Irene Lawrence’s picture was in Jalyn Holmes’ locker. When Holmes saw it two weeks ago at Ohio Stadium as the Buckeyes got ready for their showdown against Oklahoma, the full force of her death hit him.

“I broke down,” Holmes said.

Lawrence was Holmes’ great-grandmother, though he calls her his grandmother. She died on Labor Day at age 77 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Holmes considers himself blessed to have two caring, hardworking parents. But if you want to know why the Ohio State defensive end is the person he is, start with Irene Lawrence.

She instilled toughness in him. She taught him the virtues of selflessness. And from her, he inherited, well, his mouth.

“She didn’t have a filter,” Holmes said. “She would tell you what’s on her mind.”

So does he. Though an integral part of Larry Johnson’s defensive-line rotation the last two years, Holmes hadn’t started a game until this year. Yet his teammates still voted him a captain.

“It just tells you what type of guy he is around the locker room — always providing energy, always helping the young guys,” said fellow senior defensive lineman and captain Tracy Sprinkle. “That’s just his nature.”

Holmes describes himself as Ohio State’s version of the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green.

“He plays with that chip on his shoulder,” he said. “He talks a little junk. That’s me.

“I told coach Johnson that my role on this team is to sack the quarterback and stir s--- up.”

Big picture

Asked to describe her family, Tasha Holmes laughed.

“Loud,” she said.

That started with Lawrence. Even in her final years as she fought illness, she wasn’t afraid to bust chops. One of her nurses was a Michigan fan.

“She always talked junk to her,” Jalyn said.

She didn’t accept whining from him, either. Jalyn is the youngest of his cousins, and they didn’t take it easy on him when he was young.

“Before I got bigger than all of them, they used to pick on me and bully me,” Holmes said. “She’d say, ‘You have to stand up for yourself because if you don’t, nobody will take you seriously.’ She made me tough. She always made me face my problems. She always saw the bigger picture for me.”

Many born in Holmes’ circumstances never get a shot at that bigger picture. Tasha had Jalyn when she was 16. She and Jalyn’s father, Jermaine Taylor, are not together, but they have shared parenting duties amicably.

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Tasha completed high school and then got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Norfolk State. She is now a guidance counselor at a middle school.

“We didn’t always stay in the nicest house, but we always had a roof over our heads,” Jalyn said. “My dad worked two jobs if need be to take care of stuff.”

Sometimes, Tasha took Jalyn to classes with her. But usually, he would stay with his great-grandma, who worked nights as a school custodian.

“She basically raised both of us,” Tasha said. “When I was in school she would keep him during the daytime. He saw how hard she worked to take care of her family and grandchildren and then great-grandchildren.”

Others around Holmes didn’t have such a support system and fell by the wayside. Some are in prison. Some are dead.

"Just growing up in Norfolk is hard,” Jalyn said. “Drugs, community gang violence and shootings are right in front of your face. Not too many people where I’m from make it out.”

Sports became his way of avoiding the pitfalls. His parents figured if he was constantly shuttling between games and practice, he’d stay out of trouble, which he did.

Big heart

Jalyn also was determined to throw others in jeopardy a lifeline as well. Tasha said that her son continually asked to have struggling friends or acquaintances stay at their house. Jalyn, she said, often volunteered to give up his allowance for someone in need.

“He always wants to take care of others or make sure other people are OK or have things they don’t have,” Tasha said. “He got that inspiration from my grandmother. She was just that type of person. If she met you, you had a Christmas present on Christmas. On your birthday, you’d have a birthday present — not just a card.”

Holmes has continued that spirit of giving and will speak out, particularly on social media, when he sees injustice.

“I think everything I say, I’ve got to back it up,” he said. “I can’t talk trash if I’m not playing well. I can’t tweet about empowerment and social justice if I’m not helping in the community. Helping in my community is just as important to me as playing football.”

Holmes doesn’t like to promote his community service. But with prodding, he gave one example of something he does back home with a friend, James Church.

“I have my mom find two kids in the city of Norfolk, preferably a brother and sister, who are struggling,” Holmes said. “We get to know them and take care of Christmas for them.”

Last year, they spent $800, some raised from friends, relatives and teammates. Holmes even dressed as Santa Claus to deliver the gifts.

“The dad broke down crying,” he said. “It’s an undescribable feeling. It’s a feeling that feels better than winning the (2014 national) championship, honestly.”

Holmes has plenty to play for this year — another championship, improving his NFL draft stock. But his great-grandmother is another.

“I’m kind of tearing up talking to you right now,” he said. “We were really so alike, and that’s what made us so close. I’ve been playing for her. I just visualize her on the field.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

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