He's as tough as Navy nails

Lacrosse: Eddy Holton tends to sneer at injuries, an attitude that almost cost him his military career - and his leg.

April 04, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Midshipmen must be walking encyclopedias, versed in ritual while current with modern technology and the war in Iraq.

Eddy Holton, however, neglected to absorb the entry about discretion being the better part of valor.

Holton is a fourth-year lacrosse attackman at the Naval Academy, and the Mids would probably be better than 3-11 in one-goal games during his career had he been graced with good health.

His newest nick could be a hairline jaw fracture, but Holton will start against visiting Maryland tomorrow. He is a third-generation Mid and a profile in courage, so why isn't he Navy's captain?

"Eddy is ferocious, as unique as anyone we've had here in a long time," Navy coach Richie Meade said, "but he isn't the kind who tells you when he's hurt, and one of the criteria for captain is that guy has to look me in the face and tell me everything."

Actually, Holton was on the phone with Meade in June 2001 when he didn't come clean regarding the severity of a medical emergency that not only nearly cost him his spot at the academy, but also almost took one of his legs.

A year-old ankle injury had led to surgery, and then an infection worsened to the degree that amputation was suggested. The ordeal hampered his mobility, but it wasn't daunting enough to halt Holton's ambition to serve his country.

"My dad didn't want his sons to go into the military, and I won't want my kids to do that, either," Holton said. "My dad wanted me to go to Harvard, but there was so much Navy paraphernalia around the house ... "

His paternal grandfather, Wallace Holton, was in the Class of 1948, flew over Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis and did two tours in Vietnam. He died during Eddy's plebe year, and his remains are interred on academy grounds.

Eddy's dad, Mike, got out of the academy in 1974 and met his mom, Margo, at an officers' club in the Philippines, where she served as a hostess. Mike Holton piloted jets in the "Bear Box," the area of the Indian Ocean where the traffic included Soviet bombers. He now works for the Egyptian Air Force.

As an eighth-grader, Holton wrote Meade about his desire to play Navy lacrosse. Meade watched him play football for Chaminade (N.Y.) High in a solid league on Long Island.

A safety, Holton would grow to only 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds, but he was driven, a by-product of a childhood spent on naval bases, where he "never wanted to be called a wimp" while he played with his big brother, Mike, and older boys.

"He would leave a game with a concussion, but come back the next week and play harder," said Ryan Moran, a Maryland midfielder who played in the Chaminade secondary with Holton. "One lacrosse practice, we did sprints on the track. He beat everyone in the last one, but ended up hyperventilating, just because he wanted to be first."

Holton will always pay for the severe ankle sprain that ended his plebe season in a rout of Stony Brook.

"I was 19 years old, indestructible," Holton said. "I told Coach Meade, `I'll be back in two, three days.' Being stubborn, I tried to push it."

His right leg taped up to the knee, Holton felt like he was "running on a wooden peg," and was forced to sit out the rest of the 2000 season. By fall, it was obvious he hadn't healed.

Surgery removed torn ligament and tissue from his damaged ankle. Holton took cortisone shots - "more than I should have," he said - to relieve the pain, which only worsened when he aggravated the injury toward the end of the 2001 season.

Home in Northport, N.Y., on summer leave, Holton awoke soaked in the sweat of a 102-degree fever. He was hospitalized and flushed with antibiotics, but when his condition didn't improve, a doctor warned the infection was about to spread into his bone marrow and prepared to amputate the leg below the knee.

"I'm not going to let you do it!" Holton screamed.

Holton was in a morphine haze, but lucid enough to understand the ramifications. He would wear a prosthetic leg the rest of his life, and it would be spent as a civilian.

His father advised him to accept his fate, but then a nurse - Eddy wishes he remembered her name - ran a random test for pseudomonas, a kind of bacteria found in wounds and not controlled by antibiotics.

The result was positive, different procedures were introduced and Holton's temperature was lowered. More surgery followed, but not to remove his leg, just infected bone and tissue.

Holton passed July on his back instead of on a cruiser, self-administering needles while avoiding the sun and human contact as he rebuilt his resistance. He returned to Annapolis for the last four weeks of summer school, and was miserable.

"If you sit still here," Holton said, "something's wrong."

There still was. In order to remain at the academy, Holton had to pass the physical readiness test, which required him to cover 1.5 miles in 10 minutes, 30 seconds, a seven-minute pace.

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