Dressed in a blazer, white button-down shirt, skinny red tie and jeans, former Duke wide receiver Blair Holliday took his seat behind a microphone to talk about the accident that nearly killed him about four years ago.
“I didn’t necessarily write out a statement or anything,” Holliday said Thursday before spending the next 30 seconds extemporaneously thanking those who have supported him.
That made the moment all the more surreal.
Four years ago, after suffering a severe brain trauma in a jet ski crash that left Holliday unconscious and in a coma, it was hard to imagine him speaking again. Or walking again. Or driving again. Or going to school again.
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Especially since the Holliday was given a much more grim prognosis in the aftemath of that July 2012 accident.
“People told (Holliday’s family) that they better prepare themselves for him not surviving,” said Joel Morgenlander, a Duke Health neurologist who has worked with Holliday.
But there he was, talking about his plans to graduate from Duke Sunday and intern with Fox Sports production in Atlanta this fall.
“It’s definitely a miracle,” Holliday said.
After the accident, the only way to “communicate” with Holliday, who was in a coma for five days, was to read the intracranial pressure device, drilled into the top of his head to monitor potential brain swelling.
“You would feel like Blair was in there,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “No consciousness, and he looked as if he were gone. But that was what all of us learned to use, to read this machine. So when these volleyball players or somebody, he would hear that voice, it would relax and calm. And then when I would walk in, and he would hear this voice, it would boom! He’s back, he knows!”
People told (Holliday’s family) that they better prepare themselves for him not surviving.
Neurologist Joel Morgenlander
Being in a coma
Holliday doesn’t remember the accident but others have filled in the details. A large group of teammates and friends were celebrating the July 4 holiday at Lake Tillery, about 50 miles east of Charlotte.
Holliday and Jamison Crowder were driving jet skis when they crashed into each other. Crowder escaped with minor injuries, but Holliday’s jaw was broken and he was knocked unconscious, bleeding from the mouth. Crowder quickly pulled him from the water.
Chelsea Gibbons, a nursing student nearby, performed CPR on Holliday. Gibbons’s mother, Debbie, called 911. Holliday was taken to a local hospital, then airlifted to UNC’s trauma center in Chapel Hill.
The severe brain trauma left him spending the next five days unresponsive in a coma. Friends and family took turns by his bedside, reading to him and just letting him know he wasn’t alone. The pressure monitor was the only sign that he was still there.
“I firmly believe that people talking to him when he couldn’t respond is heard in some way in his brain,” said Morgenlander, the neurologist. “That helps. People that are with loved ones in an ICU setting in a calm way just need to speak to them. At some level, that’s getting in there.”
Holliday does have a memory of waking from his coma. He was strapped down to prevent him from rolling around in his sleep.
I saw myself running around the hospital, but I couldn’t even get up to walk.
“I didn’t know what was going on because obviously I was in an unfamiliar scenery,” Holliday said. “I just asked whoever was sitting beside my bed, hey, do you have a phone, I need to call my mom. So I called my mom, and I just said, ‘Hey mom, I love you.’ I didn’t necessarily know what had happened to me, but I just called her and told her that I loved her.”
Holliday’s next memory came when he was airlifted to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in rehabilitation for spinal cord and brain injuries, on Aug. 6. He spent a month in inpatient therapy and about three months in outpatient therapy. He has a “snapshot” memory, he said, of the private plane used to transport him there.
Holliday did well with rehab, and Morgenlander attributes some of that to the habits Holliday developed as an athlete. He was able to stay calm and focused, conquering one task at a time. Still, it wasn’t easy – physically or mentally.
“I could definitely still see myself being able to do the things that I wanted to be doing, but I didn’t have the connection from my brain to my extremities like my legs or my hands to be able to do that,” Holliday said. “So that was probably the most difficult thing to cope with. I saw myself running around the hospital, but I couldn’t even get up to walk.”
Walking, driving, going back to school
Relearning to walk was a big step. First, he had a wheelchair. Then, once he could get on his feet, Holliday had a safety belt with leashes in the back for his mom and brothers to hold, just in case he fell. And once he could walk in a contained environment, he had to go do it out on the street – belt, leashes and all.
“It was like having a toddler that was over 6 feet tall,” said Leslie Holliday, his mother. “You don’t want him to fall. It was scary. But we survived it.”
For Leslie, the first moment Blair was “back” came in December 2012, after he was discharged from the Shepherd Center. He had to retest for his driver’s license, passing both the written and practical parts of the test.
“He had to actually drive a car with an instructor and pass the test,” she said. “So when he passed that test, that’s when I felt like, okay, he’s going to make it.
“So because of that, when we left Atlanta coming back to North Carolina, I let him drive,” she said. “And we had a stick shift car.”
He had to actually drive a car with an instructor and pass the test. So when he passed that test, that’s when I felt like, okay, he’s going to make it.
Returning to school was another milestone, and it didn’t start smoothly. Holliday wanted to re-enroll for the Spring 2013 semester but was denied due to university policies about medical leaves and required course loads (only seniors in their last semester can be part-time students).
That prompted Cutcliffe, Morgenlander and Steve Nowicki, the dean for undergraduate education, to come together and figure out the best way for Holliday to resume his studies.
“That would have been a mistake because to re-enroll, you would have to take a full course load. And we thought that that would be counterproductive,” Nowicki said. “That’s when I stepped in and said, let’s do it more gradually, and I had to make sure everyone on the academic side understood why we were doing that and that Blair’s situation was different from a typical student in a huge number of ways.”
Holliday started with one continuing education course in the summer of 2013 (a full load at Duke is four classes a semester). Then he took two classes. Memory was one of the brain functions Holliday struggled with the most, and that factored into his class selection and order.
“Think about it – if you have trouble with memory, how are you going to do in a language course?” Morgenlander said. “We had to time out his curriculum so that we allowed him to heal more before he did some of these things that we knew would depend on areas of the brain where he was having more problems.”
Outside of the classroom, Cutcliffe made sure Holliday still felt like part of the team. Holliday would work out with his teammates and served as an undergraduate assistant and unofficial wide receivers coach (Holliday didn’t fight Morgenlander’s medical advice to never play football again).
And when former Duke and NFL quarterback Thad Lewis would come back to campus to work, Holliday would run routes with him.
“Given what all happened, it is remarkable that he has done so well,” Morgenlander said. “I go through the same injury that he goes through, and I’m probably not standing here talking to you.”
Transitioning from athlete to non-athlete
Holliday finished his undergraduate degree in psychology, with a certificate in markets and management studies, in December, earning a spot on the Dean’s list for his last semester. He spent the spring working on a master’s degree in liberal studies and working in the men’s activewear department at Nordstrom, trying to earn money after his scholarship was gone. It was a nice introduction to the real world.
“Once you’re not on scholarship, there are still a bunch of things you have to pay for,” Holliday said. “You have to work to get through that and still maintain working out, still maintain having fun, so it definitely was a good thing to have to go through, not necessarily being able to just rely on being on scholarship and having everything paid for like that, having to actually work for what I wanted to maintain.”
He saw Crowder, now with the Washington Redskins, recently in Atlanta while he was searching for an apartment. The two are still friends. They don’t talk about the accident.
Football was Holliday’s favorite pre-accident memory from Duke. Not just one part of it, either.
“Definitely Coach Cut being on me in the sense that, I came from California, I thought that I was working really hard, but it turns out that I wasn’t,” Holliday said.
Cutcliffe showed the “Cali cool” Holliday how he could work much harder, and then he did, earning a starting spot heading into his sophomore year. His accident, however, set him on a different path before that came to fruition, but it is one Holliday has embraced.
“When Blair was injured, he was put in a situation where he had to start his life all over,” Leslie Holliday said. “Transitioning from being an athlete to being a non-athlete and then seeing all of his friends that he had move on with their lives. He was still here recovering. And now he finally gets to move on.”
Holliday still doesn’t consider himself “back” yet. His memory continues to improve. And he can feel himself getting better at other tasks, too.
“I’m still getting there,” he said. “But it’s more and more every day.”
After about 20 minutes, Holliday stood up from his seat. He posed for a few pictures with his family, blood-related and otherwise. And after one last pep talk from Cutcliffe, he left. It was time to get on with the rest of his life.