A small miracle
The cocky kids, a couple of athletic 11th graders with the requisite mix of energy and attitude, couldn't accept the truth. They had heard that a star NFL running back was in Austin, visiting a friend in their apartment building, but when they went looking for him last month, all they found was a sheepish-looking guy with bulging biceps. They giggled when he said he was Priest Holmes of the Kansas City Chiefs.
"O.K., if you're really him, stand up and let's see how big you are," one demanded. When the 5'9" Holmes complied, the boys shrugged, still unconvinced. Then the other teen issued a challenge: "I bet I can beat you in a 40." Minutes later, they were all outside, pacing off the distance in the parking lot. Holmes, clad in street clothes and gym shoes, sprinted four times on that humid evening, until his back ached and his joints throbbed. "I must be crazy," Homes says today. "But I think I showed them something."
There is a familiar pattern to Holmes's life: He impresses nobody on first sight, but given time and opportunity, he finds a way to reveal his gifts. He raced those kids to inspire them, to show them what determination and desire can accomplish. Size really doesn't matter, Holmes seemed to be saying with each of those sprints. Heart does.
Of course, Holmes also wanted to win. He loves showing challengers that they can't compete with him, which explains his excitement about the upcoming season, his sixth in the league. With wide receivers Johnnie Morton and Eddie Kennison expected to improve Kansas City's disappointing passing attack, Holmes should find even more room to embarrass defenders, which he did often during his breakout season in 2001. An unheralded free agent deemed too fragile to be an every-down back in Baltimore, Holmes led the NFL and set team records for rushing yards (1,555) and total yards from scrimmage (2,169) while catching 62 passes and scoring 10 touchdowns en route to his first Pro Bowl. "We want him touching the ball 30 times a game," says Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil. "It doesn't take a genius to realize that good things will keep happening if we do that."
Holmes brought elusiveness, speed, supple hands, great vision and an opportunistic spirit to the Chiefs last fall. "I don't know if they knew what they were getting, but I was ready to explode," he says. The detonation came in Week 3, when Holmes ran for 147 yards, caught five passes for 78 yards and scored three touchdowns in a win over Washington. He gouged Pittsburgh for 150 yards and San Diego for 181. In a 28-26 loss to Oakland, Holmes piled up more yards (168 rushing, 109 receiving, two scores) than the entire Raiders team. "He's too damn shifty," says Denver linebacker John Mobley, thinking back to Holmes's 121-yard effort in the Chiefs' 26-23 overtime win. "We tried to contain him, but even when he ran inside and got roughed up, he just got right back up and wanted more."
"Priest is a beast," says San Diego defensive end Marcellus Wiley. "A lot of guys have talent, but he gets a lot of yards because of his will. He's obviously on a mission to prove he's a great player."
Determined to continue that success, Holmes has been spending his off-season studying all 411 plays he was involved in last year. He had also watched tapes of St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk, hoping to learn how the Rams star excelled in an offense similar to the one the Chiefs employ. Holmes is just as serious during the season. After Saturday practices, he walks the field alone, visualizing every play in the game plan and simulating every cut or block he's likely to need on Sunday.
That relentless focus is Holmes's trademark. He rarely goes out in Kansas City. He saves his playtime for the off-season, when he's back in San Antonio and near his two sons, eight-year-old De'Andre and four-year-old Jekovan, who live with their mother. In fact, he's so quiet and intense during the season that teammates say they are shocked when they see him relax.
Ravens director of player development Earnest Byner did a double take at a basketball game in Baltimore two years ago when he spotted Holmes laughing and chatting with friends. Chiefs guard Will Shields had a similar reaction when he saw Holmes joking with Baltimore's Ray Lewis and Rod Woodson at the Pro Bowl.
Even Holmes's motivational speeches before games against Seattle and Oakland last season surprised teammates. "When he addressed the tam, I think everybody was thinking, That's what his voice sounds like?" Shields says. "I swear they guy never says a thing."
Holmes has always been as quiet and contemplative as his given name suggests. His mother, Norma Morris, chose Priest because she liked the way it sounded, and the deeply religious Holmes admits,"it's fitting. I'm reserved. I try to forgive. And I try to see the bright side of things. That attitude has served me well."
Holmes, 28, has been single-minded throughout his career. An undrafted free agent in 1997 who was overshadowed at Texas by Ricky Williams, he refused to buy a new car as a rookie in Baltimore. He caught rides with a teammate for practices and games. "He didn't want to fit into the mold of a young athlete who goes crazy when he has money," says Herman Morris, Holmes's stepfather. "He had reached a certain level, but he knew he hadn't arrived." Searching for a consistent runner, the Ravens gave Holmes a chance in '98. He responded by gaining 1,008 yards in 13 games as a starter, but those numbers didn't impress Brian Billick, who became head coach in '99. Billick craved a burly back for his power-running attack, and the 213-pound Holmes was deemed too slight to take the pounding that a featured back takes in the NFL.
When rookie Jamal Lewis became the featured runner during the Ravens' Super Bowl championship run in 2000, Holmes knew it was time to go. "I didn't see it as a knock that they wanted bigger backs," Holmes says. "Every team in the AFC Central has one. But my strength is breaking people down. I may not outrun or outsize you, but I will make you miss."
Holmes made a list of 15 things he coveted from his next team, including great fan support, a multidimensional offense and a position coach who could relate to an underdog. Holmes found 13 of the 15 things on his list in Kansas City. Though he started the season splitting carries with Tony Richardson and gained only 51 yards total in the first two games, he finished the season with seven 100-yard rushing efforts. "Priest made some mistakes early," says Chiefs running backs coach James Saxon. "He actually missed a read on the season's first play. But after he got used to the system, he found his rhythm."
As the season progressed, the Chiefs' offensive focus shifted from passing to running, and Holmes ended all questions about his durability. Ironically, Lewis sustained a season-ending knee injury in preseason camp, and Baltimore struggled offensively all year.
With his first big season behind him, Holmes is now determined to elevate the Chiefs, who finished 6-10, to playoff contention. He tried to start that process by inviting his teammates to join him at the Pro Bowl. (Holmes and Shields picked up the tab for 11 teammates.) Holmes believed that rubbing elbows with the league's elite would benefit the Chiefs. "We got them passes to the players' resort so they could be a part of everything," Holmes says. "I wanted them to interact with those guys because I think there's an air to the players who know how to be the best." The Chiefs didn't need to travel to Hawaii to see how to excel in the NFL. All they had to do was swing by Priest Holmes's locker.