BY MIKE HOUSER
Appeal Sport Writer
The five-lettered tattoo that runs down the tricep of Will Holbert's right arm reads "Faith," a germane theme for an athlete who has suffered through five surgeries and the death of his father in the last 14 months.
The 18-year-old Holbert, who suffered the first of two cases of lateral compartment syndrome while playing for the Senators' football team in 2007, will be a fifth-year senior this season at Carson High School, where he will play basketball for coach Bruce Barnes beginning in November.
The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association granted Holbert an extra year of eligibility due to the exceptional circumstances he faced to repair the second injury, which he suffered during Carson's basketball season.
"My life has always been sports," Holbert said on Thursday. "If I hadn't played sports, I would not be the person I am today."
Doctors told Holbert he had suffered a "one-in-a-million" injury when he was diagnosed with a case of lower extremity lateral compartment syndrome. During a football game he had taken a helmet to the thigh and was forced to the sideline.
After he'd gone home, Holbert's thigh swelled up to double its size and the majority of his body's blood supply pooled in the area where he took the hit.
Holbert's injury required immediate surgery and a subsequent skin graft. Doctors were at a loss to explain why the injury happened the first time. Or the second.
After the two-sport star was told the odds were against his suffering the same injury again, he returned in time to play basketball for the Senators a couple months later.
Following a preseason tournament, Holbert took a playful knee from friend and teammate David Eller at Los Angeles International Airport. By the time he reached Reno, Holbert's leg had ballooned up and was discolored.
Before the night was over, Holbert had developed blood clots and underwent two surgeries. After several weeks of taking more than 20 pills a day and wearing a sponge-like wound pack on the still wide-open incision, Holbert resembled a shark-attack survivor and subsequently underwent a second skin graft, with his left leg serving as a donor site.
The injuries and surgeries limited Holbert's attendance at CHS to just more than 60 days his senior year.
"I decided it was best to go back for another school year," said Holbert, who could've chosen to obtain a general education development (GED) degree instead. "I wanted to play football, but the doctor said it was a bad idea."
During his long rehabilitation, Holbert said he has grown to appreciate the second chance he's been given and is determined to give himself a shot at an academic scholarship by raising his grades to A's instead of B's and C's.
Holbert was a multi-threat player on the gridiron, splitting time as a wide receiver, running back and cornerback for the Senators. He recently went to summer football camp before arriving at his decision to come back as a basketball player.
"In summer camp, my leg didn't feel safe," said Holbert, who continued to suffer pain. "It is in the better interest for me to wait until next year and walk on somewhere. My leg felt weak. Football wasn't for me right now."
When first contacted on Thursday, Holbert said he generally doesn't feel pain unless he bumps into something, which led him to consider the possible disastrous consequences of further injuries.
"It's been on my mind that, if it does happen again, I can lose my leg," Holbert said. "It scares the hell out of me."
Yet some incidents that would intimidate many people apparently aren't enough to rattle Holbert's confidence.
Barnes said Holbert took a knee in open gym about three months ago, resulting in some swelling in his incision area, which covers nearly his entire thigh. That incident paled, however, to one that happened on May 29.
"Ask Will about how he spent his birthday," Barnes said of the 6-foot shooting guard's latest affliction.
"Oh, I forgot about that," Holbert said when contacted for a second time on Thursday. "We were playing Reno and there was a loose ball. (The other player's) knee hit my thigh, where my pad slid up."
When Holbert came out of the game, Barnes mistakenly thought it was maybe a knee injury.
"I was down on the sideline " I was in tears it hurt so bad," Holbert said.
Holbert was taken to a hospital, where Barnes spent four or five hours with him.
"At first (the doctors) were 90-percent positive it was the same injury (lateral compartment syndrome)," Barnes said. "There was fear on (Holbert's) face, the whole nine yards. He's at a risk doing almost anything."
Holbert's "one-in-a-million" injury has been anything but.
Barnes said three tests were conducted that night, during which doctors inserted needles into the afflicted muscle. One of the tests caused some concern, but the doctors took the average of the three tests and concluded it wasn't a repeat injury and that no surgery would be required to alleviate the swelling, which along with the pain kept Holbert from sleeping that night.
"It all worked out," said Holbert, who said he rested for a couple of weeks before returning to practice. "The way I look at it is I'm not going to get hit as hard in basketball as I would in football."
Both Barnes and Holbert agree that the versatile athlete is naturally more inclined to football, Holbert's first love. Holbert is still entertaining the thought of walking on for the Nevada football team next year, but for now just wants to stay athletically active.
"It scares me a bit, but I want to at least play basketball," Holbert said. "I don't want to give up sports again. They can cut my leg off before I give up sports. I have to play something."
Barnes said the bottom line for him is that Holbert has a signed medical release and can continue to play basketball, where he continues to take the maximum amount of precautions, including wearing a large thigh pad over his still-healing wound.
"The possibility of injury still remains very real," Barnes said. "But he's been assured by the doctor that it's very rare " two times."
That would be four times, counting the series of surgeries.
Barnes said he told Holbert that he'd have to be prepared for some more discomfort if he is to give himself the best shot at avoiding yet another visit to the hospital " or worse.
"He has to get in better shape," Barnes said. "In the past, it's happened when he's fatigued. He has to push his body to limits he's not comfortable with to prevent injuries. I'm pulling for him."
Barnes also said that Holbert is in about 70-percent condition and has a long way to go before he can compete at the level he's used to.
Holbert has other issues to deal with as well. He said his family is struggling financially and that he would be getting a job and moving in with Eller and teammate and fellow senior Paul Cagle before finishing the school year and playing basketball.
While he admits he's taking a risk by continuing his sports career, Holbert need not look any farther than the word inked onto his right arm to find the only element he requires to continue forward.
"You've got to have faith," Holbert said. "If I stay scared, I'd never do anything. I've got to get over it sometime."
- Contact Mike Houser at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1214