DURHAM, N.C. — The moment when Duke reached its first bowl game since 1994 was literally in Jamison Crowder’s hands.
With rival North Carolina up 30-26 and Duke facing fourth down with 19 seconds to go at the UNC five-yard line, Duke called a play. Crowder was the last read for quarterback Sean Renfree. Just get into the end zone, he told himself.
And as he leapt into the air to catch what would be the game-winning pass, he could think of just one thing as he saw a North Carolina linebacker in his peripheral vision: “Oh man, I’m fixin’ to break my neck or something.”
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He landed on his head, but he didn’t break his neck. And it didn’t even hurt, he said. Maybe it was the adrenaline pumping through his veins as his teammates mobbed him in celebration.
The Blue Devils beat their rival and secured their first bowl berth since 1994. Even though Crowder had a breakout season last year as a sophomore — 76 catches for 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns — it was that one catch, and that one touchdown, that he’s most famous for.
The Monroe, N.C., native would go back to his hometown in the offseason and either get recognized or get asked who he was. In either case, one of the first things anyone said was something about The Catch.
“Growing up, that’s something that you always want to do as far as playing basketball, maybe you hit a game-winning shot in a big game or football, catching the game-winning touchdown,” Crowder said. “That was nothing I ever really thought of once I got to college. It was just something that just I was in that position in that situation and the play just presented itself and I was blessed and able to make a play at that opportunity.”
Going into this season, Crowder has established himself as one of the better receivers in the ACC. He’s gone from the kid who struggled to get through camp as a freshman — he lacked confidence until his final game of that year — to a guy who is now the leader of a group of young wide receivers on his own team.
But he’s had to grow up a lot faster than most.
Because on July 4, 2012, his life changed.
Crowder, fellow wideout Blair Holliday and some teammates were out on jet skis on Lake Tillery near Charlotte. Crowder’s jet ski hit Holliday’s and it was evident right away that Holliday — facedown in the water, not moving — was hurt badly.
Crowder pulled his teammate out of the water, and then a nursing student that was nearby revived him. But Holliday was far from out of the woods. He had a traumatic brain injury and was non-responsive.
And as Holliday’s family sat at his bedside at Duke Hospital, Crowder tried to keep going and keep training for what was supposed to be his breakout season. For the next few weeks, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“It really was on my mind hard. I would always say, ‘Man, this year I’ve got to dedicate this year to my friend and the accident,’” Crowder said. “I never felt like I was at fault or anything like that. I just kind of said, ‘I’ve got to go out and play hard because you never know when something can happen that you might not be able to play again.’ That’s just kind of how I thought in the weeks following the accident.”
As Holliday clung to life, though, Crowder tried to push through. He got the playbook down as well as he possibly could. He remembered the last game of his freshman season at North Carolina in 2011, the one where he scored his first collegiate touchdown and felt confident on the football field for the first time in college.
And yes, he thought about Holliday too. A lot.
“I was preparing the same after that happened. But it just made it a little more difficult having something on your mind and at the same time, going into my first season of really playing college football,” Crowder said. “That just made it a little more difficult because I was really focused on getting all the plays down … I don’t think it really changed anything. It just made it a lot more difficult to prepare.”
It was an accident. But his heart ached for his friend and his friend’s family. Crowder went home for a bit after it happened to be with his own family, and when he finally went to see his friend, they went with him. Holliday’s mother Leslie did her best to comfort Crowder, hugging him.
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe remembered that moment well. So well, in fact, that he brought it up immediately after the win over North Carolina.
“Jamison is a special young man from a very special family. He managed that and his mother and daddy managed all of that, and a lot of people, teammates, et cetera — but none bigger than Leslie Holliday,” Cutcliffe said. “She should share in the touchdown. She was not good, but beautiful with Jamison Crowder the first time she saw him after that accident. Not good — beautiful would be the word I would describe that with.”
Holliday was in the ICU at Duke for awhile, and things looked grim. He went from that to being released to outpatient care less than two months after the accident. He spent months relearning to walk and talk and do the simple things most of us take for granted.
Less than a year after the accident, Holliday enrolled in summer school at Duke. He’s going to be an unofficial undergraduate assistant on the football team this season. He’s sort of like a coach, but Crowder said their relationship is still very much two friends rather than coach-player.
“We just talk a lot, laugh and joke a lot,” Crowder said. “If I make a play or something in practice, he’ll come over there and be like, ‘That was a good play.’ But other than that, we just laugh and joke. We still get along well.
“He’s back to the old Blair now, the Blair that I came in with freshman year.”
With his life as back to normal — or as normal as it can be — Crowder spent this offseason focused on getting better. He and the other wide receivers met with new quarterback Anthony Boone to run routes. He was in the weight room as often as possible, taking some of the freshmen wideouts with him.
He took classes this summer, but in breaks between classes or even after class, he would find time to get out the rope ladder and work on his footwork. He’s gained weight and strength since arriving in Durham nearly two years ago, and after the year he had in 2012, he’s ready.
Crowder is not a vocal leader, but there are now a bunch of freshman and sophomore wide receivers with little to no experience looking to him for guidance. It’s a challenge he’s embraced.
“Going through last season and having a great year last year, that kind of has helped my confidence,” Crowder said. “So being verbal is something that I have improved on as far as letting guys know on the team what’s good and what’s right and wrong.”
He’s going to be the main receiving option on the roster this year, or at least the most experienced one. Last year’s leading receiver Conner Vernon graduated, and now it will be Crowder getting most of the defensive attention.
Crowder feels like he’s ready to take on that role. And it doesn’t hurt that he has Vernon’s blessing.
After Crowder made The Catch last year, Vernon found him in the middle of the celebratory throng and grabbed him. “You became a man today,” he told him. “This is your show now.”