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Priest Holmes

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Priest Holmes isn’t ready for story to end


“This whole thing is like a sea of water. And I’m a Navy Seal. I’m out of the plane. I’m in the air. I’m committed. There’s no turning back. But I’m excited.”


| Priest Holmes




We are about to try once again to dive into the mind of Priest Holmes. Nobody would blame you if you skipped the rest of this story and headed straight for the sanity of the outdoors page. Everybody will understand if you’re entirely baffled or frustrated by Priest Holmes. You have already made up your mind about him. You’ve read enough about him. You want to move on. All understandable.


Hey, even Priest Holmes thinks so. He does not mind that so many people think this crazy football comeback of his is a stunt, a bid for more money, a grab for fame. He respects that some people interpret a few of his odder decisions — say, watching a Chiefs game in a suite while eating nachos or sneaking home to be with family while teammates play a preseason game — as selfish or the opposite of leadership. He knows that some of the things he says sound strange and creepy to people (like that whole bit he said about coming back to football after seeing it in a dream).


He shrugs about all that.


“If people don’t understand,” he says, “maybe it isn’t for them to understand.”


See, it’s that kind of “Kung Fu” quote that has made Priest Holmes a mystery to just about everyone, including many of his closest friends. So why go in? Well, for me, I’m fascinated by the guy. I can’t help it. He’s like the world’s hardest Sudoku puzzle. For more than 10 years now, Priest Holmes has beaten more odds than the MIT blackjack team. No one could deny that there is something extraordinary about him.


And I believe there’s something mesmerizing here. A short while before training camp, Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson called up Holmes. They had talked on occasion during the 22 months that Holmes was out of football, but now Peterson needed a definitive answer about the future. He suggested that Holmes could announce his retirement and the Chiefs could have a special ceremony for him and Will Shields during the Green Bay game.


Holmes said: “Well, actually, I’ve thought about it. I think I’ll go to training camp.”


That’s just how he said it, too — like he was deciding to go to Wendy’s instead of McDonald’s. Why would a thoughtful, 33-year-old man who has done everything there is to do in pro football come back after 22 months and risk injury and humiliation to play again? Money? Fame? Unfinished business? No, there has to be something more.


“There are a lot of reasons,” Holmes says. “I’ll explain this to you, if you want.”


He smiles to himself as he goes over the words to use.


“It’s like I’m a character in this book,” Holmes says.


Hey now, you can’t say we didn’t warn you. With Priest Holmes, you are not going to get the answers you expect. The outdoors page is still waiting if you want to turn back now.




“People have too much self-doubt. They give up too early. People say to me: ‘Priest, this is too hard. I can’t do it.’ I won’t hear that. I’ll tell them: ‘Look at me. You are looking at greatness.’ I’m proud to say that. Is that arrogance? Am I conceited? No, don’t misunderstand what I mean. You’re looking at greatness not because of what I achieved on the field. It’s because I have never, ever given up. And I’m not giving up now.”


You’re still here? OK, well, let’s begin by looking back one more time over Priest Holmes’ amazing life so far. You’ve already heard his story — more than once, no doubt — but to understand, you have to feel his story. For instance, go back to 1995. That was the year when Holmes, while playing for the University of Texas, blew out his ACL.


That should have ended things. Holmes was an undersized back to begin with. He did not have blazing speed. He was not even a starter. Then he blew out his ACL in spring practice. That’s the time when dreams end and real life begins.


Only, Holmes went on. He came back. He got 59 carries his senior year. He was not drafted by any NFL team, of course. He went to Baltimore and — inspired by veteran running back Earnest Byner (a 10th-round pick himself) — he made the Ravens as a special-teams player. The next year, he somehow forced his way into the starting lineup. He rushed for 1,000 yards.


And then he blew out his other knee.


OK, that’s ending No. 2 for his story. Undrafted free agent blows out knee a second time. Only it didn’t end. Holmes came back again, this time to become the best third-down back in the NFL. He won the Super Bowl with Baltimore that year. He then signed with Kansas City in 2001, and though few remember it now, he signed to be a change-of-pace running back for Tony Richardson.


“Oh yeah, they expected T-Rich to carry the load,” Holmes says. The first two games, Richardson and Holmes got the same number of carries. In the third week, though, Holmes forced his way into the lineup. He rushed and caught passes for more than 200 yards. He went on to lead the NFL in rushing that year.


OK, stop. That part has been told so many times that it barely registers. But this is impossible. Priest Holmes, an undrafted and undersized running back who had severely injured both knees, led the NFL in rushing. The next year, he was even better — he was better than just about any running back had ever been. He had more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 13 1/2 games. He was on pace to score 30 touchdowns.


And what happened? He injured his hip so badly that, as Holmes explains it, two doctors told him to give up football. So that’s ending No. 3.


He came back from that injury in 2003 and set the NFL record for most touchdowns.


When you put it like this — one improbable comeback after another — it seems ludicrous, like the Black Knight from Monty Python who keeps fighting even after both of his arms have been cut off. Holmes was badly injured again in the middle of a fabulous 2004 season (it was his right MCL this time), and he came back again and was awfully good in a shared backfield with Larry Johnson in 2005. He got hurt again.


This was a different kind of injury. There was no pain. There was only a prickly numbness that buzzed through his arms and legs when he was hit just right. The numbness came often that year — once every game, at least — and it was scarier than the pain. Finally, he took a massive hit, and Holmes says he remembers nothing at all about the next 30 minutes or so. It wasn’t that he blanked out. He simply wasn’t there.


“What was I doing?” he asked his friend Tony Richardson.


“You weren’t doing anything,” Richardson said. “You were just staring at the field like a zombie.”


Well, that wasn’t good at all. The doctors located a neck problem, but they could not pinpoint what, exactly, the injury meant. They told Holmes a lot of different things, but mostly they told him to rest. The world “paralysis” came up too many times to ignore. Priest Holmes rested for 22 months. He didn’t talk to his football friends. He didn’t come out to watch his old team play. He didn’t return phone calls.


“There were things I needed to do,” he says. He doesn’t go any deeper.


That finally brings us up to the moment, and Priest Holmes is out on the field wearing shoulder pads and a helmet. He’s running a few plays, and he’s all alone except for the rookie quarterback throwing him passes. He’s sweating in the heat. He looks tired. He looks old. And if there was ever a moment to ask “Why,” it would be this one.


“Don’t you see?” Holmes asks. “This is a great story.”




“Many people are not willing to risk. That’s the simple truth. I’m here to risk. If this was a poker table, I’m all in. I hear people say there’s good risk and there’s bad risk. I disagree. I think that if you’re living, and you have an opportunity to make your mark, you should choose to make your mark. I’m still living.”


| Priest Holmes




This whole “character in a book” thing is not just some odd analogy for Priest Holmes. He honestly seems to see himself this way. He talks about this wild comeback as “a new chapter,” like he was an author who had looked over his manuscript and finally said: “Something’s missing. I need one more amazing comeback in here.”


“So you see this as your biggest chapter?”


“No, I wouldn’t say this is the biggest one,” Holmes says. “I think it’s just another chapter. This is a path I’ve gone down many times. Is it bigger than coming out of the NFL undrafted? Is it bigger than coming to a new team as a backup and leading the NFL in rushing? Is it bigger than coming back from a hip injury that people said would end my career and setting the NFL touchdown record? I don’t think so. It’s just another chapter.”


This may be bigger. He’s coming back after 22 months of doing, in his words, nothing. He’s returning to a team that has Larry Johnson, one of the two or three best running backs in the NFL. Few think he can do it, and few understand why he would even try.


He shrugs again.


“It’s no different,” he says.


Money comes up. Holmes says that he likes money. He likes talking about money. But he says this comeback has nothing to do with money (and this seems to make sense since he signed a contract to pay for the minimum veteran’s salary).


“It doesn’t bother me what people believe,” he says. “But I’m risking a whole lot more than any number they can put on a contract.”


He then tells a story. When he hurt his hip in 2002, he had an insurance policy that would have paid him $15 million for a career-ending injury.


“That’s tax-free,” Holmes says with a smile. “I could have taken that. I had doctors tell me that my career was over. Believe me, I thought about it. But at the end of the day, that’s not why I’m here on this earth.”


He then talks about inspiration.


“The biggest reason I’m here is to help this team get to Glendale (site of the Super Bowl). I think I can do that a number of different ways. I think I can help this team on the field. The way I feel about football is this: You don’t lose it. You just have to wake it up. I’m waking it up now. I can help this team.


“The other way, though, is by showing the younger players that they can do anything. Look at me. I’m here. I don’t have to be here. I could have retired. I have money. I have records. I have fame. But I’m here, making something out of nothing. If the guys can tune into that, I think I can help them find their own path.”


So, if he wanted to help the younger players, why did he disappear for so long? Why would he not stand on the sidelines with his teammates? Why was he not more of a presence and a leader? He smiles.


“That’s not the way I lead,” he says. “I’m a football player. I’m not a preacher. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not going to gather everyone up in a huddle and say, ‘Come on guys, we’re going to the Super Bowl!’ Anyone can chant that. I don’t chant.


“What was I going to do when I was hurt? Stand on the sidelines? Cheer on the guys? How does that help anybody? I’m a football player. I play. That’s the only way I know how to lead. And when I can’t play, I disappear. It’s best for everyone.”




“I look at it like we’re all climbing a mountain together. I’ve got my backpack on — in there I’ve got all my struggles, all my pain, all my discomfort, all my own indecision, all my own doubts, stuff like that. I’m packing it all, and I’m going over the mountain because I want to see what’s on the other side.


“I think a lot of people look at the mountain, and they see how high it is, and they say: ‘You know what? I’m going to set up camp right here. This looks nice. There’s a river over here. I’ve got a roof over my head. I’m going to enjoy where I’m at.’ That’s fine for them. That’s not for me.”


| Priest Holmes




Can Holmes do it? Well, the odds — Holmes’ lifelong nemesis — are against him. The Chiefs already have star running back Larry Johnson, they have Michael Bennett, they have talented rookie Kolby Smith. Holmes is still on the physically-unable-to-perform list. He still hasn’t practiced with the team.


“I like him,” Chiefs coach Herm Edwards says. “But I don’t really know him. He has done a lot in this league, and it’s obvious he’s a very special person. But he’s got to prove he can play.”


Edwards tells a funny but telling story. Before a meeting, Holmes and Edwards bumped into each other. And Holmes said, out of the blue, “You know what coach, I like you.”


“He’s different,” Edwards says. “I had a comeback, too. I was going to say: ‘You know what Priest? That’s great. But I’m the coach, and all that matters is if I like you.’ But I didn’t say that. There’s just something unique about this person.”


Holmes says it will all work out. He talks about how he doesn’t care about what role he plays. He can help the team by picking up blitzes and catching the ball out of the backfield and running the ball a few times every game as a change of pace, the role he played during Baltimore’s Super Bowl.


There are some people who think that after he takes a couple of hits, he will see what’s facing him and walk back into retirement.


“I have to admit, I find that laughable,” he says. “Are there people out there who know more about taking hits than I do? Guess what: I know what it feels like to take a hit. I know what it takes to beat the odds. I know how hard you have to work to play in this league. I’m not sure what people think, but I didn’t come here to sell coffee or make clothes or do interviews. I came here to play football. I made that decision already.”


Then he talks some more about how much it will inspire people — not just teammates, but also kids across the country — when they hear his story. He says there are too many negative stories out there. Here’s a positive story — the story of a man coming back against impossible odds one more time.


“Nothing is unachievable,” he says.


And so that leads to the final question, the obvious one: What happens if he doesn’t beat the odds this time? What if he fails to make the team and has to return to retired life? Holmes looks confused, as if the question is being asked in Portuguese.


“Nothing is unachievable,” he says again. “I’m living proof.”






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There are some gems in that articue for sure. Hard not to root for a person like that...the man never gave up. I am ashamed with myself for some of the times I have quit...over far less demanding circumstances.


Great read. Thanks HT.

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