A story of healing for pair of Duke football players

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2012 

Jamison Crowder was at a stoplight back home in Monroe two weeks ago when the woman in a car next to him rolled down her window.

“She was like, ‘are you Jamison Crowder?’ ” the Duke sophomore wide receiver recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yes ma’am,’ and she was like ‘I remember when I used to watch you in high school, and now I see you on TV. You’re doing good, just keep up the good work, stay focused. You’re making us proud.’ ”

Crowder is well known in his community about 25 miles southeast of Charlotte. While he was home, he saw his grandma, his great grandma, uncles, cousins, friends, former teachers, and he watched his high school team play. Growing up, he was little Crowder, after his dad James, a social studies teacher at Marvin Ridge Middle. Hometown fans cheered him when he led Monroe High to three straight Class 1A state playoff appearances.

His community has always embraced him, and that’s been a source of strength for Crowder since he collided with his good friend and teammate, Blair Holliday, in a July 4th jet ski accident.

Holliday, unconscious and bleeding from the mouth, was pulled from the water by Crowder. Holliday was taken to a local hospital, then airlifted to the UNC Trauma Center in Chapel Hill. At first, doctors didn’t know whether he would survive. Duke sent out a statement asking for prayers.

Holliday suffered severe head trauma and a broken jaw. He was unresponsive for about a month, but now he’s recovering, walking and talking, and he hopes to return to school part-time in January.

Crowder wasn’t injured in the jet ski crash. He reported to football practice Aug. 6, the same day Holliday entered an Atlanta rehab center.

As Holliday has recovered from his physical injuries, so, too, has Crowder from the emotional weight of the accident. While Holliday struggled to survive, Crowder, sleepless and shaken, replayed the scene in his head. And he agonized over Holliday’s uncertain condition.

He was never alone, though. His community, from Monroe to Durham, supported him.

And football helped save him.

“It’s been challenging, it’s been a challenging season, this year, but we’re overcoming,” his mom, Brenda Crowder, said. “That’s part of our faith. That we always will recover in the end.”

A bond for the future

Crowder and Holliday came to Duke as three-star recruits in 2011. They met when they took their official visits the same weekend. Crowder, who played in the annual Shrine Bowl between North and South Carolina’s best, turned down offers from other state schools like UNC and Wake Forest, while Holliday, a Sherman Oaks, Calif., native, announced on signing day that he was choosing Duke over UCLA.

Last season, Crowder and Holliday would watch games from the sideline together and talk about getting the opportunity to play some day.

“Last year, I played a little bit, but last year, to me, was more of a, I wouldn’t say sightseeing, but it was just more of going to the different stadiums and seeing the different teams that you’ve seen growing up,” Crowder said. “It was more of a shell shock type thing.”

Crowder and Holliday had been expected to be two of Duke’s starting wide receivers this season. With Holliday out, coaches gave Crowder his spot, and with it a larger role in the offense. He leads the team in touchdown receptions – including a game-winning catch against North Carolina a month ago that clinched Duke’s first bowl berth in 17 years.

When Crowder talks, his speech comes in a rhythm, a personal cadence full of inflections more often in the middle of words than at the end. He has a warm, small smile that he flashes at times. He’s thoughtful about the words he chooses and listens well, too.

“Sometimes we sit around and talk, whether it be about life or football, and he just takes it all in,” senior receiver Desmond Scott said. “I recall one conversation, we were talking about growing up, about how fast life moves by. It doesn’t wait for anyone.”

Day at Lake Tillery

Prior to this season, Crowder had challenged Holliday in the spring. Both had successful spring practices, and Holliday played so well that he was named co-Offensive MVP. Crowder and Holliday spent most of the summer in Durham taking classes and working out with the team. For the July 4 holiday, they decided to go to a house on Lake Tillery owned by the family of teammate Lucas Fisher.

“I have always been concerned about watercraft,” Leslie Holliday, Blair’s mother, said. “A lot of people would think that they were consuming alcohol and doing recreational activities that, as parents, we don’t want to see, but they weren’t. They were just out there having fun. But the danger can be other people on lakes or the ocean, the beach, whatever. I felt more hurt that they were at the lake that day just in general. That was a busy holiday, and it just probably wasn’t a good idea.”

Crowder and Holliday were among a group of about 20 people celebrating the holiday together at the lake.

“We were just up there hanging out, having fun, riding jet skis, riding boats,” Crowder said. “We had been at the lake since probably like 12, about noon, and we had been riding jet skis all day, just chilling, and the accident happened at probably like 4:30, 5 o’clock ...

“I was about ready to go, though, too, because I was hungry, I had been around that water all day. I hadn’t had anything to eat, and I was super hungry, and Blair was like, ‘want to get back on those jet skis for one more little ride?’ And I said fine, and that’s when it happened.”

Back on the water, Crowder didn’t notice when Holliday stopped, and the two collided. Crowder’s jet ski climbed up the left side of Holliday’s, using it as a ramp. Blair’s head absorbed the brunt of the blow.

“I heard the accident happen,” said Chelsea Gibbons, a nursing student who was with friends in a nearby cove. “It was very, very loud.”

Crowder pulled the unresponsive Holliday from the water and held him as the two were taken to shore. Gibbons performed CPR as her mother, Debbie, called 911.

Officers from the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission were the first to respond and began investigating. The commission and the Montgomery County district attorney’s office later cited Crowder for not complying with the state’s boating safety education requirements. No other charges were filed.

Paramedics arrived next, and Holliday was taken to the hospital. After he left, Gibbons saw Crowder.

“He was sitting up against this boathouse, and he just had his hands on both sides of his head, and he had his head down,” she said. “You could tell he was just so, so upset. He looked like he was crushed.”

“It was just total disbelief for me,” Crowder said. “I didn’t know what was really going on, what condition he was really in.”

‘It was an accident’

In Monroe and Durham, Crowder’s friends and family rallied around him.

Johnny Sowell, the football coach at Monroe High, got a call from one of his assistants that night. Sowell called James Crowder, Jamison’s father, to voice his support.

Crowder called a few people that evening, including Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.

“He said, ‘Coach, something bad has happened, something really, really bad has happened, something bad has happened to Blair,’” Cutcliffe said. “His voice wasn’t breaking, but it was just scary. It was a tone that bothered me.

“I love Jamison and his spirit, but I could tell his heart was broken.”

Brenda Crowder, Jamison’s mother, balanced a bevy of emotions, feeling a mother’s pain for Leslie Holliday and wishing she could turn back the clock. She gave her son a clear message.

“The thing that we encouraged Jamison was that, you know, it was an accident,” she said. “And that’s what an accident is. It’s unintentional, it’s unforeseen. And we kept telling him we have to pray and trust God that Blair is going to be fine.

“And at the same time we were telling Jamison, ‘you’ve still got to stay focused. Continue to pray.’ ”

Initially, it was rough.

“It was tough to sleep because for the first few days after, the images would play in my head, like the different images of what happened,” Jamison said.

His parents called every day. He went home to Monroe the weekend after the accident and saw Sowell, who let him know that he was loved by his high school community and could call anytime.

In Durham, Cutcliffe connected Crowder with Father Mike Martin, the head of the Duke Catholic Center. He had developed a relationship with Cutcliffe, who attends mass on campus. Martin and Crowder met about a week after the accident, talking for about 45 minutes.

Martin said he counsels accident victims to understand what happened is not their fault.

The most difficult hurdle, he said, is “to get people to a place to understand that this isn’t the first time a real accident has happened and it’s not the last time, and it’s not your fault.”

Crowder received similar messages from other members of the Duke community: It’s not your fault. We are here for you. We love you.

Crowder grew up attending church every Sunday with his parents. After the accident, he started praying more, every day before bed and in the morning, thanking God for another day and for his health.

There was one other person who wanted to make sure Jamison was recovering emotionally: Leslie Holliday.

“I kept asking Coach Cut and (assistant athletic director) Stan Wilcox and Coach (Matt) Lubick for Jamison,” Leslie Holliday said. “I guess Jamison was a little bit shy about coming to see our family. And finally when he did, I just wanted him to know that we loved him.”

“Going into meeting them, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Crowder, who apologized to Leslie and Rick, Blair’s dad.

Leslie quit her job in California in order to spend as much time at Blair’s bedside as possible. While watching over Blair’s recovery, she had a sense of Jamison’s healing as well.

“The fact that he was able to keep his wits about himself and get Blair up and out of that water gave Blair the chance to live his life and return back to school in January,” Leslie Holliday said.

Blair’s recovery

Perhaps Crowder’s biggest boost came from his injured friend.

Blair Holliday started to get better.

“As the weeks went on ... It kind of made it a little more easier to get over,” Crowder said.

Slowly, Blair came back. He smiled when he heard familiar voices and gave fist-bumps to visiting teammates.

The day Blair was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Aug. 6, football practice started. The next day, he spoke to Cutcliffe for the first time since the accident.

“It was just great to hear his voice,” Cutcliffe said at the time. “We talked about the rehabilitation process and how important it is, and when I asked him if he understood how much we loved him, he responded with a confident ’yes.’ ”

The days full of meetings and practices kept Crowder’s mind busy, and the work he had put in all summer and fall translated into instant results on the field. In Duke’s Sept. 1 opening game against FIU, he caught the first passing touchdown of the season, a 60-yard strike from Sean Renfree.

Two weeks later, Blair Holliday was well enough to come back to Duke. He was a surprise guest at the team meal before the Sept. 15 game against N.C. Central. Surrounded by more than 100 people, he and Crowder exchanged hellos. Since then, Holliday has been on the sideline for every home game.

Back home, people in Monroe tracked Crowder’s progress on the field. Sowell made sure he or an assistant talked with Crowder after every game. The night Duke played North Carolina, Sowell invited a few assistant coaches over to watch.

Brenda and James were at Wallace Wade, like they are for every home game. Leslie and Blair were there, too. And they all saw Crowder line up on the 5-yard line on fourth-and-2 with 19 seconds remaining and Duke trailing 30-26. They all saw him run his five-yard route, make a leaping catch and hold on despite getting hit in midair by two Tar Heels defenders.

Blair Holliday, also on the sideline, saw the catch. He sent a text message to Gibbons, the nursing student who had helped save him.

“Did you see my boy score?”

Leslie Holliday saw it from the stands.

“It should have been Jamison,” Leslie said of the catch. “It shouldn’t have been anyone else but Jamison.”

Families, together

Crowder went to his parents’ hotel room after the game, and the family replayed the strategy behind the catch. He watched a few replays on YouTube that week, but since then, he’s been focused on doing his part to get Duke back on track after losses to Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech

The game against the Tigers marked the most productive game of Crowder’s career. He had seven catches for a career-high 167 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown early in the game that left him so full of adrenaline that he was dizzy by the time he got to the sideline.

The game was significant for personal reasons as well. That weekend marked the first time the Crowders and the Hollidays talked together. It was the first time Leslie and Brenda spoke in depth about Blair’s recovery. And it was the first hug Brenda received from Blair.

“They were great friends,” Brenda said of Jamison and Blair, “And I pray that they still are and will always be.”

Two weeks ago during Duke’s break, before Crowder went home, he talked to Holliday for about 30 minutes, the first time the two have spent time alone.

“When I see Blair, I just try to keep everything normal, as it used to be,” Crowder said. “I don’t try to bring up the accident or anything like that.”

Even though it was an accident, Crowder thinks he should eventually apologize to Holliday, when the time is right.

Holliday will be finished with outpatient therapy in Atlanta right before Christmas. While his recovery has been remarkable, it has been challenging. The accident has caused an “incredible” financial burden for the family, Leslie said. Donations to the Blair Holliday Recovery Trust, established in August, have helped.

“The donations, the support, the prayers, all of that allows Blair to get what he needs right now,” Leslie said.

The next step in his recovery is to return to school. Holliday has petitioned to return to Duke as a part-time student in January. He has kept in touch with Gibbons, sending her text messages on a regular basis.

“I don’t know that I can say he’s completely back to normal because I did not know him beforehand,” she said. “But cognitively, he seems completely 100 percent.”

Jamison Crowder is healing, too. His family, his community, his team and his friend Blair Holliday, have made sure of that.

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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