Redskins CB Josh Holsey inspired by father's journey after amputation

ASHBURN, Va. -- Less than a year after part of his leg was amputated, Johnathon Holsey was midway through his first New York City marathon facing another obstacle. Or, more precisely, a curb. Holsey was riding a hand-crank bike, but after striking the curb, a tire blew. With no chance for a repair, he had a decision to make.

The father of Washington Redskins rookie cornerback Josh Holsey could quit, or he could do something he'd never done before: run, and walk, the final 13 miles of the race with a prosthetic leg that wasn't designed for heavy running.

He kept going.

Johnathon Holsey had never trained for a marathon -- it had been only 10 months since he suffered an injury in Iraq in 2004. He was participating in the race with the Achilles Track Club Freedom Team, a group of disabled runners who had served in the Armed Forces. But this unexpected twist didn't stop him. Accompanied by a race volunteer, Holsey walked and jogged for the next three hours sporting a regular prosthetic limb. He never stopped until crossing the finish line.

"I had said I was going to do it," Holsey said, "so I had to finish. It was one of the hardest things I ever did."

Others took note of this remarkable feat, among them his son, a seventh-round pick in April's draft. Josh Holsey reached a similar point of no return a decade after his father chose to keep running. In 2015, the then-Auburn corner suffered his second torn ACL in two years.

Doctors laid two options before him: One would mean the end of his NFL dreams, while the other would require him to undergo a difficult rehab process on both knees.

Holsey weighed both scenarios and discussed his options with his mother, eventually coming to peace with what he viewed as the end of his football career. Then he changed his mind. Like his father, he chose to run an unexpected race, and hopes to cross the finish line later this summer by making the Redskins' roster.

"Can't stop, can't do it," Josh said. "It's just in me to keep going, just the example he left for me. I'm just following in his footsteps."

While their stories and roads toward recovery are separate, they are also intertwined; neither one could have made it without the other. Nor would they understate the importance of Josh's mother, Marilyn Davis, who had a front-row seat for both recoveries -- she actually watched Dr. James Andrews operate on her son -- and proved instrumental in helping father and son get back to doing what they loved.

They weren't looking for fanfare, just a road back.

"They're not trying to be role models," she said.

A father's journey

The convoy's mission on Nov. 10, 2004 was simple: deliver supplies and mail to other troops. Johnathon Holsey was stationed in Iraq with the 2nd Infantry Division, 1st Battalion 503rd Infantry, when his truck hit an improvised explosive device in Ramadi. He doesn't remember anything before the blast, but friends made him aware of him one key detail: He had nearly boarded another truck, which would have helped him avoid the blast. But on his Alive Day, all he recalled was intense pain.

"I don't remember a lot about that day," said Holsey, now 43 and a Chief Warrant Officer 3. "It's a blessing, but a curse. I don't remember what I ate or what I did. I remember when I woke up and the pain. But it's a good thing because I don't have the side effects of remembering a lot of things."

He was airlifted to Germany, where he remained for two days before being sent to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Davis and their two boys, Josh and older brother Brandon Ponder, immediately flew to Washington.

"I didn't know what happened or if he would make it or not," Josh said.

After nearly two weeks, doctors reached a decision on Johnathan's left leg. Before delivering news about the amputation, the medical staff told the boys to leave the room.

"Next thing I know, I hear a bunch of crying and they opened the door," Josh said. "He was real down, just crying and stuff. But as a kid you don't know what to do, so I just gave him a hug. It was the only thing I could do."

After waiting approximately three months to receive his prosthetic, Johnathon endured more arduous rehab, then embarked on a new athletic journey. Though he did not play organized sports in high school, the Army required a lot of cardio work and he returned to running. Eventually he joined fellow amputees who snowboarded or skied -- and would take his sons with him.

"I wanted to do as much as I could," he said. "I had to try to figure out how I needed to do it or if I can or can't do it.

"When you have younger kids who keep you going, it's not about me. Giving up was never an option in my mind. I knew they wouldn't want that."

But Josh found a silver lining. His father was eventually transferred to just outside of Atlanta, minutes away from where Josh was living. Johnathan was able to attend Josh's high school games his junior and senior year, and because he lived down the street, he managed to see his son almost every day.

"I got to spend more time with him," Josh said. "He was overseas; he was traveling. I'd talk to him once in a blue moon. So it was a blessing and a curse at the same time, but it worked out for the best."

A son's decision

Josh Holsey, 22, tore his left ACL during practice at Auburn in October 2013. In September 2015, he tore the same ACL. If his damaged ACL was replaced with the tendon from a cadaver, his football career would be over. The other option -- which necessitated extracting the tendon from his right knee -- gave him a chance to continue playing but also guaranteed a difficult recovery process since both of his knees would require rehab. His father told Josh this wasn't a decision that he could make alone.

"I told myself I wasn't going to play football anymore," Holsey said. "I wanted to be able to run with my kids when I was older. I was looking for the future, not the present."

But a coach warned him to to be absolutely certain of his decision, knowing he might regret it later in life.

Josh would also have had to contend with his father's disappointment if he'd turned his back on football forever.

"He knows he couldn't call his dad and say, 'I'm going to quit,' " Davis said. "It was like, 'What do I say? He lost a leg.' "

That knowledge, coupled with a desire to show he wasn't injury prone, prompted a change of heart. He attacked his rehab three times a day, and while he didn't pick up any new sports like his father, he returned to football and excelled for Auburn.

Part of his inspiration for returning to the gridiron stemmed from his dad's marathon debacle a decade before.

"I heard about that and I was like, 'Yeah, he's that guy,' " Josh said. "He's a different person. Some just quit, but he ran."

Their story

During the 2017 NFL draft, teams contacted Holsey by phone to inform him of their interest, though none initially committed to the young corner. When the Redskins finally called to tell him he'd been drafted, he remained stoic. He wanted his family to see his name pop up on ESPN. The instant his name appeared on the screen, screams filled the room. The moment was captured on video.

A friend later asked Davis why the room had reacted that way, considering her son would have been drafted higher before his injury. But the joy in the room was simply a response to all that Josh and his father had managed to overcome.

"They didn't understand what he had been through," she said. "Not a lot of people get that call. When he had his surgeries, I didn't sleep for three days. I was the one who was up every four hours to make sure he took his medicine. If I fell asleep, he'd hit me and say, 'Mom, you're sleeping.' My job was pain medicine and after the second surgery, to help him get up and get to the bathroom. For his dad, I did the same thing. While he slept every 20 minutes, I'm pushing the pain pump. So you don't realize the behind-the-scenes stuff, the struggle, the heartache. You guys see [Josh's] big smile, but behind that were periods of down for which he didn’t give up."

Josh has two parents who are -- or have been -- enlisted in the Army. They have a soldier's attitude. He was born with a competitive streak and a desire to always improve. Around age 7, he cried to his mother about a football practice that had been canceled. It was storming outside.

"If you beat him in a game, he wanted to play again," Davis said. "People didn't want to come visit us. Josh didn't like to lose. When he and his dad are at the card table, you want to hit the mute button -- the trash talk is unreal."

Witnessing his dad's improbable journey enhanced Josh's competitive mindset. Johnathon appeared on Oprah shortly after the incident. He was featured in Ebony Magazine, and later became the first amputee to graduate from Warrant Officer School. Johnathon is now stationed at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, a 45-minute drive away from his son's home games if he manages to makes the Redskins' roster. Even when he wasn't stationed near his son -- either in Belgium or Kansas -- Holsey would return for his son's college games whenever possible.

They ran a 5K together two years ago, with his son constantly asking if he was all right.

"I have good and bad days," Johnathon said. "People don't always see that because I don't always allow it to come out. I think about him and my other son and think to myself, 'I have to keep going.' People don't see their father as someone who can't do things."

But kids do listen and pay attention.

"He would always tell me you're strong enough to do it because you have my genes," Josh said.

Johnathan would also tell him this: Finish what you start. That's what both of them are trying to do -- and have done.

"I would have quit two or three times ago," Davis said. "But they pushed and pushed. People now talk about it like, 'Oh, they're so strong.' But when you go through it you don't feel like it. It's what you have to do."