FRISCO - Ryan Hollingshead is off to the best start of his six-year MLS career in 2019, starting in all 11 of FC Dallas’ matches and taking clear ownership of the starting left back role. It's hard to tell that just over two years ago the defender broke his neck in three places, and it’s easy to forget how close he came to losing it all in a single moment.
Two years ago today, Hollingshead returned to the field for the first time since his accident and grueling five-month rehabilitation process. But it was one decision that stands as the sole reason that moment - and the 46 other times he’s stepped onto an MLS field since - was even possible.
“It happened so fast,” he recounted of the night of his accident. “From the time I got into the hospital, it was very clear to not move any part of your body, don't make any sudden movements.”
Hollingshead had fractured three vertebrae in his neck when a car struck him on the side of a highway while assisting a stranded passenger. As he lay in the hospital bed that night, the doctors around him were quickly trying to determine the next course of action, looking first and foremost after Hollingshead the person, not the soccer player.
The discussion was trending towards the common surgical approach to fuse the three damaged parts of the spine together, ensure stability and preventing any further movement in his neck that could render him paralyzed. The surgery also would’ve left Hollingshead unable to play soccer again.
“The other doctors were telling me they thought I would need surgery and that it was going to have to happen quickly...I was like, 'Hey whatever is best, whatever helps me heal best,’” Hollingshead said. “Then Hisey comes in and says 'Hey, hold on a second. I think there's a way this can heal (without surgery).”
Dr. Michael Hisey, an orthopedic spine surgeon and a member of FCD’s medical staff, was immediately called and looked at Ryan soon after he arrived at the hospital that night. In looking at the x-rays, he saw just how the breaks were aligned in such a way that there was an opportunity to not only make sure Hollingshead was in good health, but could possibly make a return to the field.
“It's sometimes the easier decision to say 'I'm going to do surgery and stabilize this and protect him,' but he was neurologically stable, and I thought (this particular situation) had a good chance of healing,” Hisey said of the decision-making process between he and Ryan. “That was a real conversation that I had with him. We needed to document where he was and do the best we could to get him back to soccer, but that wasn't the priority. The priority was to maintain his neurologic status. It was a real possibility that there was enough ligamentous damage that once we tried to treat him non-surgically, that it would not hold and we would need to do surgery and it would take away his career.”
“For me, Hisey is not only such a good doctor, but he's such a good friend that when I saw him, that was reassuring,” Hollingshead said. “It went from being doctors at just a random hospital next to where I got in the accident to then being with Hisey, and he can tell me exactly what needs to happen, exactly what he's seeing and I can really trust his word. That conversation, although it was really scary, there was also this deep comfort in it - which is hard to explain - but I think it was because it was him.”
The pair made the decision to not have surgery and to see how well the fractures could heal on their own - with the full knowledge that if things did not progress as intended, surgery would be the only option.
“It was just a matter of staying the course and taking more x-rays than I would with a normal fusion just to make sure that he didn't go in a way we didn't want him to go,” Hisey said of the initial recovery. “Ryan progressed probably faster than I thought he would have. He healed well, I was able to see x-ray evidence of the healing very early on. He did better than the average.”
After five months of grueling rehabilitation, Hollingshead was cleared to play and on May 14, 2017, made his return to the field to a standing ovation from the crowd at Toyota Stadium - closing out the final two minutes of a 1-1 draw with NYCFC.
“It was special,” he said. “It summed up my health and the ability to be a good father, be a good husband, be a good friend, be a good teammate - all of that was encompassed in my neck not being broken anymore. Jogging onto that field was almost like a celebration of I've back to being normal, I'm back to being Ryan. It was a really special moment.”
“There was talk leading up to that, first and foremost, is he physically ready? Is he mentally ready to do this?” said Director of Soccer Operations Marco Ferruzzi, who was an assistant coach for FCD that night. “It's a great venue, let's do it, let's turn the page and bring back that positivity and get back to normalcy…Putting him in was a big relief that we could move on and get to the next chapter in his life, and since then he hasn't stopped.”