'I have to rewire my brain' -- FC Dallas' Ryan Hollingshead's road back from breaking his neck

Ryan Hollingshead, slightly sweaty following the cardio portion of injury rehab, struggled to remember a previous injury that kept him off the field for an extended period.

"Turned ankle? Maybe a hamstring," he concluded with a slight shrug. Garden-variety ailments for an MLS player.

The 25-year-old FC Dallas midfielder's current injury is far from garden variety. He's working his way back after having three neck vertebrae fractured and fearing that he was paralyzed. After he'd pulled over on an icy highway to help a stranded driver on the night of Friday, Jan. 6, he was struck by a car traveling an estimated 50 mph. Hollingshead was launched about 30 feet, landing on a guard rail and then rolling on the frigid pavement.

"That's Ryan," said Scott Hollingshead, the oldest of four brothers from the Sacramento suburb of Granite Bay, California. "He overextended himself. He's going to go help."

Ironically, Hollingshead was on his way to help a friend who'd also crashed that night. He estimated he was about two minutes from arriving at that accident scene when he instead pulled over at the sight of a Toyota Camry that had T-boned the median on the southbound President George Bush Turnpike in Irving, located between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Hollingshead's benevolent nature shouldn't really have surprised anyone. He put his MLS career on hold before it had even started, taking a year's sabbatical following his drafting by FC Dallas in 2013 to help his older brother start a nondenominational church.

The fractures to his C2, C6 and C7 vertebrae didn't require surgery because the adjoining ligaments weren't torn. Dr. Michael Hisey, FC Dallas' spine specialist, said it's relatively uncommon to have multiple neck fractures that don't require surgery.

Hisey cleared Hollingshead for any team activity three weeks ago. Twelve days ago, Hollingshead took part in a full team training for the first time in 10 weeks.

"I could play in a game tomorrow," Hollingshead said following a recent two-hour practice outside Toyota Stadium in Frisco. "A lot of it is still my fitness. A lot of rust has to fall off."

"If you hear somebody gets hit by a car and breaks their neck, you probably think they're paralyzed," forward Tesho Akindele said. "It's kind of amazing that he's out here so soon. He looks just like he always did."

"The first thing is, we all feel blessed to have him alive," head coach Oscar Pareja said.

So thankful for all of our friends and family and the incredible support we have received throughout this entire rehab process. The lord was gracious in protecting me during the crash, He has been gracious to sustain me in the weeks after, and he has used our community around us to encourage us and lift us up. I have tangibly felt the power of prayer in numbers. For those who have left text messages, voicemails, brought meals, watched our baby, sent us letters, packages, treats.... we love you and are so thankful for you. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, but in every season I say blessed be the name of the Lord.

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Icy driving conditions are rare during north Texas winters. The state's department of transportation filed reports on 113 accidents in the immediate Dallas-Fort Worth two-county area for the 48-hour period of Friday-Saturday, Jan. 6-7.

Scott laughed when considering that his brother didn't simply summon help in another fashion when spotting an incident: "Seriously? You didn't call 9-1-1? You didn't think of something else?"

Hollingshead said his initial inclination when spotting the crashed Camry was to keep driving. But he noticed the car's headlights were smashed out, with much of the vehicle occupying the highway's fast lane. That's when he told wife Taylor, his only passenger: "I've got to get out."

"If he doesn't get out," Hollingshead recalled, referring to the Camry driver, "like if he's knocked out, he's gonna ... get killed."

Taylor agreed, which convinced Hollingshead that he was doing the right thing. "Usually, she's the reasonable one in those situations," he said.

The Camry was driven by Abiodun "Abby" Shuaib, a native Nigerian who has lived in the Dallas area for two years with little experience driving on icy roads. His sliding car first struck the outside guard rail, then skidded across the highway and struck the median.

Hollingshead pulled over about 50 yards beyond the Camry. Another good Samaritan, John McDonald of Wylie, Texas, did the same thing soon after.

They discovered Shuaib had suffered only minor injuries. But within seconds, a Dodge Dart driven by an 18-year-old woman likewise lost control and came bearing down on the three men who stood near the Camry.

The Dart struck Hollingshead and McDonald, barely missed Shuaib, and then crashed into the Camry. Hollingshead said he'd caught sight of the oncoming car's headlights at the last second, turned his back to the vehicle and jumped. That resulted in him essentially being punted off the hood and windshield. The impact literally knocked him out of his shoes.

Hollingshead spun while airborne -- "I'm looking without really seeing. Trying to count how long I'm in the air 'cause that means how high I'm going." -- and rolled upon impact, never striking his head.

Bloodied and with his clothes torn, he wasn't sure if he could move anything for the next 30 seconds or so. Feeling soon returned to most of his body, but he still couldn't feel his arms and feared they were broken. It turns out the nerves to his arms were affected by the breaks in his neck.

A CAT scan done by a physician's assistant revealed the three fractures, but no damage to the area's soft tissues. That indicated Hollingshead's ability to walk wasn't in peril. When he went from fearing paralysis to hearing that he'd probably be able to play soccer again in 6-10 weeks, he literally began laughing.

Hisey first met with Hollingshead soon after and expressed optimism about playing again, but provided no guarantee. He prescribed a cervical collar to wear for six weeks and to perform exercises to keep the rest of Hollingshead's body in shape -- riding a stationary bike, using a special treadmill that took weight off him and minimized jolting.

On an overcast Thursday morning in early March, Hollingshead and team trainer Skyler Richards took a leisurely, three-lap jog around the practice field, hours before FC Dallas' full squad trained in advance of its second regular-season game. This was the first day that Hollingshead's rehab program progressed to doing "return to play" drills.

"Up 'til now," Richards explained, "it's kind of been getting back to being an active human being. Now, we want to make sure he gets back to being a professional athlete."

The next 75 minutes were filled with repetitions of sprints between cones, dribbling, chest traps, headers, volleys, etc. In a way, Hollingshead has been performing such activities since he started playing as a 4-year-old back in northern California for the Thunderbolts, coached by his father. Richards conceded that the nature of Hollingshead's injury was something of a wild card when it came to designing a rehab program.

"Even though we're back to the normal protocol, I'm still kind of in unknown territory here," he said.

They began with a drill during which Hollingshead touched the center cone with a foot and ran to eight other cones and doing the same before returning to the center. Subsequent drills became increasingly more complex, the pace a little quicker.

"Push! Push! Push!" Richards yelled. "All the way! Keep going! ... Harder cut! ... Stride! Stride! Stride!"

Hollingshead was regaining his fitness. At times between drills, he stood bent over at the waist, hands on knees.

"As much as I broke my neck, my legs have been out of play for eight weeks," he said afterward. "But my neck feels great."

The session was followed by another appointment with a physical therapist to work on his neck and upper body. Hollingshead followed that schedule for 10 days before moving up to scrimmaging with one of the club's youth teams.

When Hollingshead returned to full-squad workouts, teammates predictably welcomed him with a wide range of greetings. One made a particular impression on defender Atiba Harris: "Nice of you to stop faking."

Hisey said his lone concern is Hollingshead's predictable reluctance to employ full range of motion for his neck.

"He's still timid to move it even though it isn't hurting," Hisey said. "That's the same thing that happens when somebody's had an ACL, somebody's had an Achilles. You don't quite trust it."

Hollinsghead said he's working on that.

"When I'm trying to get up for a ball, I'm still moving my whole body," he said. "I have to rewire my brain."

The conscious debate in his head was top of mind during a recent scrimmage when a "headable" ball came toward him near the goal line. After he all but hoped it would be too high to get, the ball came straight at his forehead. He flicked it into the net and then clenched a fist.

After Hollingshead finished his four seasons playing for UCLA, he was chosen as the Pac-12 Conference's player of the year in 2012 and a second-team All-American. But he said he informed most MLS clubs to not draft him. He'd already committed to help Scott, who preceded him on the Bruins' soccer team, begin a church for one year.

The brothers had only discussed the possibility informally to that point, Scott said.

"Ryan came to it on his own," Scott recalled. "I didn't want to put pressure on him."

The Harvest Bible Fellowship began with six members. Scott, as lead pastor, was the only salaried employee. Ryan spent that year contacting potential members and earned money to support his wife by working as a leasing agent for an apartment complex.

Hollingshead didn't even attend the league's pre-draft combine. His mindset then: "I'm potentially throwing away my soccer career, and I'm fine with that."

But he didn't remove his name from draft eligibility. Then-Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid, who'd coached at UCLA during the 1980s and '90s, indicated he'd choose Hollingshead in the draft's supplemental phase.

Schellas Hyndman, FC Dallas' head coach at the time, said Hollingshead's draft status was unclear to the club. If there was talk of him not immediately turning pro, Hyndman said that could have been planted by another MLS team.

Hyndman said FC Dallas had been watching Hollingshead for years, liking what they saw and learned about him both on the pitch and off: "Wonderful character. Great feedback on him as a human being."

Drafting Hollingshead with the first pick in the second round in January 2013 was the second personnel decision made in less than a year by FC Dallas that was shaped by a player's character and involved a voluntary absence from the game. During the summer of 2012, the club allowed -- supported, to be more accurate -- backup goalkeeper Chris Seitz leaving the team to be a bone marrow donor. Seitz was honored following that season as the league's Humanitarian of the Year.

Simply informing Hollingshead of his drafting was challenging. He and his wife had taken a break from church duty and traveled to Haiti to volunteer at an orphanage where she'd previously worked. Only when their return flight came through Miami did his phone fill with voicemails, emails and texts informing and congratulating him.

The team brought Hollingshead to Dallas to talk about his immediate and long-term future in the game. "What player doesn't go to the combine?" recalled Hyndman, now coaching at Grand Canyon University. The two of them and team owner Clark Hunt met for lunch in the upscale Galleria. "We talked and talked," Hyndman said. Hollingshead assured them that his plans for the following year were set, and he then headed off for California.

During the year away from soccer, he fit in some running and working out in his limited free time. Taylor (who also played soccer at UCLA) put her bachelor's degree in environmental science to good use, working as a scientific aide for the state's department of water resources.

She doesn't recall her husband doubting his decision to delay his professional soccer career.

"He's so driven and focused on what he's doing, which makes him such a good athlete," Taylor said. "That year, he was just so focused on supporting his brother and being part of the church, doing whatever he could. We knew eventually the church would get planted, that there would be another step for us, and we knew that maybe that would be soccer if they were gracious enough to take us."

When the opportunity came early in 2014 to join FC Dallas, with Pareja having replaced Hyndman as head coach, Hollingshead pushed himself over an eight-week period to be at least close to soccer shape and earned a spot in the organization. He made his MLS debut that May, playing 18 minutes as a substitute against the San Jose Earthquakes, and earned a handful of starts later that season.

In 2015, Hollingshead became a regular in the starting lineup but was moved from midfield to left-back. He returned to midfield last season as FC Dallas claimed the Supporters' Shield and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup -- both firsts for the charter MLS franchise.

Abby Shuaib and Tashria Moore met when he picked up her dropped change at a convenience store. They were engaged last November and married on Jan. 1, five days before the accident on his way home from visiting a friend in north Dallas.

Moments after Shuaib was able to get free of the deployed air bag and exit his wrecked car, he called his wife. The two were on the phone when the Dart came within feet of him and struck Hollingshead and McDonald. Shuaib dropped his phone, his wife left to frantically wonder what had happened as she heard yelling and screaming.

Nine weeks later in the Shuaibs' apartment in Bedford near DFW International Airport, he still struggled to understand why he wasn't also hit, as the three men stood so close together.

"Miraculous," Shuaib said in a soft voice. "I can't really explain it. Sometimes ... I don't know."

Said Tashria Shuaib: "I just want to give him a hug."

And that's just what she did last Wednesday afternoon, when the Shuaibs and Hollingsheads, including seven-month-old "Huck," all gathered for the first time in a dining room at Toyota Stadium.

Hollingshead shook Shuaib's hand and asked: "Are you driving a new car?" Shuaib shook his head and smiled: "Not yet."

They sat for almost an hour and "reminisced" about the night of Jan. 6, recalling the horrific events in detail and acknowledging subsequent blessings. Taylor said she learned in late January that she's pregnant with a due date in September. They noted that an area woman who similarly stopped to help a stranded highway driver last week in good weather was struck and killed.

"I might have been a single mother with two children under 15 months," Taylor said.

As they departed, Shuaib said: "This is one of the happiest days of my life. You don't see people like that."

The following day, Hollingshead left for Mexico to join his teammates in training for Tuesday's second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals vs. Pachuca. Hollingshead was eligible to play, but he didn't feature, with the pre-match training at high altitude used as a belated mini-spring training.

A more realistic goal would be appearing in FC Dallas' next league match, on Saturday at home vs. Minnesota United.

"I'm ready to go," Hollingshead said.