After he entered the summer of 2012 looking forward to starting as a wide receiver for the Blue Devils, rising sophomore Blair Holliday had a new focus a few months later—recovering from a traumatic brain injury.
Holliday collided with fellow wideout Jamison Crowder while both players were on jet skis in July 2012 and was left in critical condition. After being revived by a nursing student who witnessed the accident, Holliday was airlifted to a University of North Carolina hospital in Chapel Hill, where he remained in a coma.
But nearly four years after almost losing his life, Holliday will do something that was unthinkable following his horrific accident—participate in Sunday's commencement ceremony.
"It's definitely a miracle," Holliday said at a press conference Thursday.
Following a lengthy recovery process, the Sherman Oaks, Calif., native earned his degree in psychology with a markets and management studies certificate last December.
In August, Holliday will begin an internship with Fox Sports South.
"Right now I feel like standing up and cheering and going wild," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I'm feeling every emotion that I saw so many others feel through this incredible story of a lot of heroes—an unbelievable number of heroes."
'I couldn't even get up to walk'
There were four teams that supported Holliday following his accident—the team on the water immediately following the accident, the doctors at UNC Hospital, the team at the Shepherd Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta and the personnel at Duke, said Dr. Joel Morgenlander, a neurologist at Duke Health who worked with Holliday when he returned to the University.
Immediately following the accident, the nursing student's CPR and Crowder—a record-setting wide receiver at Duke who now plays for the Washington Redskins in the NFL—getting Holliday out of the water quickly were important steps, Morgenlander explained.
"Because of [Holliday's] athletic background, he could handle a low blood pressure more than most of us could," Morgenlander said.
Before Holliday regained consciousness five days later, there was an outpouring of support from the Duke community, Cutcliffe noted. Morgenlander added that friends and family members reading to and speaking with Holliday even when he could not respond likely aided his recovery.
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"There's one thing that got me through this entire process—family," Holliday said. "Not specifically my family, but also the family I have here at Duke."
After he regained consciousness, Holliday was airlifted to Atlanta and the Shepherd Center, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation. Holliday said Thursday that some of his earliest memories from after the accident are bits and pieces as he was transported to Atlanta, adding that the first time he remembered speaking was when he later called his mom Leslie and told her that he loved her.
The 6-foot-3 former wide receiver slowly began an arduous recovery process, with his parents and younger brothers Chase and Dallas using a safety belt to help Holliday regain balance as he learned how to walk again.
"I could definitely still see myself doing 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 do that," Holliday said. "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."
'I was still a part of the team'
By December 2012, Holliday had made enough progress to be released from the Shepherd Center and earned his driver's license again, a step that showed his mother her son was on track to regain many of the skills he had lost.
"When he passed that test, that's when I felt like, 'He's going to make it,'" Leslie Holliday said, adding that she let Blair drive back to North Carolina from Atlanta.
As Holliday's brain continued healing and his memory improved, he faced the challenge of readjusting to life at Duke.
But fresh off the team's first bowl berth since 1995, Cutcliffe made sure Holliday still had the full support of the program, leaving the former wideout on scholarship and having him work with wide receivers as an undergraduate student assistant coach.
"Coach did something I never would have thought of—coach kept him in the team," Morgenlander said. "When he came back, he's working out under supervision of trainers, he's out on the field. He needed to do that, and coach knew he needed to do that."
To figure out how to help Holliday get back in the swing of a full courseload and begin working toward his degree despite not regaining a full memory and some parts of his brain healing faster than others, Cutcliffe asked for help from Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education.
Along with the football program's academic advisors, Holliday's family and Morgenlander, Nowicki concluded that the best way for Holliday to continue his education was gradually. Holliday started by only taking a continuing education course to see how he could handle a Duke class following the accident, a pivotal step that was made possible because Cutcliffe left Holliday on scholarship.
"Not many coaches would do that," Nowicki said.
After Holliday was able to handle the first course, he took two courses simultaneously before eventually taking a full course load with four classes in a semester.
As he regained his footing academically, Holliday also came to terms with the fact that he could not play football again due to further injury risks, but still could enjoy running routes and talking about the game with his teammates before, during and after games.
"I saw how it would be a situation that [playing] wouldn't be the best for my actual life. Me still being there meant that I was still a part of the team," Holliday said. "I still felt like I was out there playing through Trevon [Lee], Chris Taylor, Johnell Barnes or even a couple of years ago with Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon."
'He didn't squeak by'
Nowicki said that the only special accommodation Holliday needed to finish his degree was starting courses gradually when he returned to the University, adding that his role was mainly to communicate with faculty who might not have been aware of Holliday's unique circumstances as a student.
As Holliday's recovery wore on, he became a standout in the classroom before finishing his degree last December.
"The acceleration kept going on and on. By the team he finished, Blair's last semester, last fall, he made the dean's list," Nowicki said. "He didn't squeak by. As he was recovering, he kept running faster and faster."
After earning his undergraduate degree, Holliday began a master's program at Duke that he hopes to continue with as he starts his internship at Fox Sports South. He was not on scholarship last semester as he began the graduate program, so Holliday started working at the department store Nordstrom, a step that he said was helpful so he could see what life without the security of a scholarship would be like.
"He's got something important to do, and I've always told him that," Cutcliffe said. "He's been given the opportunity to do something extremely important. He can't miss that opportunity. All of us who saw where he was to what you've seen him do up here—it's miraculous, beyond amazing."
Morgenlander added that Holliday's story carried heightened importance to give those with loved ones in near-death situations hope.
"It's important for people to see stories like Blair's," he said. "When you're sitting there in the ICU and it's looking that bleak, and people are saying, 'You better prepare yourself,' you have to be able to hang on to something."