LAURINBURG — Enough cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches to feed a small army. Playing the Madden NFL video game. Riding four-wheelers. Even looking over SAT notes. As Dakota Holland put it, it was setting up to be a perfect day to hang out with teammates, including childhood friend Jaylend Ratliffe.
“It just seems like when that day happened it didn’t seem like anything bad was going to happen,” Holland said. “We were having the best time — I couldn’t remember when we weren’t smiling. But when we came off that road it was a different story.”
That story changed when Ratliffe lost control of Holland’s ATV and crashed into the woods, leaving the star quarterback and Georgia Tech commit with a fractured skull. Holland suffered a badly bruised leg and various scrapes, but most of all he’s had to battle self-inflicted guilt. Both of their lives were forever altered that day, but Holland feels they are fortunate it only changed, not ended.
“Football is just an opportunity from the Lord to be able to play,” Holland said. “Some people don’t have legs, some people that may have been in my situation probably had to have their legs cut off, but I was able to keep them… . To be able to play again, it could have been a lot worse, so I take that for motivation to be able to do something out on the field.”
Holland said he has almost fully healed from the accident, and although he will not take the field today at South View, he anticipates his return within the next couple of weeks. If it were up to him, Holland said he would be out there with his teammates, but the coaches told him his health is the top priority. Holland has completed plenty of running workouts and feels good doing so, but he has yet to practice some of the linebacker specific drills that focus on foot-planting and agility. Until he does, the junior will watch from the sidelines as he waits for the moment that he can play again.
“It kills me to sit down and watch them practice, but I’m just glad I’m here and I’ll be returning pretty soon,” Holland said. “I can’t wait to run out for the first time here and be able to hold up the No. 2 and listen to the crowd cheer.”
Holland, who was a member of the junior varsity squad that went 8-2 last season and is now on the varsity team, stays in contact with Ratliffe and said he texts him every so often.
“I’ve Snapchatted him a couple of times and he texts just as he talks — slow and simple. ‘Ok,’ ‘Yeah.’ He doesn’t do the smiley-faces anymore because he’s in that condition but when I did go see him it was special because he was smiling, making jokes, and messing around with the nurses.”
Ratliffe will be a source of inspiration for the entire Scotland football team this season as they move forward without him, but that will particularly be the case for Holland, who said he will dedicate his play to someone he’s known since they played on the same Scotland Parks and Recreation football team as kids.
“I’m going to love being out there with my boys and my team, but I’ll be playing for Jaylend,” Holland said.
Holland’s teammates have embraced him since his return to the team and continue to look out for him as he recovers from his injuries.
“They’ve shown me a lot of love — they ask me about, they call me, and some have even come to my house. Some of them have spent the night just to do things I needed,” Holland said. “At one point I could not walk at all and could not get up at all because I had back pain and the medication they gave me had me drowsy.”
The memories of the accident are always with him, but the pain is eased by being around Scotland County’s close-knit community. Holland was especially emotional at Ratliffe’s vigil that was held at the end of July, but the support there and in the weeks that followed have helped him get through this tumultuous time.
“Jaylend’s mom saying, ‘We love you,’ people around the community that I didn’t know saying, ‘We love you’ — they’ll come up to me and talk to me,” Holland said. “I have not heard one negative thing but I’m just glad they’re behind us because some communities wouldn’t even do what they’re doing now. They love football, but they were worried about us.”
The Scotland football team and its staff have not lowered their expectations for the coming season despite Ratliffe’s absence. Holland is aware that Scotland County still expects the program to compete for a conference and state championship, and he said he will do his part to help the team achieve those goals once he’s given the green light to strap on the helmet, don the shoulder pads, and lace up his cleats.
“I had this dream one night where me and Jaylend walked out together and busted through the tape, holding arm and arm and the team was holding arms behind us. It will be really special when he comes home.”
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.