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DeCock: A year of healing for Blair Holliday, Duke

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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A year ago, on July 4, 2012, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe was visiting in-laws in Tennessee. He was in the car with his wife when his phone rang. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder was on the other end, crying uncontrollably.

On Lake Tillery, near Albemarle, Crowder and Blair Holliday had collided while riding Jet Skis, leaving Holliday critically injured. Holliday, after being revived by a nursing student who witnessed the accident, was being airlifted to Chapel Hill with a brain injury.

In the year that has passed, it is almost impossible to comprehend what has happened since that call, when Holliday’s life was hanging in the balance.

Holliday went from a coma to a rehabilitation center to summer school classes at Duke, and his remarkable recovery continues today. Crowder, filling the role at receiver that likely would have gone to Holliday, had a 1,000-yard season, including the biggest catch of the year to beat North Carolina. And Duke, despite the summer of tragedy and uncertainty, ended an 18-year bowl drought by playing in Charlotte’s Belk Bowl, only 50 miles from Lake Tillery.

The progress Crowder and his teammates made was impressive, but it was nothing compared to Holliday’s. Cutcliffe remembers sitting with an unconscious Holliday at UNC Hospitals in the days after the accident, wondering if Holliday would even survive, let alone talk or walk again.

“The scenario with Blair, I don’t really know that anybody could have appreciated it,” Cutcliffe said Wednesday. “There was no description for his condition. People wanted to know, but obviously we weren’t able to say much because of the HIPAA (privacy) laws and all that. He had an intracranial pressure device drilled down into the top of his head, unconscious, not moving, day after day. You didn’t see any light.

“To have been there and seen it, and then see what Blair is doing today, I tell him every day, ‘Blair, there’s something special for you to do. You are a walking, talking miracle. Make sure you stay in line for whatever the Lord has planned for you.’”

Holliday regained consciousness five days after the accident and was transported to an Atlanta rehabilitation center in August, where Cutcliffe visited him on the eve of Duke’s opening game against Florida International.

By October, he was well enough to travel to Durham and throw footballs to his teammates in pregame warm-ups. By December, he was released from the rehab center. In May, he attended the graduation ceremony of the nurse that saved him. This fall, after taking one class in each summer session, he may re-enroll full time, although Cutcliffe said that decision will be made collectively by Holliday, his family, his doctors and the university.

“That first game (he joined the team), I saw how difficult it was for him to get down the steps of the bus,” Cutcliffe said. “By the end of year, he was gracefully walking down the steps. He’s amazing to me.

“We’ve continued to see him get better and better physically and mentally. He never quit improving.”

It’s hard to believe so little time has passed. A year to the day after the medevac flight that helped save his life, Holliday is scheduled to fly back to Los Angeles, to be with his family, to go home.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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