OKLAHOMA CITY — From the size of Wilson Holloway's smile, it was sometimes difficult to ascertain that he was fighting for his life.
Almost three years ago, Holloway received a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma, but he didn't let it keep him from playing college football at Tulsa and, those who knew him say, it didn't affect his positive outlook on life. They chose to remember that smile on Thursday, the day after he died in Oklahoma City at age 22.
"He definitely faced some adversity, but yet he always lived life the way that he chose, which was to be upbeat, be positive," said University of Central Oklahoma football coach Tracy Holland, who was Holloway's prep coach at Oklahoma Christian School in Edmond. "He was a fierce and loyal friend."
After an honor-filled high school career, Holloway, a 6-foot-6, 275-pound offensive tackle from Edmond, signed with Tulsa in 2007. He redshirted that fall and was running during Tulsa's off-season workouts the following February when he noticed he was struggling and short of breath.
"It was supposed to be hard, but I was struggling more than I should have been," he said in January 2009, when he was presented with the Courage Award from the Football Writers Association of America and the Orange Bowl.
Herb Hand, then Tulsa's co-offensive coordinator, suggested that Holloway seek medical attention, and on March 13, Holloway learned he had a softball-sized tumor in his chest.
Holloway continued working out with the Golden Hurricane, even as he endured chemotherapy treatments. By August, he was declared cancer-free and played in six games before the cancer returned that October. Another round of chemotherapy caused Holloway to lose his hair, and his fellow linemen and quarterback David Johnson shaved their heads in solidarity.
Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham, who coached Holloway at Tulsa, called him "one of the special ones who will always stay with me. What an example he was to his teammates. Here was this guy facing cancer and he whipped it twice. His spirit never dropped."
At his 2009 award ceremony, Holloway said it was that attitude that helped him persevere.
"I'm so optimistic and so upbeat, I never really let it get me down," Holloway said at the time. "My whole mentality on it is if I let it get to me, then it's winning.
Holloway remained a member of Tulsa's football team throughout his battle with cancer. He was listed in the 2009 and 2010 media guides, although he didn't play in either season. The university held a moment of silence for Holloway on Wednesday night before a home basketball game against East Carolina.
"In his four years at the University of Tulsa, Wilson's smile was contagious to those who ever met him," Tulsa athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. "He fought the disease with a tireless and enthusiastic spirit. We'll never forget Wilson's own words – 'I don't take things for granted any more. There are days I wish I could go out and do the drills everyone hates to do.' Wilson Holloway has touched all of our hearts with his passion for living."
Hand, now the offensive line coach at Vanderbilt, posted on Twitter that Holloway was "the toughest fighter I have ever known ... Your impact on Earth is immeasurable."
Los Angeles Clippers rookie All-Star Blake Griffin, who went to high school with Holloway, took the news of his friend's death hard, sobbing with his head in hands after receiving a phone call in the locker room after Wednesday night's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Holloway's funeral is scheduled for Monday afternoon at Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.
"He was so upbeat and loved life so much," Holland said. "All of his friends will have all kinds of funny stories and great stories to tell about him."