TORRINGTON – Nick Holmes’ life changed during his high senior football season last year when a hip injury, thought to be due to a pull or strain, turned into something more serious.
As a wide receiver for the Overland High School Trailblazers in Aurora, Colo., Holmes started experiencing hip pain that was just treated as a normal sports injury. He stopped playing football when the pain continually got worse and got an MRI that showed a mass on his left femur.
A biopsy had to be done to see if the mass was cancerous and immediately after waking up from the biopsy, Holmes was met with the news that he was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
“As soon as they told me, I had just woken up from surgery,” Holmes said. “My first question back to them was ‘Am I going to be able to play still?’ They just told me basketball was going to take a back seat for now. After that, honestly, I just broke down crying – I didn’t know what to think.”
The news not only affected him and his family, but his basketball family as well at Overland High School.
“My first thought was what I related to the most, which was being a father,” Overland basketball coach Danny Fisher said. “My heart was absolutely broken for Nick, but his father, Julian, was very heavy on my mind. Dealing with that as a dad has to be tough. We try and protect our children as much as we can, but for something so vicious to attack, it can make a dad feel helpless.”
After his biopsy, which was executed the week of Thanksgiving in 2016, Holmes was sidelined going in to his senior basketball season. He still attended every practice, game and traveled with the team. During the week of Christmas a year ago, Holmes had his second surgery to completely remove the tumor, making him immobile for four months.
Holmes was expected to be a big part of the Blazers hopeful run to another state title. Overland won the 5A State Championship in Colorado in both 2015 and 2016. Holmes was a major pillar that Fisher was looking to for leadership and experience to try and defend their title.
“I really hoped to survive our early season schedule by playing through Nick and a couple of juniors,” Fisher said. “I knew he’d help us weather the early storm as inexperienced guys figured out and settled into their roles.”
Now that playing was out of the question, Holmes adopted a new role for the Blazers, one that Fisher called his liaison with the team. Holmes still attended practices and games, but he had to see things from a coach’s perspective – from the bench.
“Of course you want to be out there playing, but I just had to realize that that wasn’t an option for me, so I had to get involved in other ways,” Holmes said. “Whether that was coaching from the side or helping out coach or giving my teammates a perspective from my eyes. I realized that if I’m not going to be able to play, there are other things I’ve got to do to help them win.”
Holmes used that time on the sidelines to better his understanding for basketball. He said he got a new look on the game and it helped his basketball IQ improve.
He was able to put that mental knowledge to the test toward the end of his senior campaign. He was cleared to play with only a couple games remaining in the season and immediately went to work. He spent several hours at rehab working to get back on the court for Overland.
In a week, he was back in game action, but not at 100 percent. He admitted that by the final game of the year, he was only at 70 percent. Holmes and the rest of the Blazers were eliminated from the playoffs in the second round, squashing any plans for a three-peat.
Holmes, who was touted as a premier player heading into his senior season, had to reset his mind when he was able to return to the floor.
“I threw all that preseason stuff out the window because I knew I wasn’t that same player anymore,” he said. “I was thinking there are other things I have to do now to get back to that point.”
As a child, Holmes played multiple sports, but he started ratcheting down on basketball in eighth grade. When he started taking the sport seriously, he developed the goal of playing college ball and beyond.
“I was just a pure athlete. I was playing soccer, football, basketball and baseball,” Holmes said. “I felt like that athleticism was there but I knew if I wanted to take basketball seriously, I had to put in the time to work on my skill set. I’m still working on my skill set to this day.”
Following his senior season, Holmes continued working on the court while playing AAU ball. It was his play during AAU that earned him a spot for the Lancers. EWC coach Neal Sherbeyn offered Holmes a spot on this year’s roster after hearing about him from a coach.
“He’s got a lot of maturity and he looks at life a little different than a lot of other kids,” Sherbeyn said. “Having that maturity on your team is always good.”
Holmes does not take basketball for granted, especially at the college level.
“I think about (the cancer) every time I step onto the court because I know that, to be honest, I’m not supposed to be playing still,” Holmes said. “I could still be sitting on the bench or waiting to be picked up by a school. For me to have this opportunity, I think about it all the time and it pushes me.”
“I’m just real thankful, real grateful and real blessed,” he added. “Like I said, I’m not supposed to be here right now so it’s just a real motivator for me.”
That motivation has helped Holmes step into the starting point guard position for the Lancers. In the eight games this year, he has averaged 12.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He is the Lancers’ third-leading scorer this season.
“There are a lot of intangibles, but then there is him as a ball player. He is a smart kid. I like him because he is a leader, but he doesn’t know it yet,” Sherbeyn said. “Athletically, he can get to the hole and he sees the court well. He does a lot of good things for us.”
Today, Holmes is cancer free. The second surgery removed all of the tumor and there is no risk of it returning. That being said, he does have Myositis Ossificans, which is a disease where bone grows through muscle. The bone grew where the tumor was, but he is not having any more pain. He still has six-month checkups to make sure his condition is in check.
With no lingering issues, Holmes is focused on basketball, both at EWC and beyond. He hopes his efforts with the Lancers gives him a platform to be noticed by a Division I school and move on to the next level to continue his career.
Moving on, but not forgetting his past, is what Holmes plans to do.
“I knew that now everything is out the window and it’s all in the past. It’s all about how I come back from this,” he said. “That will tell how strong I am and what kind of a player and person I am.”