Georgia running back not giving up on improbable comeback

Updated: August 23, 2003, 12:28 PM ET

ATHENS, Ga. -- Everyone loved to watch Albert Hollis run.

There was hardly a more breathtaking sight on the football field. He would burst through an opening in the line, reach top speed after a few elegant strides and pull farther and farther away, leaving the others in futile pursuit.

"There were games where I literally stopped coaching," remembered Greg Meegan, Hollis' high school coach. "I'd say, 'I have to enjoy this. It may never happen again."

Sadly, Meegan didn't know how prescient that statement would be.

More than three years after signing with Georgia -- which expected him to follow in the footsteps of Herschel Walker, Garrison Hearst and all those great Bulldog tailbacks -- Hollis is still waiting to run in a college game.

Two grotesque scars curve along the outside of his right knee, the result of a devastating injury that occurred before he took a snap and lingers to this day.

Hollis had every reason to give up. Nerve damage made it difficult to flex his foot. One season passed, then another, with little hope he would ever get back to full speed. No one would have blamed him for packing his bags and returning home to California.

"There are times when I think, 'I don't feel like doing this," he conceded. "I just wish I could wake up the next morning and be healed."

But those moments of self-pity are rare. Hollis keeps pushing himself to get back in the game. He works out, attends meetings and has improved enough to take part in most drills at practice, though he wears a green jersey that signifies he's not ready for full contact.

Hollis is hopeful of playing by midseason. No matter the timeframe, he's convinced that his comeback will ultimately be successful.

"The more I do, the better it gets," he said. "More and more, I can see it coming back, though I've still got a little ways to go."

Hollis has already come so far since March 23, 2001.

After redshirting his first year at Georgia, having been slowed by a hamstring injury that carried over from a high school track meet, Hollis reported to his first spring practice. At 5-foot-11 and a shade under 200 pounds, he was eager to show off his speed and find a place in the running game.

The Bulldogs already had Musa Smith, a bigger back who was part of Hollis' recruiting class. He had shown promise as a freshman running between the tackles. Naturally, the coaches were looking forward to teaming up these contrasting backs.

"Musa was a rugged, downhill runner," said Rodney Garner, Georgia's recruiting coordinator. "Albert was more of a perimeter, get-on-the-edge speed guy who could take it to the house. They were both very intriguing. We thought they would be very complementary of each other."

Then it happened.

On the second day of practice, Hollis got the ball and headed outside on a routine sweep. As he made the cut upfield, his right leg collapsed beneath him. He wasn't even touched.

"I didn't see when he cut, but I saw him laying there," said former Georgia receiver Terrance Edwards, now with the Atlanta Falcons. "It was ugly."

Not only was the knee ripped to shreds, Hollis also damaged the nerves that control the foot. This was no ordinary injury. When Edwards' brother, Robert, did much the same thing to his knee, doctors actually considered amputation as an option.

Hollis was a bit luckier -- Edwards also damaged some arteries -- but the prospect of a long, grueling comeback was the same for both.

"I didn't know much about the injury," Hollis said. "They didn't tell me I messed up the nerves until later."

At least he had Edwards as a guidepost. The former Georgia star missed three full seasons after his injury, finally returning to the NFL with the Miami Dolphins in 2002.

"I like to see how he's doing," Hollis said. "We'll get together from time to time, kind of compare notes. I'll ask, 'Where were you at after this amount of time?' It helps a lot. You know you're not in it alone. Somebody had the same injury and came back from it."

Hollis also has attitude on his side.

"You can't say enough about how mentally tough he is and how hard he works," coach Mark Richt said. "The good thing is he's getting better and better and better. It's not like he's been stuck for six months with no progress."

Hollis already made it back to the Georgia track team in a limited role. He ran on the 400-meter relay team this season.

"With my foot, it's hard to push off," he said. "But when I'm up and running, I can run with anybody. It's just those first couple of steps that are shaky."

Meegan, the coach at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, isn't surprised by his former player's perseverance. It sounds just like that little fifth-grader who mailed the coach his class picture.

"I'd never met this kid before in my life," Meegan said. "But he tells me he's going to come to Christian Brothers and be the best football player Christian Brothers ever had. I've still got that picture. He's in a little blue sweater. Just a typical little kid."

As a junior at Christian Brothers, Hollis rushed for 2,145 yards and 28 touchdowns. As a senior, he ran for 2,053 yards and 31 touchdowns, averaging 8.9 yards every time he touched the ball while playing in California's top classification at the time.

Hollis was also one of the nation's top high school sprinters. He ranked eighth nationally in the 100 meters with an official best of 10.43 seconds.

Hollis was recruited by all the top schools, narrowing his choices to Texas, Nebraska, Notre Dame, UCLA and Georgia.

The Bulldogs, who have always done most of their recruiting within the state, didn't pursue Hollis at first. But Meegan, who had coached in Atlanta in the early '80s while Walker was at Georgia, knew the school had a reputation for producing top running backs. Hollis' coach sent some film to Garner, who was immediately impressed.

"The one thing that stood out on film was pure speed," Garner recalled. "There are other intangibles that go along with it, but we thought he had a chance to be a very good player."

Hollis was actually rated higher than Smith by most recruiting services, but it was the other freshman who wound up winning the job. Last season, Smith rushed for more than 1,300 yards, helped Georgia win its first Southeastern Conference title in 20 years and was MVP of the Sugar Bowl.

Smith gave up his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. He was a third-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens, which makes him likely to take his first pro handoff before Hollis ever runs in college.

"I'm happy for him," Hollis said. "Everything happens for a reason. I'm sure that something positive has got to come from this."

This story is from's automated news wire. Wire index