A story of heartbreak, healing and triumph
Written by Christina Grierson
Before Philly Famous Podcast, Greg Holdsman’s primary interest was centered on playing basketball, which he describes as his first love. His love story started at the tender age of five, growing stronger and stronger throughout his childhood and into his young adult years. Holdsman had spent his life being able to pilot the course of his generally effortless relationship with basketball, dedicating most of his free time to mastering his craft.
As a teen, Holdsman was the star point-guard and captain of Central High School’s Varsity basketball team in Philadelphia, PA. One of Holdsman’s proudest memories was during his junior year at Central High School with his best friend and former teammate Kahlil Williams, who is currently a forward for the men’s basketball team at Penn State University’s Harrisburg campus. It was a game their team had lost by 2 points against Martin Luther King High School in the 4A Public League final. They were expected to lose by 20 points and though they did not have a victory, it definitely was not a blow out. Williams played with an injury and the team proved that they were one of the best in the city.
Holdsman acquired a reputation in the Philadelphia basketball community for his impeccable skills and for being the only white boy in the public league.
“I was respected because I had game and I didn’t back down,” he stated.
Holdsman was more than ready to keep that fire burning and continue playing collegiately at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. The school offered key elements he sought from a university – a solid basketball program, academics and a good location. However, with every story comes conflict, even the love stories.
“I had a really rough start playing wise and I ended up not playing really at all my freshman year.”
Transitioning from Central to Denison, Holdsman was faced with more challenges than he was used to. Following a sequence of concussions, the most pivotal being an ill-fated medicine ball accident, Holdsman’s basketball career was unceremoniously cut short and he was forced to retire from the game.
In total, Holdsman suffered from a series of four concussions from 2016 to 2017 and with each injury, the damage intensified and the stakes of his ability to continue playing increased. The first two concussions occurred during his time as a point guard at Denison University.
The first concussion happened in the Spring of 2016 during a game towards the end of his first season at the school. From the concussion, he initially suffered brief short-term memory loss, but was able to make a recovery within a week. Since Holdsman did not have a lot of time to fully indulge in the college experience during his first year, he had planned to “reintegrate” himself into the school that upcoming Fall. He made it a point to get more involved with campus life, join clubs, meet more people, etc. He essentially wanted to have no regrets looking back on his college experience.
In Fall 2016, during week two of his sophomore season, Holdsman unknowingly suffered his second concussion during an open-gym game. Since the symptoms were faint, he continued to play through the mild dizziness and even lifted weights with his team the next morning.
“I was going full speed because I didn’t think anything was wrong. Later, I learned that was probably the worst thing I could’ve done,” Holdsman stated.
The symptoms of dizziness, headaches and disassociation soon increased and the healing period of this concussion stretched four months, forcing him to miss his entire sophomore season. During that period, Holdsman lost a lot of his muscle. When he made a recovery in mid-January of his sophomore Spring semester, he used the remainder of that school year to regain his strength. He described that time as the healthiest and strongest he had ever been physically, benching 275 pounds and squatting 400 pounds.
Holdsman’s primary reason for choosing Denison was to play basketball. So that Spring of 2017, following difficulties adjusting to the school, needing a change of scenery and his desire to be closer to home, Holdsman was ready to look elsewhere to continue his basketball career. He applied to Temple University and Muhlenberg College and got into both. He soon picked Muhlenberg College for its basketball program after being in communication with the coach. At the time, Muhlenberg had an up and coming basketball program that was not fully established yet, so Holdsman was eager to start his junior year at the school, join its basketball organization and grow with it.
The summer after his sophomore year, only 3 months after healing from an injury that took four months to recover from, Holdsman was faced with his third concussion – the same week he was due to meet with the coach of Muhlenberg College. He was doing his usual workouts at Philadelphia University’s weight room with longtime best friend and former teammate Kahlil Williams when the accident occurred. While doing an exercise with the medicine balls, he slammed the ball to the ground and because he was used to sand-based medicine balls, he did not expect it to bounce back up. Instead of resting, the ball rose from the ground abruptly, striking him in his face and consequently causing the symptoms he had been trying to recover from to instantly increase.
Williams immediately urged Holdsman to have a seat and take a break stating, “Initially, I was scared because I knew the history of his concussions.”
Holdsman remembered feeling dizzy and having a slight headache but no signs of disassociation. He decided to withhold from informing his parents of the incident and returned to the weight room the next week, taking Advil to rid him self of discomfort. However, the night of his first day back in the weight room, Holdsman became severely sick. He was throwing up and experiencing intensified symptoms of his previous concussions.
Holdsman soon travelled to Barcelona for an abroad program that was far from enjoyable for him. He experienced pain everyday from his injuries that kept him from taking full advantage of the program. When he returned to the states a month and a half later, Holdsman went to the doctors where they informed him that because of the state of his health, he could no longer play basketball.
“At that point, I had already come to terms with it because I knew how bad I felt, that the only thing that was important to me was my health,” Holdsman stated.
This news left Holdsman distraught for quite some time. But, his recovery period put into perspective how important his health was to him.
Williams reflected on when Holdsman informed him of the news stating, “I felt bad because I was there and I saw the moment where Greg’s basketball career was essentially over.”
As a collegiate player himself and one of the closest people to Holdsman, Williams understood his grief with having to give up the sport, mentioning that Holdsman’s pain is in fact his pain too.
Last Fall of 2017, Holdsman enrolled in Temple University in Philadelphia, PA and began his studies there as a sociology major. Though he is currently not playing basketball, the injuries still require him to take caution with his everyday activities. Any sort of minor head contact could result in 3-4 days of severe headaches. He categorized these periods simply as “setbacks.” However, the next injury would prove to be more than a setback for him.
Concussion number four happened towards the end of last year while attending a party at one of his close friends, Robin Kearney’s home. Holdsman was walking up a flight of steps when he bumped his head on the ceiling.
When recounting on that night, Kearney stated, “He was having a good time which was great but then I got a text from him saying he was in his car and to have his friend who he drove there to go out to the car because he wasn’t feeling well and he wanted to leave.”
This concussion caused Holdsman to miss two weeks of classes due to his excruciating symptoms.
“It was just upsetting for me because I knew he had made a lot of progress and I knew this was going to be a setback for him, but Greg… all I say about him is that he’s great at staying positive,” Kearney stated.
With this time away from classes, Greg found what would soon become a saving grace to aid him in his recovery – podcasts.
“During these concussions, I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t exercise – all I was doing was listening to podcasts.”
Podcasts became incredibly therapeutic for Holdsman during the recovery of his last concussion. So much so, that he became inspired to start his own series, what we now know as Philly Famous Podcast. Philly Famous Podcast showcases interviews with Philadelphia natives who have established themselves in areas such as sports, music, television, etc. Some of Holdsman’s most renowned guests have included former Little League Baseball pitcher Mo’ne Davis and the founder of Chickie’s and Pete’s, one of the most highly rated sports bars in North America, Pete Ciarrocchi.
Being an athlete his entire life, Holdsman was consumed with basketball, constantly thinking about how to better himself as a player. Starting Philly Famous Podcast helped him in many ways to look at life beyond basketball.
“A lot of my identity was an athlete – was basketball, and for the last few months I’ve kind of struggled to figure out what my new identity is.”
Danny Holdsman, Greg’s younger brother, played on the same Varsity team with him at Central High School where their bond surpassed blood. Danny recalls his brother always encouraging and helping him to be better.
“Whether I was playing with him or against him, he brought out a drive in me to win. He pushed me as a player to get better and left a blueprint for me on how to be a good captain and leader of the team after he graduated,” Danny stated.
Danny was able to see first hand how his brother’s injuries affected him and how he was able to come back stronger.
When discussing his brother’s recovery, Danny stated, “The injuries definitely lowered his spirits and it was hard to watch him struggle and be forced to end his basketball career. However, it’s been great to see him refocus that passion he had for playing basketball into his podcast among other things.”
Through the many hardships Holdsman has faced, he has continuously chosen to see the silver lining through it all. With basketball being an option a few years down the road if his health allows it, Holdsman is focused on the present, concluding that without his many concussions, there most likely would be no Philly Famous Podcast today.
“Without my concussions, I wouldn’t have started this podcast, I wouldn’t have any real direction for what I want to do for the rest of my life and it wouldn’t have given me the perspective to enjoy things besides basketball,” Holdsman stated.
He stays involved with the sport by training two youth basketball teams, one team of 10 year olds and the other of 13 year olds. He also interns with his father, Kenny Holdsman’s non-profit organization Philadelphia Youth Basketball, a sports-based youth development organization geared towards creating opportunities for Philly’s youth and helping them to excel as students, athletes and as future leaders. One of their missions is to raise $25 million dollars to build a state-of-the-art youth basketball and education center.
Holdsman’s coach at Denison once told him that all he can control is his attitude and his effort because everything else is out of his hands. He has turned that advice into a guiding principle for his life and how he has chosen to cope with the many trials he has faced in the last two years.
“I’d say that while I didn’t feel like I got to accomplish everything I wanted to in basketball, I feel really good about the player I was and the respect I earned from the Philadelphia basketball community,” Holdsman stated.
The things he was able to achieve in basketball brings him much solace in relief to the physical and emotional hurt that also came with it.
“I’ve learned that basketball is so much bigger than any one person, and the game doesn’t owe anybody anything. I am lucky to have played for as long as I did.”
Holdsman is grateful for the many lessons the game has taught him on and off the court. His memories of the game are nothing less short of appreciative.
“Greg is never a negative person, he finds a positive with everything,” Williams said when reflecting on Holdsman’s perseverance to overcome his many obstacles. “He’s making the best out of his situation, I can tell he’s happy.”
Philly Famous Podcast is continuing to grow and Holdsman is looking forward to growing with it while also regaining his full strength stating, “I’m still working through a lot of stuff and recovering on a physical, emotional and psychological level, but I think with this podcast, it’s giving my life some direction and I feel like I’m taking the right steps to make a full recovery.”