Jesse Holley wins the game on the field and respect off of it

Last Sunday, the Cowboys were in a must-win situation.

The previous week, they lost a disappointing game to the Jets, and their starting quarterback, Tony Romo, blew the game after fumbling at the one-yard line and then throwing an awful interception. Now playing at San Francisco, the Cowboys were playing a lesser opponent and needed to come up victorious to even their record at 1-1.

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Jesse Holley (16) runs on a 77-yard pass reception past San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner (31) in the overtime period of an NFL football game in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 18. The Cowboys won 27-24 in overtime. (AP Photo / Tony Avelar)

Trailing 24-14 early in the fourth and with an injured Romo, the game looked bleak. Romo led them on an 80-yard drive for a touchdown. On the next drive, they converted a field goal forcing overtime. In OT, Romo threw a strike to little-known wide receiver Jesse Holley for a 78-yard completion, setting up the game-winning field goal.

There’s a reason you’ve probably never heard Holley’s name until now: A few years ago, he was working security and selling cell phones in North Carolina. He was a former basketball and football player, but after being cut by the Cincinatti Bengals and the BC Lions of the Canadian League, he was ready to give up his dream and move on with his life. Then, he saw a career-changing show pitch.

Former Cowboy Michael Irvin had an idea for a show called “4th and Long,” where six wide receivers and six cornerbacks would compete for a shot as the 80th man on the Cowboy roster in 2009. Irvin thinned the competition out by pushing the players harder than they would ever be pushed in the NFL. The concept was simple — whoever survives the torture has earned his shot to make the team.

In one such instance, Irvin put all the contestants at the bottom of the Cotton Bowl and told them to run up and down the stairs until someone quits. Holley wanted it more than any other contestant and was the 80th man in 2009. He was cut in 2009, but was kept on the practice squad. In 2010, he was cut again, but remained a practice squad player. In 2011, after a few cuts at WR, Holley made the team, and was given a chance to start Sunday when Dez Bryant couldn’t go. And of course, it was Holley who was on the receiving end of a 78-yard completion that won the game in overtime.

“Man, that’s an SS,” Irvin texted Holley after the game.

“What’s that?” asked Holley.

“A season-saver.”

Think about it. Three years ago, this guy was selling cell phones. Two years ago, he was running steps for an attempt to be a special teams player. Last year, he was on the practice squad. On Sunday, the reality star saved the Cowboy’s season.