“There are four things that are extremely important that you do during this tryout,” Rob Holley said to a gathered group of athletes at the Jacksonville Juniors Training Facility for USA Volleyball Boys High Performance tryouts in February.
“The first one is stay safe.
“The second one is stay safe.
“The third one is have fun.
“And the fourth one is stay safe.”
Toward the end of the session, Holley roamed the gym, evaluating players while they did a live-play drill. Standing behind the end line, he crouched down to pick up a loose ball. Holley stood up, turned sideways to put the ball in the cart, when WHAM!
A 6-foot-6 middle had gone up and crushed a ball between defenders. It ricocheted off the Sport Court and into the side of Holley’s head.
“I never saw it coming. I just got blindsided completely,” he said.
Holley’s face stung and he felt slightly dazed, but 10 minutes later he felt fine.
“I’m joking with (the middle). I’m like, ‘Hey, that was a good swing. At least you hit me hard,’ ” Holley recalled.
The next day? Holley got up, felt normal and coached at a tournament.
But when his alarm went off the next morning, the second day of the tournament, Holley struggled to get out of bed. He shrunk away from light. His stomach hurt. He felt nauseated.
Holley sent his wife, Mary, who also coaches at Jacksonville Juniors, to fill in for him at the tournament, and sitting in the dark, it clicked.
This was a concussion.
“I just started going through protocol,” Holley said. “Lights off, no sound, no nothing. I couldn’t even walk around the house without sunglasses on. The lights are off in the house, and yet any light coming in from the windows or off of electronics bothered me.”
Holley spent four days like that, sitting in his recliner, doing absolutely nothing. Friends sent get-well-soon texts, and, since he couldn’t look at his phone screen, Holley had to ask Siri to reply.
“It was pretty draining. A few times I kind of broke down and got really really frustrated because I couldn’t do anything,” Holley said. “Thank God for my wife, had she not been there, it would have been tough.”
At the end of those four days, Holley still didn’t feel much better, so he went to the hospital. He got a shot of Compazine, a medication used to treat severe nausea and vomiting, and Benadryl and was directed to physical therapy. During PT sessions, he got massage to loosen up his shoulders, neck and head, and they worked through a variety of head and eye movement patterns.
“The hard part about it, especially as a former athlete, is that if I have to do rehab on my knee or my ankle, I can work hard and get the muscle better and I’m good. You can push through some pain and get it done,” Holley said. “With a concussion, you can’t push that. It’s your brain.”
The lack of any timeline for recovery left Holley exasperated. His doctor and physical therapist couldn’t promise him that in a week, two weeks, three weeks he would be back to normal, because they just didn’t know.
“It could be three days, it could be three months, I could have these symptoms for the rest of my life,” Holley said.
After two weeks, Holley returned to coaching at limited capacity, only spending a few hours in gym before retreating to the quiet and darkness of his home. It took eight weeks before he could really return full time.
Holley, 47, found that the simplest of things, like driving, were difficult. When you drive, you’re constantly checking your mirrors, looking ahead, looking down at the odometer. Post-concussion, that eye movement was slow and painful.
In practice, Holley — a former assistant coach at the University of North Florida and Florida Southern College — struggled to put complex thoughts together.
“I would critically think and try to tell my athletes to do things and my head would start hurting. So that joke, ‘Don’t think too hard, you might hurt yourself,’ yeah, it’s true,” he said.
With a long resume that includes coaching girls, boys and men’s and women’s college women’s, Holley had certainly seen players sustain concussions, but for the most part, they recovered within a week or so, passed concussion protocol and came back out on the court.
“I don’t think we very often hear about these long-term concussions,” Holley said. “(But) recently, I’ve gotten more notes and emails and messages from other coaches that are like, ‘Yeah, that’s happened to me too and I still have difficulty,’ or my friends who are adults who have been in accidents and have had concussions and they had these long-term effects or it took them much longer to get over. So age is definitely not helping me.”
Holley started playing volleyball in elementary school because his PE teacher loved the game and showed a passion for it. It continued, because Holley played collegiate club, USVBA Adult Open/AA, and was a pro on the beach. He’s a Gold Medal Squared instructor.
Even today, Holley still has symptoms. He can only use his phone for about two minutes at a time, and even with blue-light-blocking glasses, 10 minutes is about his max on a computer. He finds himself searching for words and struggling with anything more complicated than the simplest mental math. He can’t do sustained physical activity.
Holley’s experience has left a lasting effect on the way he deals with concussions in the gym. He’s always felt that if a player gets hit in the head or collides with a teammate, they should be taken out of competition and sent to a trainer or a doctor to be evaluated, but now he’s thinking more long term.
“There’s definitely more serious consequences that could be much more long lasting,” he said. “I think we need to consider even these minor ones that are happening a lot more seriously.”