do understand the grind ... and the adversity you have go to through and the success and the excitement that you sometimes experience. When we do talk, it's a good release. We do the best we can - we'd like to see each other more."

The thoughtful Holmes has made every post a winner since taking a chance on a sport basically unknown in his home country, but he is aware of the precariousness of his situation. At 26 -- middle aged, in AFL terms -- he is in his third year as a rookie, and out of contract at the end of 2016. He knows he has to improve his follow-up work, tackle pressure, and spread from stoppages if he is to write another few chapters of his already incredible story.

He has already stunned AFL onlookers with how far he has come in such a short period of time, and Holmes can't help but sometimes sit back in amazement of his journey.

"It kind of blows me away sometimes too," he says.