'Every Day Is A Holliday' for a Duke football team that is suddenly relevant

Eric Adelson
Blair Holliday (8) stepped on a football field for the first time after his accident on Sept. 15.

Anthony Boone came back from a summer weekend to a surprise team meeting. The Duke quarterback got word of the gathering while he was at his locker and immediately noticed teammate Blair Holliday wasn't around. Worried about Holliday's whereabouts, Boone texted him. He called. He left messages. "You need to wake up!" he blared into the phone. Great, Boone thought, Blair's gonna get in trouble.

The team came together and head coach David Cutcliffe made an announcement: Blair had been in an accident. He'd suffered serious head trauma. We don't know much more right now.

The Blue Devils were silent.

"A lot of guys just went home," Boone remembers.

Holliday had been in a Fourth of July weekend jet ski accident. He collided with teammate Jamison Crowder, and when he did was struck in the head by the bottom of Crowder's jet ski. He lost consciousness and stopped breathing, floating face-down in the water. His life was saved only by the quick thinking of Chelsea Gibbons, a nursing student who administered CPR and started him breathing again. But the brain injury was severe, and Holliday slipped into a coma. Then he developed pneumonia. When teammates came to visit him in the hospital, they were heartbroken.

"He just wasn't Blair," says captain Ross Cockrell.

The accident was catastrophic not only for Holliday and his family, but also for a football team that has not been to a bowl game since 1994. Holliday, 19, was a terrific receiver, tall and fast but not in any way frail. "He ran unbelievable routes," Boone says. "He probably had the strongest hands on our team."

So it was natural for the Blue Devils to fear the worst, both for Blair and the upcoming season.

But the worst never happened. Miracles did, one after another after another.

Track Facts

Oklahoma vs. Texas

Historically, the Red River Rivalry has been one of the biggest grudge matches in college football. But when Oklahoma (3-1) and Texas (4-1) take the field Oct. 13 at the Cotton Bowl, this year's big game will be missing some of its luster.

The journey leading up to the 107th installment of the Red River Rivalry has been different than normal for these two teams, and the journey ahead for the loser looks pretty bleak.

Leading up to the game, Oklahoma is ranked No. 13 and Texas weighs in at No. 15, which snaps a 12-game streak of the Red River Rivalry featuring at least one of the teams ranked in the top 10.

Additionally, the winner of this game often represented the South division in the Big 12 championship game between 1996 and 2010 – which usually resulted in a conference title.

This year, however, with the Sooners and Longhorns each staring at 1-1 conference records, the result of this contest could mean nothing more than the likely elimination of one team from conference title contention.

Oklahoma fell to No. 6 Kansas State 24-19 at home two weeks ago while Texas got clipped 48-45 at home by No. 5 West Virginia last week. A loss this weekend gives either the Sooners or the Longhorns a back-breaking second conference loss.

When Kansas State travels to take on West Virginia on Oct. 20, whoever emerges from that fracas – not the Red River Rivalry – will have the inside track for the 2012 Big 12 title.

That doesn't mean that the game in Dallas is worthless, though.

Watching OU's Landry Jones and UT's David Ash duel at the Cotton Bowl in a rivalry with a long and healthy history is definitely worthwhile, and the winning team will still be within striking distance of a conference title – even though it will still face a difficult journey moving forward.

– Eric Ivie

See John Elway talk about his Journey to Comfort

The first came when Holliday woke up and was talking right away. He slowly regained some control over his limbs. He started to walk, albeit awkwardly and with much difficulty. The right words wouldn't come at the right time, and his memory went in and out, but Holliday kept getting better. It wasn't long before his teammates were back at school and Boone got a text from Blair's mom, Leslie.

She was thinking of bringing Blair to visit for a game.

Boone, who was in touch with Blair's mom daily, had to keep the secret for a week that felt like a decade. But in September, a mere two months after an injury that could have easily killed him, Blair Holliday walked into the room where his teammates were having a pregame meal.

Asked what that moment was like, Cockrell lets out a deep breath of awe. "It was … amazing."

Amazing also applies to the entire Duke football season, though obviously in a less important sense. The Blue Devils came together after losing Holliday and scored points just like he was there catching passes: 46 against FIU, 54 against North Carolina Central, 38 against Memphis, 34 against Wake Forest and 42 against Virginia. If Duke beats Virginia Tech Saturday in Blacksburg and moves to 6-1, the bowl drought is likely over – and it isn't even midway through October.

The main reason for the turnaround is Cutcliffe, whose workout regimen was so intense when he took over in 2008 that the Blue Devils collectively lost 497 pounds between January and August. The coach has an SEC background and he wanted his linemen swift as much as strong. No plodders need apply.

How awful were the Blue Devils when 'Coach Cut' arrived? He calls them "the softest, baddest football team I've ever seen." They had gone nearly three years without a home win. Now Boone proclaims Duke as "one of the hardest practicing teams in the country."

Yet some of that hustle comes from thoughts of Blair. Cockrell, the captain, says the daily work his old friend puts in at rehab is fueling the daily work the team does on the practice field. Holliday is now at an outpatient facility in Atlanta, but he's still been a visitor at games, doing the Devil Walk with the team and changing into his jersey at his locker. His frame has waned but his smile has not. Cockrell says "the old Blair" is back.

"It's a great feeling when he comes home," says Boone. "For team dinner, for the Devil Walk. Or just hanging out and talking. I feel like it helps him even more than it helps us."

Holliday has only given one in-depth interview since the accident, to NBC Los Angeles, his hometown station. He spoke carefully but clearly. "I'm not angry," he said. "I'm thankful that it happened to me to show me what life is like, that life is precious and you can lose it at any point and time."

He told the station he's frustrated because easy things are now hard. Practice for him now requires far fewer strides than before. But they are greater strides all the same.

Work hard, get better. That's the Holliday way and the Cutcliffe way. The effort put in each week leads to more success the next week, both for Blair and his teammates. Week after week it builds on itself, and the momentum on campus is tangible both in Blair's rehab center and on a campus where the school's most important season doesn't start until November.

"Every Day Is A Holliday" is the motto of the team, and it fits. Because if things keep going so well for Blair and the Blue Devils, the holiday season will be quite memorable indeed.

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