Health & Fitness

From Bone Disorder To NFL Bone Crusher

As a child, former Dallas Cowboy Montrae Holland suffered silently with Blount's Disease for years, all for his love of the game.

Montrae Holland, standing over 6-foot-1 and weighing more than 300 pounds, is a big and gentle guy who has a special heart for children. The father of six also spends time mentoring youth and encouraging them to attack their goals no matter what obstacle stands in the way.

Montrae Holland.

The 36-year-old knows a little something about reaching for dreams even when those dreams seem elusive. When Montrae was 11 years old, he was diagnosed with Blount’s disease, a growth disorder that left him wrestling with pain, and threatened to halt his ambition of becoming a professional athlete.

The disorder causes the tibia, or shin bone, to angle inward and twist. Meanwhile, the thigh bone continues to grow outward, making the leg bow.

Fortunately, Montrae overcame the effects of that disorder, and now pays forward the wisdom he gained during a trying time. The retired National Football League lineman reaches out to young athletes at schools, events and non-profit organizations.

“I try to give back anyway I can through my experiences to help these kids,” he said. “I know they need that kind of encouragement.”

Born To Play Football

In Texas, football is king. In Ore City, a sleepy town not far from the Texas-Louisiana border, there weren’t a lot of opportunities or resources to help find those opportunities elsewhere. Some youth hung their hopes on playing professional sports. And in the Holland household, Montrae was no exception.

His father, Milton Holland, played football in high school and then joined a semi-professional team. His love of the game–and the cloak of his machismo–made it difficult for those around Montrae to recognize the severity of his leg pain.

The senior Holland said initially, he thought his son could shake it off.

“You know how it is,” Milton recalled. “We always wanted to push him. The first thing I said was, ‘boy you just got to get up and do what you have to do.'”

His love of the game–and the cloak of his machismo–made it difficult for those around Montrae to recognize the severity of his leg pain.

The pain in Montrae’s leg didn’t come out of nowhere. It was gradual, and ultimately, excruciating.

Montrae, also affectionately known as ‘Lil’ Milton,’ wanted to please his dad and tried hard to remain tough–until he couldn’t. One day, the seventh grader couldn’t stand it. In the off season, he stopped in his tracks while running sprints.

Montra Holland in his first uniform.

“It was hurting so bad and I stopped and just started crying,” he said. “At first the whole football attitude was ‘stop being soft.’ A lot of people didn’t realize I was in so much pain.”

That was, until a coach pulled Montrae out of a game. The coach urged the Hollands to get his leg checked out. It was that serious.

The only thing that seemed to help Montrae’s pain was having his mother rub liniment on his aching limb.

“He began to cry a lot,” his mother, Tonette Holland said. “I would rub and massage him … It was very touching.”

After seeing a doctor in a nearby town, the Hollands were referred to a specialist in Dallas. At some point, cancer was mentioned as a possibility, Montrae recalls.

“I saw the reaction to ‘this could be cancer.’ (My dad) apologized at that time. He broke down. My mom and dad and everybody broke down.”

If caught early, braces can correct Blount’s disease. At 12 years old, Montrae required radical surgery at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. His lower right leg was broken, reset and a plate and nine screws were added. The growth plates were fused on both legs to cease growth. Thankfully, the seventh-grader was already at a grown man’s size.

Now with an accurate diagnosis, Montrae began a long and daunting journey.

A Faith Walker

The isolating recovery lasted about 13 months, with seven months in a wheelchair, and three months on crutches. He channeled his energy into fighting his way back to the football field.

Montrae was homeschooled during that time, so he was disappointed to be separated from classmates. Nonetheless, there were glimmers of hope and happiness.

A group of friends would visit his family’s three-bedroom singlewide mobile home nestled alongside a farm-to-market road in rural East Texas to play sports in the Holland’s yard. The immobile Montrae watched from a window. But it didn’t trouble him. Instead, he was motivated that he’d join them one day.

What Blount’s Disease looks like on an X-Ray. The disorder causes the tibia, or shin bone, to angle inward and twist

Reliving that scenario makes him swell with emotion, though.

“That kept me up,” he said, fighting tears. “That’s the time I made up my mind not to take anything for granted. I made a promise to myself at that time. There was no way I couldn’t get back. When released, I was going to hit the ground running. It was motivating.”

Once, his coach loaded his teammates from an athletic period on two buses and came to the house. One by one, they trickled in the small home, some waiting outside for their turn as they encouraged the sidelined athlete.

The first time Montrae tested the efficiency of his “new” legs post-surgery, he was horse playing with a friend. After a rock he’d thrown hit a car windshield, he took off running, passing his buddy.

“When (my legs) healed , it was like a brand new set of tires. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s on now.'”

“When (my legs) healed , it was like a brand new set of tires. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s on now.'”

Montrae was just happy to be running and playing again. He didn’t forget what he went through. He was enjoying life without pain. It was a new beginning.

“Looking back, what I always had was a vision; doing what I always said I was going to do, even when the doctor was like, ‘hey, I can’t promise you football. I really don’t want you to play.'”

His parents let him make the decision on whether he wanted to play again. They were proud of their son’s dedication.

“I saw him hit the football field again, the way his movement was, his range when making tackles, and we felt pretty good about it,” Milton said.

By the end of his ninth grade year, Montrae transferred to another school, Jefferson High School, where there was a better opportunity to be noticed by scouts. From a debilitating disorder to Florida State University, Holland’s hard work paid off.

“He’s a determined person,” Tonette said. “I call him a faith walker.”

A Dream Career

During his career as an offensive lineman, Montrae was the “short wide guy.”

“I caught so much from other college players, especially,” he said.

But his stature gave him leverage and he could easily “get under folks,” making him a dominant force in both college and in the NFL. Montrae played nine seasons, including four with the New Orleans Saints, one with the Denver Broncos, and finally, his last four with Dallas Cowboys–a team he grew up rooting for.

Early in his career, he didn’t speak publicly about what he experienced in middle school. He didn’t want to use it as a tool for sympathy or special treatment.

 

“I never wanted nobody to use it as a charity or pity,” he said. “To me, it was like looking in the rearview mirror.”

But in an NFL combine, coaches learned about his medical history, which earned him a red flag. His value as an potential NFL player decreased. Fortunately, his former Florida State University trainer was working with the Saints, and he nudged the head coach to draft Holland.

“I say God placed him right there,” Holland said of the trainer.

Helping Others Through Their Pain

After the NFL, Montrae worked for Nike, going around the country to coach high school age athletes. Along the way, he kept in touch with these kids.

He especially had a soft spot for athletes dealing with Blount’s disease. He’d encourage them on their journey and empathize with those who may not be able to live out their dreams.

“A lot of them are depressed,” he said. “With that type of depression, you have to start thinking about another way. That’s why I try to share with these kids.”

As a father of children ranging in ages 4 through 12, his experience has given him new perspectives on parenting and how to truly appreciate life. He’s encouraging them, but is mindful not to be overbearing when it comes to sports. He said it’s important to listen, instill in them the value of hard work, then step back.

“I actually try to lay it out for them and say ‘this is want you have to do, but this is your journey’ … The secret to being great at anything is putting time into it. That’s it. Go to work. Put time in and have a vision and just work toward it.”

Today, Montrae’s body has some wears and tears, mostly from the grueling years in the NFL, but he’s happy and healthy. Most people don’t even notice his limp.

He wants to continue speaking out about Blount’s disease, and advocating to student athletes about having options outside of sports.

“As a young man he has compassion for other people,” his mother said. “He has a heart for everybody.”

Montrae had always been optimistic, but even at a young age, he was able to handle the setbacks well. He wants others–particularly student athletes trying to find their way in the world–to be resistant to apathy, and resilient in the face of life’s unexpected turns.

“Don’t overreact if something is not going with what is planned,” he insists. “You deal with life and find the good in it.”