Demons’ assistant coach leans on NSU support in fight against lung cancer

VITAL SUPPORT:  First-year Northwestern State assistant coach Tony Holliday thrives on his basketball family as he battles cancer. (Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State)

By JASON PUGH, Special to the Journal

NATCHITOCHES – This past June, Tony Holliday was in a new job, far away from home, facing another in a long line of medical challenges for the longtime basketball coach and his family.

Less than two months after being hired as an assistant coach at Northwestern State, the Michigan native was diagnosed with lung cancer – an analysis that came two years to the month that Holliday had lost his wife, Sandra Ramsey Holliday, to a second occurrence of breast cancer on June 4, 2020.

In addition to his own fight and the two bouts his late wife had with the disease, Holliday’s brother, Charles, and uncle, Arthur Lee, battled cancer. There’s more. Two of Sandra Holliday’s four sisters and her mother each endured the trials of breast cancer.

What Holliday, 65, has faced in his personal life would lead many to understand if he was embittered or questioned his faith. Instead, the opposite is true.

“I never wavered in my faith, because I knew the type of mindset I had to have going in,” Holliday said. “My uncle is 20 years down the road and healthy and living a great life. My brother, Charles Holliday, is 10 years removed (from his diagnosis) and down the road.

“My brother told me, ‘You’re a Holliday. You’re going to be fine. You can get through this. If Uncle Arthur Lee can get through it – if I can get through it – you can get through it, too.’”

A longtime prep coach in Michigan, whose pupils include 2000 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player Mateen Cleaves, Holliday has spent the better part of four decades encouraging and guiding players in basketball and in life.

He did the same for his wife as she battled a disease she learned of early in life – one that was prevalent in the Gordon family.

“My wife was in her senior year at Michigan State and had to leave school early to be the caretaker for her mother,” Holliday said. “She has four sisters, and her two older sisters also had the same cancer, breast cancer in the left breast. (Sandra) beat it the first time around. We thought we did everything we could do, as far as we were concerned, to extend her life with chemo, radiation and surgery. That was the first time around. Two years later, it came back, and she had no chance.”

What Sandra Ramsey left for her husband was a blueprint – or a gameplan in coaching parlance – for how to handle what came to him two years later.

“For me,” Holliday said taking a deep breath before continuing, “the one thing her process taught me was just understanding what you and only you can do in terms of preparation, how to handle it in terms of diet and exercise, handling treatment, having to accept the reality of life.

“Life is a gift from God. His word is, ‘Every man and woman born by a woman shall surely die.’ I saw my brother go through it, saw my uncle go through it, a lot of my former players and their parents and family members went through it. I was encouraging them and my wife. Now, it’s my turn. It helped me make sure I got a clear understanding of what this whole journey is about.”

The journey led him to Natchitoches as part of a new staff that quickly became something more.

A longstanding relationship with first-year head coach Corey Gipson brought Holliday to Northwestern and gave him what turned out to be a much-needed support system.

“I had visited New Orleans numerous times before, but this was the first time I’d been to Natchitoches,” Holliday said. “Having no family here, our coaching staff, our players and the Northwestern State staff is my family. That’s where I get my support from.”

That support has manifested in ways seen and unseen.

Gipson was there in the hospital when Holliday had his initial surgery following his diagnosis. The Demons’ Oct. 21 Roundball Madness event where this year’s Demon team faced an alumni group, including players from the 2005-06 Demons of Destiny, saw a portion of ticket sales donated to Holliday’s recovery.

“Coach Tony Holliday is a warrior,” Gipson said. “He’s never had a bad day in the program. In the early stages of the cancer, internally he had some rough days. One time, I had a person close to me tell me, ‘I don’t feel as good as I look.’ I’m sure coach Holliday has had some days like that. Sometimes we can see a person who looks like they feel good, but internally they may be having some rough days. He’s a breath of fresh air to be around.

“He’s an inspiration to the program. What he’s had to go through and sacrifice to be a Demon, we’re so grateful for that. Keep him in your prayers. He’s had some really good days here recently, and he’s on the up and up.”

While Holliday has spent the better part of his life encouraging – and correcting as needed – his players and their families, Tony Holliday the patient learned to lean on Tony Holliday the coach early in his fight.

“We’re always quick in life to encourage someone or give someone advice,” Holliday said. “Oftentimes, we don’t give ourselves that same advice. Even though I have a great support system, sometimes you’re your best support system by what you tell and feed your mind. Even though I had to endure a lot of pain the first six weeks, that coaching instinct kicked in. You have to see yourself down the road. You have to visualize where it is you want to go and where you want to be.

“With God’s grace, you know at some point, you’ll get there, but you have to be patient and positive in the process. To God be the glory, I’m feeling good, and I’m excited about what the future holds.”

That includes inspiring a Demon team bidding for its 20th win Thursday night at Incarnate Word, very much in contention for the Southland Conference title and on a two-win track in the conference tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in program history and first since 2013.

“The biggest compliment you can give coach Holliday in his battle is you would never know (he was fighting cancer),” sophomore guard Isaac Haney said. “The way he shows up every day and gives it his all. Just because he’s battling something inside doesn’t mean he’s not in here getting onto us for simply not rebounding or not boxing out. He’s really good at exploiting the fundamentals and the little things. He knows they add up and they mean a lot. To see him come in here and give us everything he has, who are we not to give everything we’ve got in good health?”

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