DURHAM They will wear a simple sticker of the number 8 on their helmets this year, the number Blair Holliday would be wearing if he were with them.
For Duke’s players, that sticker is more than just a tribute to Holliday. It’s a reminder of how fragile life can be. It’s a reminder of how fortunate they are, not just to be playing football, but to be alive.
“You’re not guaranteed tomorrow,” Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon said. “We’ve taken that into consideration. That’s what we do when we come out here to the field every day. We really work to get better. Because it’s not going to be like ‘tomorrow’s another day.’ Each day means something. We have to come out every single day and just keep getting better.”
In the weeks since Holliday suffered a traumatic brain injury when he and teammate Jamison Crowder collided on jet skis on July 4, football has been overshadowed on Duke’s campus by issues of life and death.
That cloud has started to lift since Holliday was transferred to Atlanta and began rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center, where his progress has been remarkable. He has started walking on his own, and on Sunday visited a restaurant near the clinic with his brother.
The phone calls and pictures that come back to Duke have buoyed the team’s spirits in unimaginable ways.
“If it’s doing to them what it’s done for me? It’s been incredible for me. I’ve needed to see it,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “He doesn’t know how much he’s helping us, by being who he is. He’s the one fighting the battle.”
Holliday’s progress has come at a good time for the Blue Devils, as they finish up training camp and prepare for Saturday night’s home opener against Florida International. It will be an emotional night, with Holliday’s number on their helmets and his recovery on their minds.
If there was pressure on Duke’s players to practice and perform under the emotional pressure of a teammate’s fight for life, there is now even more pressure on them to match the determination Holliday has shown in his recovery.
“His condition is way worse than anything we’re going to see between those lines,” Vernon said. “If he can come through that, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t deal with any kind of adversity we see on this field.”
There’s significant pressure on the Blue Devils to get back to a bowl game, with Cutcliffe now in his fifth season, but that’s nothing compared to the pressure they have put on themselves, to make their injured teammate proud, for their fight on the field to measure up to his fight for life.
Holliday won’t be with them in person, but he will be with them in spirit, in their minds, in their hearts. The sticker is the least of it.
“It’s part of us,” Duke guard Dave Harding said. “We’re going to have that No. 8 on the back of each helmet, just a constant reminder of Blair, of what he would want us to be doing. He expects a lot of us too. We can’t let him down.”