Greg Holdsman never expected to be doing a podcast. The Mt. Airy native had natural sports ability, and until a few years ago was focused on becoming a great basketball player. But after the rising college star was hit with multiple concussions, he was forced to give up the game and sunk into depression. A newly-discovered talent for talking with others is what helped him battle back.
Now approaching its 75th episode with a perfect 5.0 rating on iTunes, Holdsman’s Philly Famous Podcast started almost on a whim.
He hadn’t done much planning for his first interview, with his former basketball coach Lynard Stewart, but he figured it couldn’t be that hard. “I just remember thinking it wouldn’t be that difficult to just buy a microphone and start,” Holdsman told Billy Penn. “The first half of the the interview, the mic was giving feedback because I had the volume up on the laptop — I didn’t even know that was something I had to [check].”
He recorded that first episode on the third floor of his Mt. Airy home, in what he calls a “makeshift studio.” “We’d have to get real crowded together and lean forward,” Holdsman said. “It was pretty uncomfortable, but it got the job done.”
Seventy-four installments later, Holdsman still uses his makeshift studio, but he has new mics, a slew of sponsors, an adjacent TV show and more high-profile guests than he ever dreamed.
Pursuant to its goal of showcasing the city’s most dynamic creators and leaders, Philly Famous has featured an assortment of well-known and respected guests, including:
- Joey Crawford (NBA referee)
- Nick Bayer (CEO of Saxbys)
- Jane Golden (Mural Arts founder and executive director)
- Marc Zumoff (Sixers play-by-play announcer)
- Will Toms (cofounder of Rec Philly)
- Wendell Holland (winner of Survivor: Ghost Island)
- Aaron Carter (Inquirer sportswriter).
A promising start cut short by head hits
Growing up, Holdsman played both baseball and basketball. After first playing Little League, he shifted his focus in high school — and fell for the indoor sport, hard. He recalled one especially grueling summer workout in the gym at Penn Charter. Most kids would probably have hated it, Holdsman said, but he loved it.
“It was the first time in my life I knew what hard work meant.” he said. “That’s probably the first moment I fell in love with the game.”
Holdsman left Penn Charter for Central High School in Olney after his freshman year, where he played starting point guard and helped lead the Lancers to a 4A public league championship appearance in his junior year. After graduation, he went on to play at Denison University in Ohio.
Then he got hit with a concussion.
In a home game against Muskingum, Holdsman was playing defense when the player he was guarding cut one way and then quickly cut back. The player’s shoulder hit Holdsman in the head, knocking him unconscious.
“The next thing I remembered I was in the hospital” Holdsman said. “I got stitches in my upper lip and my smile was crooked for a little, but I was back to playing on the court in a week.”
He didn’t view it as a big deal — “I didn’t even think about the concussion, it wasn’t a part of my life” — and a week later he was back on the court. That summer, he worked out every day, harder than he ever had before, looking to get significant playing time in his sophomore season.
Holdsman returned to campus prepared for a big year. Then the second concussion struck.
While playing in an open gym, Holdsman dived for a loose ball at the same time as another player, and his head smacked into that player’s shoulder. “I didn’t black out, so I didn’t identify it as a concussion right away,” he recalled. “All I knew was that I felt really off and I kept telling my teammates that something wasn’t right, but I kept playing.”
A few days later he finally went to the team’s trainer. That weird feeling of not being 100 percent “there”? The common post-concussion side effect called dissociation.
Holdsman struggled to finish the semester, and didn’t join when the rest of the team came back early during winter break. In the spring of that year he whipped himself back into shape and decided to leave Dennison and play basketball at Muhlenberg. He’d been accepted — and had even talked out a game plan with his new coach — when he was clobbered again.
While working out with a friend, a medicine ball bounced back and clipped Holdsman hard on the head. Count it as concussion number three.
“Luckily, this time I didn’t make the immediate mistake of going right back to exercising,” Holdsman said. He took a week off, then got back in the gym because he felt he had already taken too much time off and needed to prepare for the season. About a week later, he went to Barcelona — and experienced his first encounter with depression.
“I was miserable the entire time because my symptoms were so bad,” he said. “Even when I wasn’t thinking about anything sad, I would just get an overwhelming feeling of sadness.”
On his return from Spain, Holdsman saw a doctor, and came to the sad conclusion that his basketball career had come to an untimely end. He decided to transfer to Temple so he could recover closer to home.
Dark days alone become interview gold
As if things weren’t already bad enough, Holdsman suffered a fourth concussion that summer, when he hit his cranium on a low ceiling at a friend’s house.
The sensitivity he’d already been dealing with worsened. He had to sit in a dark room for almost ten hours a day at times, because of how sensitive his brain had become — which led him to discover a new way to pass the time.
“TV killed [hurt] my head, my phone killed my head so I just listened to podcasts,” he said. “It was my source of entertainment and my source of learning.”
During these long recovery sessions, Holdsman would listen to all kinds of podcasts — from Barstool’s Pardon My Take to Terry Gross on NPR — and eventually had an epiphany: he could start one of his own. He just had to find his niche.
Shortly after his fourth concussion, he put his thoughts into action and the Philly Famous Podcast was born.
Seventy-five episodes and almost three years since that first concussion, Holdsman appreciates every step in his journey. He believes his background and everything he’s been through has actually given him an advantage as an interviewer.
“I played basketball in the Philly rec league,” Holdsman remembered, “then I would go and play baseball with wealthy kids in Blue Bell.” Attending both Penn Charter (a private school) and Central (one of the most diverse public schools in the nation) provided a wide variety of experiences. “I had friends that shared a bed with their brother and I had a friend that had a ice hockey rink in his basement.”
“What I’ve recently learned is that my versatility in connecting with various types of people helps my interview style,” Holdsman said.
Holdsman’s podcast was picked up by Temple TV — he’s already gotten one episode down with Aaron Mckie, who’ll take over as Owls head coach next season. He’s also scored corporate sponsorships from Toto’s Pizzeria, Super Coffee and State Farm, among others.
Holdsman still struggles with symptoms from his concussions, including depression, and says he still isn’t fully back to feeling like himself yet. He takes a pill each day to help him deal with the daily migraines and other symptoms.
But when he’s doing his podcast, he’s able to put all that out of his mind and be truly happy again, like he was when he was playing basketball.
“I want people to know,” said Holdsman, “that if they lose something they love there’s ways to get through it — to find new passions. No matter what, I want to be considered one of the top interviewers in the world.”