[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Facing his third straight season-ending injury, quarterback Nick Holley looks toward the future[/perfectpullquote]
Words by Jack Kopanski | Photo by Kassi Jackson
While joking he “likes it dark,” Nick Holley draws back curtains, letting in light that reveals a small but cozy apartment. A white motorcycle leans against a wall in his kitchen, and an intact Nintendo 64 waits for a heated match of “Super Smash Bros.,” a childhood game in which he says he can’t be beat. Setting down a stuffed burrito, he takes a seat to put a brace on his left knee, snapping it into place with ease.
Quarterback for Kent State’s football team and a fifth-year senior, Holley’s current season will end on the sideline the same way it has the last two seasons, recovering from an injury.
It was a broken back that ended his 2015 season just three games in. He managed to play in all but the final game last season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. This season, like 2015, three games in, Holley was taken off the field with a left knee injury, later diagnosed as yet another ACL tear, and several months off the field. “I’ve been through a lot throughout my life,” he says. “I felt like … all my goals and dreams were right there in front of me, then it was snatched away.”
The original plan for Holley was to declare for the NFL Draft after this season. Having already fulfilled credits for a bachelor’s degree in business, he was assigned a new major, pan-African studies, to maintain his eligibility. Now, though, he says his future is up in the air, while making it clear getting his MBA isn’t something he considered. “I could petition for a sixth year, or I could test the waters professionally,” he says. “The only plan that I have right now is that I feel like I have a lot more football left to be played.”
ACL tears are becoming increasingly common occurrences in athletics. Part of what makes the injury so devastating is not only the amount of time recovery typically takes, but also that the injury can happen without any contact. One can go through daily life without an ACL, but the reason it’s so debilitating to athletes is because the ligament is crucial to the cutting motion of the knee. “If you’re going to continue to play a sport, you’re going to have to have your knee fixed,” says Steve Pritchard, an athletic trainer at Southwest General Health Center in Strongsville. “You’re going to have to have it reconstructed. You can get back to very close to where you were before, but your knee is never the same.”
A common feeling athletes can go through when enduring season-ending injuries like this is an experience known as identity confusion, in which the athlete questions his or her purpose when a sport is taken out of the picture. According to a 2009 study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33 percent of athletes with injury histories could be classified as depressed. Another common side effect is the self-esteem hit that athletes can go through after an injury. Sports allow participants to feel a sense of independence, and if the injury is severe enough, there will be a period of time where the athlete will need to rely on others to take care of them.
Part of the way Holley tried to combat these feelings was by limiting the time he spent thinking about the negatives. “Part of me says, ‘Why me, why me?’ Another part of me looks at it as just another obstacle,” he says. “When I tore this, I gave myself three days; I said, ‘You can feel bad for yourself for three days.’”
Following Holley’s high school career at Toledo Whitmer, he had multiple college football offers to choose from. Recruited as an athlete, allowing him to be assigned to any position, he saw offers from Navy, Harvard, Michigan and Kent State. After having his offer from Michigan withdrawn, and with the high standards that come with an Ivy League school like Harvard, Holley narrowed it to Navy and Kent. While Kent State’s performance during his stay has been less than ideal, Holley said he still feels he made the right decision. “I don’t regret not going to Navy, mainly because it’s too strict and that was never for me,” he says. “Kent gave me my opportunity so I stuck out with it. I’ve tried to make the best of it; obviously it’s been a rocky road, but like I said, they gave me my opportunity.”
Since starting at Kent, Holley has bounced around the offense in his five years with the team. During his sophomore season, Holley was a starter, mainly at running back, before breaking his back and ending his season. Through the first three games of the following season in 2016, Holley was a utility player, seeing time at both running back and receiver, before getting the news he’d been waiting for. “The fourth game, after we got a couple guys injured, they say, ‘You want to play quarterback?’ And I just said, ‘Yup.’”
The transition was just as exciting as it was nerve-wracking for Holley. “I was jittery and, shoot, even at practice I was nervous as shit,” he says. “When it came to my excitement, I just felt like I was finally getting my opportunity. Before then it was always: ‘You’re too short,’ ‘You’re not a throwing quarterback.’ Whatever the excuse was, I heard it all. By that time they finally asked me, I just felt relieved, excited, nervous.”
With the extra attention the quarterback often receives on a team, Holley said that didn’t affect his on-campus student life. “I got a little more attention than usual, but I don’t know if it changed my social life,” he says. “I think I was noticed more as like, ‘Hey, you’re the QB. No. 4, Holley,’ stuff like that.”
Holley dealt with a different type of attention last season when his twin brother Nate Holley became wrapped in a legal battle. The trial ended with a jury finding Nate not guilty in February of kidnapping and felonious assault, although he pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in April. Nate was suspended from the football team where the brothers played side by side. During all this, Nick found solace on the field. “We kinda were taught that when you go on that field, everything else gets pushed aside,” he says. “Obviously, he [Nate] was always in my mind, but it just made me push that much harder because I wasn’t just playing for myself or just playing for the team, but I was playing in his honor.”
Of all the moments he has experienced at Kent State, Nick says one of the most memorable for him was getting the opportunity to play alongside his brother. “When we first got here, I sat down with him and I told him, ‘I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re with me. I’m glad we went through this together,’” Nick says.
The absence of Nate, one of the country’s leading tacklers in 2016, affected more than just the team dynamic. “For me, it was very weird,” Nick says. “I went from standing up and watching every play to, when I wasn’t in the game, I sat on the bench, minded my own business and when I went in, I went in.” Nick says, despite the tumultuous past several months, his brother looks faster, stronger and better than he’s ever seen him, and is staying ready for his shot as a professional athlete. “He looks like a freakin’ machine,” Nick says. “His diet is so crazy and he is so determined. His A-plan, B-plan and C-plan are all NFL, NFL, NFL.”
Regardless of how long it takes or what avenue he goes, Nick knows he wants football to be part of his life. Coming from a MAC school like Kent State, athletes looking to play professionally don’t always receive the recognition athletes from bigger name conferences and schools might. Nate sees the gritty stereotype of playing for a MAC school as an advantage for him. This attitude of hard work and determination has fueled his desire to get back on the field after this injury. “I do some sort of rehab every day,” he says. “My main sessions are three days a week, but I rehab every day and try to workout to get myself ready to come back every day.”
Although his road has been littered with setbacks up to this point, Nick’s focus has never shifted. “The way I look at it is it’s gotta be the hard route,” he says. “I’ve never gotten anything easy. It is demoralizing, but you just gotta go back to work and work that much harder for it. It’s a story to be written is how I look at it. This is me writing my book.”