Now the Blue Devils are drawing a season's worth of inspiration from him exchanging fist-bumps with concerned teammates. Talking to his coaches by phone for the first time since the accident. Taking his first steps on his own. And now, a quicker-than-expected progression toward outpatient care.
"Perseverance more than anything else - knowing what he's been through and what he's seen, that he's pushing right along through it and he's getting better every day,'' left tackle Takoby Cofield said Tuesday. "It's just showing you it takes a special person to be him, and it takes a special person to do what he's done, and it shows that it's something within all of us and we can accomplish anything.''
Holliday has been hospitalized since the accident nearly two months ago, when he and teammate Jamison Crowder were riding jet skis on a lake in central North Carolina and they collided. Holliday was airlifted to a local hospital and was in critical condition at UNC Hospitals before he was transferred in early August to the acquired brain injury unit at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
Coach David Cutcliffe said he and some staff members are flying to Atlanta Wednesday for their first visit since his transfer. Three days later, Duke opens the season against Florida International in what likely would have been the first career start for the sophomore from Sherman Oaks, Calif.
So in the locker room beforehand, Cutcliffe vows not to waste his breath on any win-one-for-the-Gipper speeches.
That would only trivialize Holliday's plight.
"It's kind of different than that. This is more important,'' Cutcliffe said. "Blair's more important than just kind of rallying the emotions of a game to them. This is a serious consequence and a serious circumstance, so he's in their mind all the time. No question. So I couldn't use the term `rally' because he's always there.''
Just as Holliday remains on the players' minds, his number will be on their helmets.
Duke has placed stickers bearing his jersey No. 8 on the backs of everyone's helmets as a reminder.
"He can't be here with us exactly, but we've got him here at the same time and we know he's going to be watching and see us,'' Cofield said. "Just represent him, because he can't be here with us.''
Holliday's progress has been steady. Shortly before his transfer to Atlanta, he recovered well enough to exchange fist-bumps with teammates, nod when he was asked questions and smile in recognition of his father's voice. After the move, and on the second day of preseason practice, Holliday spoke to Cutcliffe and his staff by phone for the first time.
Last week, Cutcliffe said Holliday was walking on his own. The coach added Tuesday that Holliday is preparing to move to an outpatient program.
Running back Josh Snead said he and some teammates had a recent chat with Holliday via webcam and "he sounds almost normal.''
"We just want Blair to be able to be healthy, to walk and talk and be able to do things on his own,'' Snead said. "That's all we want. If he's able to come back and play football, that is great. But as his teammates and his brothers, we want him to be able to function as normally as possible.''