Montrae Holland overcomes adversity

IRVING, Texas -- So much looked the same to Montrae Holland as he stood inside Dallas' Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children earlier this month.

The pictures on the walls. The popcorn smell that filled the hallways. As he delivered small gifts, he saw glimpses of himself staring back at him in unfamiliar faces of kids of all ages and races.

Holland was a patient at Texas Scottish Rite for three months in 1993 after undergoing a life-changing operation on his right leg. Without it he never would have played football again, let alone embark upon an eight-year career with three NFL teams, including the past two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.

On Dec. 6, Holland and many of his Cowboys teammates paid visits to area hospitals to lift the spirits of the children and their families during the holiday season. It had added meaning that Holland was able to visit the one that helped him the most.

"I met a guy that was going home today," Holland said. "I know that feeling, leaving here and going back to your friends. I know exactly how every last one of these people feel."

Holland was in the seventh grade when the pain in his right leg became so bad he was ready to quit playing sports. He loved playing football, but the game did not necessarily love him back. He had so much pain in his legs that his mother, Tonett, would rub them for hours to ease the pain.

Nothing worked.

"One day I just broke down and told my dad 'I'm not playing anymore,'" Holland said. "He said, 'We've got to get this fixed.'"

The Hollands were referred to Texas Scottish Rite after seeing a doctor in Longview, Texas. There he was diagnosed with Blount's disease, a growth disorder in the tibia that turns the lower leg inward. If left untreated, it can cause a severe bowing of the legs.

"I was kind of like a hard-nosed dad," Milton Holland said. "When you're younger like that and you're trying to push him into a direction where you think he needs to be, I went, 'Boy, you get back out there and play the game. You just need to work,' not realizing it was a serious disease."

Blount's disease typically occurs in overweight children or adolescents and affects the growth plate. Holland had surgery on both legs. An osteotomy -- a procedure in which a portion of the tibia is removed and the lower leg is realigned -- was performed on his right leg.

"If someone tomorrow, now 17 years later, had the same picture that Montrae had, that child would get the same treatment today," said Dr. Steve Richards, who performed the operation on Holland.

The only guarantee Dr. Richards could make Holland was that he would walk with a slight limp.

Milton and Tonett stayed in the area as Montrae recovered. He had to learn how to walk again. He kept up with his schoolwork in the hospital. He was in a wheelchair for a long stretch and did not play football as an eighth-grader. Milton remembers taking his son to see the football team practice anyway.

"I could tell he was really wanting to be back to playing football," Milton said. "When he came back on the field in that ninth-grade year, just the way he played, I told him,' Son, you've got that lineman look. I think you can be a great one.'"

Holland was called up to the Jefferson (Texas) High School varsity as a freshman. He developed into one of the best linemen in the country and attended Florida State. As a junior, he was named the Seminoles' most valuable offensive player. As a senior, he earned a degree in criminology and was a first-team All-ACC pick.

At the 2003 NFL scouting combine, Holland's surgery was a red flag to some teams, but New Orleans took him in the fourth round (102nd overall) anyway.

"They tore me apart, told me I wasn't going to play after I got all this work done," Holland said. "They said I probably won't last two or three years. I'm going on year eight right now, so …"

In 2007 he signed with Denver, and he was traded to the Cowboys on Aug. 28, 2008.

Holland has started two games this year at left guard and played in 12. In the past two games he has taken snaps at fullback on goal-line plays. Signed through next year, Holland could have his best chance to be a full-time starter in 2011.

He and his wife, Janette, are in the process of starting a foundation to help less fortunate families. He would like to raise more awareness about Blount's disease.

The visit to Texas Scottish Rite only cemented his feelings that he should do more. It's something his family has known for the past 17 years.

Dr. Richards was in surgery when Holland visited Texas Scottish Rite this month, and the two have not been able to connect since because of scheduling conflicts. But the doctor uses Holland as a frame of reference for his patients today.

"I've told kids, 'One of the patients I did this surgery on, he is now playing football for the Cowboys,' and their eyes light up," Dr. Richards said. "I think it's a fantastic story. I'm glad to be a part of it. … We see a ton of these guys [that want to continue to play sports], but there's only one Montrae. For him to achieve what he has achieved, obviously he had those gifts inside him."

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.