June 21, 2024

There are mornings Ryan Hollingshead wakes to reminders of the night he almost died.

“At times my neck and my back tighten up a little bit quicker,” he said. “I can feel some muscular things and I can feel some mobility things.”

Yet every painful tweak and every dull ache is proof that he’s still alive, still walking, still playing professional soccer. All of those things were thrown into doubt during an icy winter night when Hollingshead stopped to pull a driver from a wrecked vehicle, only to be struck by another car.

First responders did not know Hollingshead had broken three vertebrae, but he had no feeling in his arms so he was fitted with a neck brace and strapped to a body board; the slightest movement, he was told, could leave him paralyzed. Doctors initially wanted to fuse the bones in his neck together, which was the safe move. But the team physician for FC Dallas, the team Hollingshead played for, suggested rehab before surgery. Inserting rods in Hollingshead’s neck, the doctor knew, would limit his range of motion for the rest of his life. There was a chance he’d never play soccer again.

More than six years later, Hollingshead, 32, is not only still on the field, but he’s also playing better than ever for LAFC. He made his first MLS all-star team this summer, a year after winning his first MLS Cup. His nine goals during the past two seasons are the most by a defender in that span and his versatility has allowed him to play every position along the back line for a team that has conceded just 32 goals, tied for fifth fewest in the 29-team league.

He will confront a much less serious challenge Saturday when LAFC hosts the Galaxy in the third El Tráfico of the regular season. Hollingshead missed last week’s trip to Portland with what was termed a “lower extremity” injury, but he is expected to be available this weekend for a team that has hit a bump in the road in its quest to become the first repeat MLS champion in more than a decade. LAFC (11-9-7) has won only four of its past 15 league games since losing both legs of the CONCACAF Champions League final in the spring, while the Galaxy (7-10-9), making a late push for the postseason, have lost just one MLS game since May to pull within four points of a playoff berth. The Galaxy have also won their past two meetings with LAFC and lead the series with nine wins overall.

Despite the importance to both sides, however, the game is still just that — a game. In the bigger picture, the deeply religious Hollingshead believes there’s a reason the journey from the back of an ambulance to the top of MLS is one he survived, then thrived.

LAFC midfielder Ryan Hollingshead controls the ball during a match against Inter Miami on Sept. 3.

LAFC midfielder Ryan Hollingshead controls the ball during a match against Inter Miami on Sept. 3.

(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

“Everything that happens is with a purpose,” he said. “I don’t want to play the mind game of what God’s thinking or why or how. When things go wrong, it’s easy to blame God and say ‘Why did this happen? How was it me?’ Then when things get healed and I’m back to playing, it’s really easy just to run away from that and be like, ‘OK, I’m good,’ rather than being grateful and thankful.

“[I’m] able to look back on that moment and be thankful for what God has done, but also look forward and know that I’ve had some of the best years I’ve had in the MLS post that accident. I’m grateful for all of it.”

Hollingshead, who had just finished his third MLS season, was at his suburban Dallas home with his wife, Taylor, and infant son, Henry, when a friend phoned in a panic. A rare ice storm had hit the area and the friend, who had slid into a fender-bender, was stranded on the side of the road. Could they come pick him up?

LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead and his wife Taylor sit on their backyard deck with their children

LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead and his wife, Taylor, with their children in the backyard of their home in Palos Verdes.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Hollingshead and Taylor found a babysitter and had nearly reached the scene of the first accident when the car in front of them fishtailed on the ice and crashed into the median of an otherwise deserted highway, coming to a stop in the fast lane. Hollingshead pulled over and ran up the road to help the driver when a second vehicle lost control and slammed into Hollingshead, flipping him across the hood and windshield and sending him flying down the highway.

When he came to, he was sure he had broken both arms, but doctors later attributed that to a loss of feeling from the broken bones and pinched nerves in his neck. Miraculously, Hollingshead spent less than a week in the hospital and was back on the practice field within four months; he wound up playing 18 games in 2017.

Which isn’t to say he’s fully recovered — or ever will.

“I remember him saying that he can’t turn his neck all the way,” said Scott, Hollingshead’s brother. “Just simple things like making sure he was even with the backline so he would catch guys offside and all that stuff you have to be aware of as a defender, it was just taking a lot more energy.”

Adds his wife Taylor: “He can’t go on swings with our kids or twirl our kids around. He’ll get vertigo.”

What he doesn’t get are feelings of regret over pulling over that night, even though the driver he stopped to help walked away without serious injury.

LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead and his wife, Taylor, play soccer with their children

LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead and his wife, Taylor, play soccer with their children in the backyard of their home in Palos Verdes.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

“I can’t imagine, if that same scenario came up, he wouldn’t do it again,” Taylor said.

That’s because it wasn’t the first or last time Hollingshead put his wants and desires on hold for what he considered a higher calling. Projected to be a first-round pick coming out of UCLA, where he captained the team to the 2012 Pac-12 championship and was named the conference player of the year, Hollingshead told teams not to draft him, and if they did he said he wouldn’t sign. Instead, he planned to put faith before football and join his brother in starting a nondenominational Christian church outside Sacramento.

FC Dallas took a gamble anyway, using a second-round pick on Hollingshead. Only the team couldn’t tell him about that because Hollingshead and Taylor were volunteering at an orphanage in rural Haiti at the time and had no Wi-Fi. When they got home, Hollingshead told the team thanks but no thanks and moved to Rocklin, Calif., with his brother.

By the fall, however, Doxa Church was flourishing, with a congregation that has since reached 2,000. That allowed Scott to hire another pastor, freeing Hollingshead to sign with Dallas ahead of the 2014 season.

Scott, who also played at UCLA — in fact, he takes credit for Ryan’s recruitment to the school — said he had several conversations with his brother over whether turning down MLS was really the right choice.

“I just don’t want to feel like you need to do this for me,” Scott remembers telling him. “I want you to do what you want to do.”

“There was probably still an itching for soccer that was there,” Scott said. “But he wanted to make sure he wasn’t leaving the church in a place of vulnerability.”

A forward and midfielder in college, Hollingshead slowly made the transition to defender at Dallas, playing just 289 minutes that first year, then starting 29 matches, including four in the playoffs, a year later. Yet his focus remained not on soccer but on helping others, something Scott said frustrated some members of the Dallas coaching staff.

LAFC midfielder Ryan Hollingshead, left, controls the ball during a Leagues Cup match against Monterrey in August.

LAFC midfielder Ryan Hollingshead, left, controls the ball during a Leagues Cup match against Monterrey in August.

(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, he and Taylor, who have three children of their own, began fostering an 11-month-old boy, Amari, whom they later adopted. They had earlier fostered a 4-week-old girl, who returned to her biological family.

“I hope that’s a common thread,” Taylor said of her husband’s selflessness. “Anybody who knows Ryan knows that our faith is such a big driver of everything that we do. One of the themes of our life is indeed serving our community.”

That was the kind of character and integrity LAFC was seeking when it sent defender Marco Farfan to Dallas in exchange for Hollingshead on the eve of the 2022 season. And Hollingshead rewarded them by matching a career high with six goals, helping the team to both a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.

“It is way underspoken how important a guy like Ryan, the caliber of person he is and what that does to a team,” Scott said. “LAFC was brilliant. They did their research and they knew what they were getting from Ryan. Oh, and he has an amazing knack for playing soccer.”

Just days after the MLS Cup final, the team doubled down on that bet, signing Hollingshead to a three-year contract that will guarantee him $515,000 this season, according to the MLS players association.

“It’s so fun just to watch him love to play soccer. I can’t say enough good things about the club. It’s like they have sparked something in him,” said Taylor, 34, who met Ryan while playing for coach Jill Ellis at UCLA under her maiden name, Taylor Cochran. “It’s just different. The locker room feels different. He is just so excited to be at training every day.”

An excitement born from cheating death, then waking most mornings with the aches and pains that let him know he’s still alive.

“His life is such a gift,” Taylor continued. “Our life could look so different. I could be a single mom right now. It is just a kindness from the Lord that he is still here and he’s thriving. So any leftover pain is just a reminder of how thankful we are that.”

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