Sept. 19, 2001
ATLANTA – The holder is perhaps the most anonymous player on a football team. In fact, if people talk about him, it’s probably a bad thing.
But Hal Higgins was ecstatic to have his name mentioned on the Georgia Tech radio broadcast during the Yellow Jackets’ victory over Syracuse.
“When Wes Durham said my name on the radio, I got all kinds of calls from people that I hadn’t heard from in a long time,” said the Tech walk-on who has been on the team since 1999 but was playing in a game for the first time in the Kickoff Classic.
Since then, Higgins has become Tech’s full-time holder, even taking part in Luke Manget’s Atlantic Coast Conference record streak of consecutive extra points. But most of those who called Higgins knew that his story was anything but that of the typical walk-on player who battles the odds to earn a starting position for a major college program.
That’s because in April of 1999, just a few weeks after he joined the Tech squad as an aspiring punter, Hal Higgins ceased to be a typical walk-on.
“I got sick right before spring practice started,” recalled Higgins. “I wasn’t feeling well, and one night, I was running such a high temperature but still getting cold, too, so I called the campus police and had them take me to the hospital. I stayed six days, but they never knew what was wrong. They thought I had some kind of virus. Finally, I started feeling better, and then two weeks later spring practice started.”
Higgins went through 15 sessions of spring practice, competing with fellow walk-on Dan Dyke for punting duties.
“I was feeling pretty good until the last day,” he said. “I got a big knot right here [pointing to his neck] that swelled up. It was the same place they had aspirated before because my lymph nodes were swollen. The aspiration had been negative, but this time took they took it out and sent it off for a biopsy, and it came back positive.
“That’s when the doctor told me I had Hodgkin’s disease.”
Higgins admits that at the time, he had no idea what to expect.
“I didn’t know what Hodgkin’s disease was,” he said. “I thought it was some kind of virus or something, so I was like, OK, treat me and I’m out of here. But the doctor said, no, it’s a type of cancer and you need chemotherapy. He told me that it was going to be serious, but he also told me it’s one of the most curable types of cancer.”
Higgins dropped out of school and began chemotherapy treatments at Northside Hospital.
“It was rough. I went on Thursdays every other week for about four hours. I got four different drugs. The worst part was going in the room and seeing everybody else. It was a big room full of recliners. You go pick one out, and you might sit beside a guy who’s dying. It’s not a very happy place.”
Still, Higgins chose to focus on the positive.
“It gave me a shock, but I read up on Hodgkins,” said Higgins. “I know Mario Lemeiux had it, and Andres Galarraga had a form of it. So I just took a positive attitude, and told myself I’m going to get through this and try to get back to playing football.
“I always had the mindset that I wasn’t going to let this win. I never thought dealing with cancer would get the best of me. I never thought, I just want to be healthy, I always wanted to play football. The whole time I thought about staying in shape and making it back as quick as I could. I always kept in my mind that I wanted to play football for Georgia Tech.”
During his treatment, Higgins tried to stay as active as possible.
“The more exercise I got, the better I felt, but everybody else kept talking about how they had no energy at all and couldn’t do anything,” he said. “After a treatment on Thursday, I’d be down until Monday, but then I could do things.
“The worst things were smell and taste. I could smell anything, and I always had an awful taste in my mouth.”
Higgins also tried to stay involved with football.
“I asked Coach O’Leary if I could stay around because I still wanted to be part of the team, so I helped out in the football office,” said Higgins, who kept in close touch with teammates Alex Tetterton, Ross Mitchell and Dan Dyke throughout his treatment.
As much as Higgins wanted to be around football, it was difficult at times, too.
“The lowest point, besides finding out, was coming around in the fall and seeing the guys out on the field for the first time,” said Higgins. “I felt like I wasn’t part of the team as much any more. I wasn’t in school, plus that was about my 10th or 11th treatment [out of 14], so that really starts getting you down and discouraged.”
But there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I finished chemo in December, and then in January (2000), I got cleared by the doctor to resume physical activity,” said Higgins, who dropped about 15 pounds during his illness. “I had to get checkups once every three months for that whole year, then once every six months, and now once a year.”
Once he was in remission, Higgins set his sights on playing football, rejoining the team for spring practice in March of 2000. That fall, he was Tech’s third punter, behind Dyke and Chris Morehouse, but did not get into a game.
“Honestly, it was the beginning of this summer, 2001, when I finally felt that nothing was wrong and that I was fully recuperated and had gotten all my weight and strength back,” said Higgins, a native of Cornelia, Ga., whose father is the long-time mayor of the tiny Northeast Georgia town.
With Dyke and Morehouse spliting the punting chores, Higgins looked for another way to get on the field.
“One day in a team meeting, Coach O’Leary asked who could hold.”
After what he had been through, Hal Higgins certainly wasn’t afraid to raise his hand.