It came down to a split-second decision on Devil’s Dip outside of Helmville: Lay down his street bike or stay upright and hit the ditch.
“We weren’t going very fast — 60, 65 at the most,” J.C. Holland said last week. “It wasn’t like we were racing or anything. I got over into loose gravel and it just kind of went.”
Holland picked the ditch along Highway 141 on that late March day in 2013.
His riding partner, Cory Bradshaw of Drummond, told him the gritty details later, including the rock that Holland’s bike must have hit that sent him pell-mell over the handlebars.
All Holland recalls is looking up at David Mannix, a nearby rancher and EMT, and Dean Phillips, a teacher and volunteer firefighter, as he was loaded into a Life Flight helicopter.
“I told 'em, 'Sorry about ruining your Saturdays.’ And I do remember saying I always wanted to ride in a helicopter,” Holland said.
Next thing he knew he was waking up in Missoula’s St. Patrick Hospital with Mike Cutler digging blood and dirt out of his ear. Holland, 48, had a broken collarbone, four broken ribs, a broken ankle and a broken back. The latter, he was told, meant he’d never walk again.
Cutler was and still is the superintendent of schools in Philipsburg. He was at a performance of the Missoula Children’s Theater at the school when he got the call from Holland’s wife, Shelle, and beat it the 75 miles to St. Pat’s.
“Right when I got to the hospital the initial diagnosis was paralysis,” said Cutler, whose father’s best friend was a quadriplegic. “It was devastating for me to know what J.C. was about to go through, mentally and physically. He’s a big, strong man. I cried all the way home that night.”
The rest of the story isn’t over, but it just hit a milestone.
Within months of his accident, Holland was back on the job as maintenance superintendent for the Montana Department of Transportation. He uses hand controls in his pickup to drive the 55 miles from his home south of Drummond to the office on West Broadway in Missoula.
Weeks before that, he was back on the football field in Drummond in an electric wheelchair, commanding the defense for Coach Jim Oberweiser’s Trojans as he’d done for a dozen years.
In 2003 that defense gave up one touchdown in the regular season and one more in the playoffs en route to the school’s first Class C state football championship. Led by future Montana Grizzlies Chase Reynolds and Alex Verlanic, the Trojans went on to cop a second title the next year, and a third the year after that, building a winning streak that reached 45 games.
Drummond reigned again in 2007 and 2009 with new casts of players. Dwindling enrollments at both Drummond and Philipsburg prompted the schools to co-op their high school football teams in 2014.
And two weeks ago, on Championship Saturday for football teams in Montana, the Flint Creek Titans beat Forsyth 44-30 for their first state title together.
Fans from up and down the valley mobbed George Mungas Field in Philipsburg. Cutler, now the head coach, and Holland, his defensive coordinator and close friend since they were rivals on these same teams in the 1980s, took turns cradling the trophy. It was the sixth such experience for Holland in 15 years.
He hadn’t missed a beat.
“I’ll tell you, to a man, nobody here sees J.C. as disabled,” said Steve Felix, Holland’s boss as maintenance chief at MDT’s Missoula division. “I’m sure there were some struggles in the beginning, but I think once he decided what he wanted to do and what he’s going to be able to do, he just said, ‘I’m going to do 'em and nothing’s going to stop me.’ ”
The doctors said it would take three months of recovery and rehab before he’d be in any shape to go home and start life again. He was in intensive care for four days and in the hospital for another five. He gave Mike Tran, his inpatient physical therapist at Community Medical Center, permission “to beat the crap out of me every day.”
Just over a month after the wreck, Shelle Holland drove her husband into their driveway. For the first time, they saw what neighbors and friends and friends of neighbors in the construction business had done, unbidden, to get the house ready for him.
“I’ll look at it when you look at it,” Shelle, an elementary teacher in Philipsburg, had told J.C. She’d spent all the time leading up to that day living in the basement.
Holland figures there was probably $50,000 worth of remodeling done to the home “if you had to pay for it.” One wall and their brick fireplace were removed, and a ramp and concrete pad built out back. The neighbor told them fence off whatever was needed on his property to get a pickup turned around above the house.
“It’s pretty tough not to be positive and work your butt off when you’re surrounded by people like that,” Holland said. “I’m not going to say it was all that much fun to wake up in the hospital knowing you’re never going to walk again. But once I got on the road to recovery, it was like I didn’t have a choice but to do good.”
Angelo Cattle Co. hosted a benefit on the first day of summer that drew half the valley, and more. Friends of the tight-knit coaching fraternity came from the likes of Arlee, Charlo and White Sulphur Springs to chip in.
It was reminiscent of other benefits up and down the Flint Creek Valley, including one for Cutler. He was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in May 2003. As Drummond blitzed through the football playoffs that fall, Cutler’s life was saved by a stem cell transplant in Seattle.
“I can remember calling him and talking to him weekly,” Holland said. “It was like: We’re playing Harlowton this weekend. What do you think of Harlowton? He’s over fighting for his life and we’re talking football.”
Come next June, Holland will have 25 years in with MDT, the first 20 in Philipsburg and Drummond. He was section supervisor at Drummond for seven years until he moved into the Missoula office three months before the accident.
He’s in charge of highway maintenance projects in Philipsburg, Drummond, Clinton, Missoula, Seeley Lake and Highway 12 West to Idaho.
Don’t be surprised when driving by to see Holland, in his wheelchair, planning out a repair job on Flint Creek Hill, or the rehabilitation of the Madison Street Bridge in Missoula, or overseeing removal of a rock slide on Lolo Pass.
Alice Flesch didn’t know him before the day she went to see Holland during his inpatient rehab at Community. MDT’s American Disabilities Act coordinator in Helena, Flesch met not only a determined man but Holland’s equally courageous wife.
“I got to know Shelle just as well as I got to know J.C.,” Flesch said. “She was a very big component of me helping this situation.”
Flesch and Holland met with his doctor and physical therapist to discuss what needed to be done when he returned to duties at MDT. They visited a paving project to determine what physical exertions were required. He was rigged out with the hand controls for his work truck, an off-road style wheelchair for use on uneven terrain, and a hoist to lift it in and out of the truck.
The restroom at the Missoula District office was modified, and a curb ramp was added for wheelchair access to the back shop.
“Alice made this transition as smooth as possible,” said Holland.
His boss said because of Holland’s determination, his job description hasn’t been altered.
“Obviously he can’t walk like the rest of us can, but I’ve never heard him complaining or using it as an excuse for not doing his job,” Felix said.
The same can be said for other aspects of Holland’s increasingly busy life. He founded and remains chair of the Trojan Classic, a benefit golf tournament each June in Deer Lodge that has raised close to $100,000 in the last 17 years. It was set up to fund the junior high football program and stock the weight room in Drummond, but now contributes to a variety of other sports there and in Philipsburg.
And he’s taking on more. Holland said he’s been buying snowmobiles from Kurtis Friede at Kurt’s Polaris in Seeley Lake and Missoula since he was in high school. Even as you read, Friede and the Hollands are launching a website, Kurtsoffroad.com, that sells ATV and UTV parts and clothing.
“We go to trade shows and rallies and we set up vendor booths and sell Kurt’s Offroad products,” he said.
As for football, that was the easiest thing for Holland to come back to.
“The only thing that changed is I couldn’t ride the bus,” he said. “I had to drive to the games.”
There were some adjustments to how he taught drills and skills — more telling instead of showing.
“And I can’t holler as loud as I used to without all my stomach muscles, so that’s a challenge,” Holland said.
“J.C. has been coaching for a long, long time, and he’s got a defensive philosophy that just so happens matches mine 1,000 percent,” said Cutler, whose son Kade saw varsity action as a freshman this season. “It’s all about discipline and things like that. He’s been presented with every offensive scenario there is and he’s got an answer.”
Holland coached his oldest son, Brad, for four years. Luke Holland was a junior for Flint Creek this year, and caught a key 57-yard touchdown pass on a fake punt in the championship game that put the Titans up 20-0.
His dad said he wanted to avoid the pitfalls of previous championship experiences, when he said he didn’t stop enough to enjoy what was happening. He counseled Cutler on the matter.
“I watch an obscene amount of game film, and he probably doubles that. He’s as prepared as you’re going to get,” Holland said. “But I told him win or lose, try to enjoy this. When you’re out plowing the football field, take five, look around, and smile.”
Holland has rigged up a plow to push snow from his wheelchair. There've been a lot of adjustments, but Holland remains determined to keep living his life.
“When you have an accident like that, all you want to do is get back to normal,” he said. “My goal was to get out and take my kids for a ride in the hills like we always did. My goal is when I get up in the morning I’ll dress, and I want to turn left and head for Missoula, and I want Shelle to turn right and head for school in Philipsburg.”