Commentary

Tulsa teammates inspired by Holloway's battle with cancer

Originally Published: November 5, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The single best moment of this college football season slipped by almost entirely unnoticed.

It was a throwaway Tulsa touchdown against Central Florida on Sunday, Oct. 26.

Courtney Tennial's 2-yard run with 1 minute and 45 seconds left was the final score in a 49-19 Golden Hurricane rout, a play unremarkable to the vast majority of the nation.

[+] EnlargeTulsa Haircuts
University of Tulsa Wilson Holloway has inspired his teammates to shave their heads to "celebrate his toughness."

It was quite remarkable to the Tulsa left tackle who laid a block on the play. "When we scored," Wilson Holloway said, "that was a big smile."

Beneath the redshirt freshman's shoulder pads, a small circular pad covered the chemotherapy port on his upper chest, not far from his immense heart. That's where doctors have been pouring poison into his body in an effort to kill the cancer that was discovered this past spring, went away in the summer and has now returned.

Too many needle sticks from the summer-long rounds of chemo already had collapsed the veins in Holloway's forearms. Sometime after the Hodgkin's lymphoma was discovered a second time, doctors installed the port in Holloway's chest. The second round of chemo would be rougher.

But the intense nausea and fatigue that accompany the cancer-fighting toxins wouldn't keep him out of uniform against UCF. Missing two weeks of practice before that game wouldn't keep him out of uniform. An uncertain future certainly wouldn't keep him out of uniform.

Nothing would.

When Holloway feels up to it, he's in uniform and practices with his teammates. When he doesn't, he still attends practice and class. Nothing has been able to prevent him from enjoying the company of his teammates and the joys of college life.

"His spirit and faith are just amazing," Tulsa offensive line coach Herb Hand said. "He's been an inspiration to us."

Now, in an effort to return the inspirational favor, the Golden Hurricane offensive line gathered on Tuesday at 8 p.m. Central time to shave their heads and, in Hand's words, "to celebrate his toughness." From Hand to his graduate assistant, student assistant and every lineman on the roster, they're going bald. Even star quarterback David Johnson is an honorary offensive lineman and had his head shaved, too.

The Hurricane players will match Holloway's hairless dome -- even if they know they'll never match his strength and courage.

That news came out during a recent postpractice prayer among the linemen. Holloway was there, bare head bowed, eyes closed, when he heard, "Pray for our health and our hair. There's going to be a lot of ugly linemen."

[+] EnlargeTulsa haircut
University of TulsaCo-offensive coordinator Herb Hand (left) is shaving Tyler Holmes' hair, while Holloway and others watch.

Said Holloway: "I was grinning during that line."

That's the thing with this kid. No matter how his body has betrayed him, they say the grin never leaves his face.


During conditioning this past winter, Holloway was lagging behind and feeling sluggish.

That was puzzling to Hand and the other Tulsa staffers because the redshirt from Oklahoma Christian High School in Edmond had arrived with the kind of attitude that coaches dream about. He was 6 feet, 6 inches and 255 pounds' worth of yes-sir and no-sir and consistent effort from a football family -- older brother Trey was the starting center at Vanderbilt during the Jay Cutler era.

Finally, Holloway told them one day that he was having trouble catching his breath. A subsequent evaluation discovered a softball-sized mass in the middle of his chest. A tumor.

When Hand called the player's parents, Willis and Penelope, to discuss the news, he had a harder time than they did.

"I'm just a mess," Hand recalled. "I was thinking, 'Would I have the strength his parents have? Would I have that much faith?' I hope my son would have the same unbelievable spirit Wilson has."

Holloway began a six-month chemotherapy regimen that alternated off and on in two-week cycles. The doctors said he could work out with the team when he felt up to it, so he did. Holloway's mom even named the enemy: Timmy the Tumor.

"We're going to kill Timmy," she said.

On Aug. 22, Holloway had his last round of chemo. The tumor had been killed. On Aug. 30, he played in Tulsa's season-opening rout of UAB.

Holloway also played in each of Tulsa's first five games as a backup tackle. During a follow-up examination before the Hurricane's Oct. 11 game against SMU, doctors detected a swollen lymph node and did a biopsy. The cancer had returned.

The results initially were relayed by phone to Tulsa trainer Dave Polanski. He shared them with Hand, and the two of them took Holloway into an office after practice to break the news.

"That was a tough thing," Hand said.

Holloway's response: "OK. I'm going to beat it."

I try not to let people know I'm tired. I don't like for people to be down. I'm upbeat and smiling all the time.

-- Tulsa's Wilson Holloway

The next day, Holloway learned that he'd been nominated for the 2008 FedEx Orange Bowl/Football Writers Association of America Courage Award, which is given annually to an inspirational player or coach in college football. Naturally, he told his mom that having to beat cancer a second time would only increase his chances of winning the thing.

"He's never complained about it," Hand said. "He comes from a family of great faith, and they're believing God will heal him."

Holloway's new chemo regimen is three days in a row, then three weeks off, then five days in a row. Holloway will spend up to eight hours at a time getting treatment, but he'll also show up at practice that same afternoon.

"I try not to let people know I'm tired," Holloway said. "I don't like for people to be down. I'm upbeat and smiling all the time."

He also has found a kindred spirit in special-teams coordinator Bill Blankenship, who overcame Hodgkin's during his youth.

"He's been through the same thing," Holloway said. "He's sat in the [chemo] chair.

"I don't take things for granted anymore. Just being able to practice. There's days I wish I could go out and do the drills everyone hates to do."


Even though Holloway hadn't practiced for a couple of weeks, doctors did clear him to dress for the UCF game, a nationally broadcast contest on ESPN. When the Hurricane got the ball back late with a commanding lead, Hand phoned down from the press box to his backup left tackle.

"Do you want to go in?" Hand asked.

"You know I do," Holloway responded.

Tulsa called three running plays, culminating with Tennial's touchdown. Best moment of the year in college football.

"I've learned to stick things out, to keep facing the grind," Holloway said. "There's light on the other side."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.