Priest Holmes  
 


From the earliest days of pro football, pundits have viewed the playing field like a chessboard, with each down featuring an intricately choreographed tangle of moves and counter-moves. Priest Holmes might be the only NFL star who’d agree with them. The Chiefs’ all-purpose back is a student of both games. The main difference? As Priest likes to say, you don’t need a helmet and mouthguard to play chess. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Priest Anthony Holmes was born on October 7, 1973 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Although he took his father’s last name, Priest never met him. The only time they came face to face was at the old man’s funeral, after he was shot to death. Priest was raised by his mother, Norma, and his stepfather, Herman Morris, in San Antonio, Texas.

Priest loved to play football. His idol growing up was Tony Dorsett, the star halfback of the Dallas Cowboys. Priest’s first football game took place with some older boys in front of his house. He had been watching them for a while, and decided he could run with them. Priest got in the game and was so elusive and quick that the other kids found it impossible to bring him down. To counteract him, they moved the contest into the street, figuring the asphalt would scare away Priest. They were wrong. The youngster was a tough as he was fast.


 
 

Priest understood at an early age the benefits of studying situations and paying attention to details. It helped him in sports, it helped him get along with other kids, and it helped him in school. He also learned the value of a job well-done. After seventh grade, Priest traveled to Detroit to spend the summer with his grandfather, who owned a suburban lawncare service. He worked six days a week, toiling 12 hours under the hot sun, for room and board and a few extra bucks—money that was held for him until the end of summer. He returned to San Antonio with more than $300 dollars in his pocket. More important, he learned that combining care and precision with hard work gave him a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. Priest still does much of his own yardwork.

It was around this time that Priest began to experiment with ways of melding his body with his mind. He had heard about something called sports imaging, and was intrigued. Priest convinced himself that anything he visualized his body doing, he could eventually make it do. By the time he became a starter for the Marshall High School football team, he had refined this technique. That was a good thing, because it was clear that he did not have the size or speed to be an impact back. What Priest did have was an uncanny ability to make tacklers miss. Coach David Visentine recognized a special player—talented, humble and tenacious—when he saw one, and basically put the Marshall offense in Priest’s hands.

In a state where high-school football heroes can trade on their fame for the next 50 years, Priest had an unforgettable season in 1991. Though a deep thigh bruise ended his season with four games left on the schedule, he still amassed 2,061 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. Priest won Offensive Player of the Year honors, and Marshall went to the 5-A championship game. Priest played hurt, and the Rams fell 13-3 to Odessa Permian.

Coellege coahces were all over Priest after the season. Texas recruiters fell in love with the teenager when he made them wait while he finished his chores—including wiping down every baseboard in the house. The Longhorns offered a full ride, and a promise to be open-minded about playing him as a freshman. Priest accepted, and packed his bags for Austin the following August.

True freshman rarely see more than the inside of a red shirt at Texas, but Priest was something special. After proving himself in practice, he saw playing time for coach John Mackovic in the season’s final seven games. The frosh averaged over five yards per carry, and scampered for a season-high 114 yards against Houston.

ON THE RISE

Priest made more noise for the Longhorns in 1993, starting twice and finishing the year with a yards-per-carry average well over five again. His sophomore year at Texas also saw the birth of his son, DeAndre—though he and his girlfriend, Stephanie Hale, decided they were too young to marry. The relationship would last for several more years (the couple had a second son, Jekovan, in 1997).

Priest earned significant action in half of UT’s games as a junior, carrying the ball 120 times. He amassed 524 yards and scored five touchdowns. Priest topped the 100-yard mark in consecutive games against Pitt, Louisville and Texas Christian—the first time a Longhorn runner had done so since Johnny “Lam” Jones in 1980. He had his finest outing against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl, taking the ball 27 times and battering a good defense for 161 yards and four TDs to win MVP honors.


Tony Dorsett, 1980 Topps Super

 

 
 

The 1995 season figured to be the Priest Holmes Show at UT. That is, until he felt his knee pop in a spring workout. Priest had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, ending his senior season before it began. The injury opened the door for freshman Ricky Williams, who ran for 990 yards the following fall. The Longhorns hardly missed Priest, going 10-1-1 before losing to Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

Coach Mackovic rooted for Priest to return to full health, but even when he did, no one could unseat Williams. The senior ended up third on the depth chart, with Shon Mitchell ahead of him for most of the year. Priest stayed ready and picked his spots. Despite carrying the ball only 59 times, he still rushed for 13 touchdowns.

For texas, a season of promise appeared to go south after losses to Notre Dame, Virginia, Oklahoma and Colorado. But the Longhorns pulled themselves together and ran the table to finish a respectable 7-4. That was good enough for a berth in the first-ever Big 12 title game, against juggernaut Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were ranked third in the nation and favored by three touchdowns. UT Quarterback James Brown saw it differently. Prior to the game, the confident junior predicted that Texas would beat Nebraska by three touchdowns.

The Huskers were out for blood by game time. They keyed on Brown and Williams, who had already surpassed the 1,000-yard mark. Big mistake. The offensive line jiu jitsued the Nebraska pass rush, holding them sackless. Brown had a big day, while Williams spent much of the game decoying the defense, or running interference for Texas’s forgotten man, Priest Holmes.

It was a brilliant piece of gamesmanship. Priest gained 120 yards—every one a knife through Nebraska’s heart. The Longhorns took a precarious 30-27 lead into the final minutes. With 2:40 left they faced a fourth-and-one on their own 28. Mackovic decided to go for it. Brown rolled left and headed for the sticks. Just as the Nebraska secondary moved to bury him, he flicked a pass to tight end Derek Lewis, who rambled all the way to the 11 before anyone caught up with him.


Ricky Williams,
1999 Pro Football Weekly
 
 

On the next play, Priest got the call and barreled into the end zone for his third touchdown of the day and a 37-27 victory. Former NFL coach Dick Vermeil was in the booth as a TV analyst, and he made a mental note to keep tabs on the young man. Scout Carl Peterson—who would become GM of the Kansas City Chiefs—also circled Priest’s name in his program.

When draft day came in the spring of 1997, Priest had few illusions about being picked, particularly after bombing at the combines with a 4.75 in the 40. Little did he know that several teams liked his vision, quick feet, and low center of gravity. But because he was a college back-up, no one figured to take him. With a line of teams hoping to sign him as a free agent, the Baltimore Ravens offered the best deal.

Despite not being selected in the draft, Priest vowed to work his way into the Baltimore starting lineup. He suited up for seven games in 1997 and touched the ball once, recovering an on-sides kick. Playing on special teams, he was often the smallest man on the field—including kickers. That mattered little in a December meeting with the Seattle Seahawks, when he laid out Tyree Davis on a kick return. The hit earned Priest “Tackle of the Year” honors from the coaching staff.

Priest lived the life of a fringe player that season. He kept to himself, worked hard in practice and threw his body around on the half-dozen or so times he was on the field each Sunday. Each night he went home to a cheap apartment that had a TV and VCR and no furniture. Priest slept on the floor and watched game films until he couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore.

It felt good to contribute, even in a small way, but Priest had his eye on a running back’s job. (Bam Morris, Earnest Byner and rookie Jay Graham did most of the ball-carrying for Baltimore in ’97.) The Ravens finished 6-9-1 under Ted Marchiabroda, with Vinny Testaverde calling the shots at quarterback. A trio of rookie linebackers—Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware—gave fans hope that the team might do good things in the not-too-distant future.

The following year, Priest saw a lot more action. With Testaverde in a Jets uniform, Jim Harbaugh was the new QB, which meant more pressure on the running game. When newly acquired Errict Rhett failed to get the job done, Priest was inserted into the lineup for the final 13 games.

The afternoon before his first start, Priest stayed on the practice field after the team went in and visualized himself running every play in the Baltimore book. He did it all in slow-motion, seeing each cut in his mind. The following day, against Cincinnati, Priest ran for 173 yards and a pair of scores. In Baltimore’s next meeting with the Bengals, Priest racked up 228 yards—tops in the NFL during 1998. For the season, he slashed his was to a team-record 1,008 yards and also led the Ravens with 43 receptions.


Dick Vermeil,
St. Louis Rams publicity photo
 
 

With regular work, Priest, an avid chess player, began to see parallels between the game on the board and the game on the field. He realized that he could play a pawn’s role, letting himself be tackled in a certain situation and saving his big move for later in the game, when the same play might be called again. Priest also discoverd there were times you absolutely had to attack the moment you saw an opening. Most important, he learned how to work with his blockers, allowing them to start a play before he finished it.
As for the Ravens, the defense performed well in 1998 and gained valuable experience, but still had its ups and downs. When the club finished with six wins again, Marchiabroda was fired.

Brian Billick was hired to coach the Ravens in 1999. The former Vikings assistant fired up the defense and guided the team to a very respectable 8-8 record. Priest struggled with consistency early in the year and lost his job to Rhett. Then he hurt his knee and had to sit out several games. Billick hated to bench Priest, but he hoped to develop a power running attack. At 5-9, Priest did not fit the profile. Most in the organization thought he simply was too fragile to become an every-down back in such a punishing offense.

If there was any question about Baltimore’s intentions regarding Priest, they were answered at the 2000 draft. Priest’s balky knee scared the team, prompting the Ravens to select Tennessee star Jamal Lewis over Plaxico Burress and Bubba Franks, who were also on the board. The Baltimore staff asked Priest to ease into a support role, knowing he could walk as a restricted free agent. After speaking with a couple of teams, including the Miami Dolphins, he agreed to stay with the Ravens. With the club was really coming together and his desire to play for a winner, Priest decided to keep his mouth shut, work hard, learn as much as he could from the bench, and wait for his second chance.

Under Billick, Baltimore had assembled a great defense. Newcomer Sam Adams joined gigantic Tony Siragusa on the line, and the duo’s physical style gave Lewis, Boulware and Sharper more freedom to chase down ball barriers. The offense was bolstered by veteran tight end Shannon Sharpe and quarterback Trent Dilfer, who took over for Tony Banks down the stretch and led the Ravens to a 12-4 finish. Lewis gained 1,364 yards, while Priest chipped in with 588 in limited action.

Baltimore smothered the Denver Broncos in their Wild Card game, 21-3. The following week, the team did the same to the Tennessee Titans, who fell 24-10. In the AFC Championship, the Ravens squeezed the life out of the powerful Raiders, winning 16-3. Priest, who had been used sparingly in the first two playoff games, ran for 31 hard-earned yards against Oakland on nine carries. Though his contribution was small, he couldn’t have been happier. Starter or not, he was going to the Super Bowl.

The big game against the Giants was supposed to be a battle of two great defenses. The Ravens, however, felt they could stretch the field against the New York secondary. This proved to be true, as Baltimore trounced Big Blue 34-7. The contest was close until the third quarter, when Duane Starks ran back an interception for a touchdown and Jermaine Lewis took a kickoff the length of the field for another score. Priest touched the ball five times, with Lewis again getting the bulk of the carries.

When the euphoria of the victory over the Giants subsided, the Ravens faced a reality check. Two important players—Priest and Sharper—would be free agents, and only one could be signed. Baltimer chose the defensive star, thanked Priest, and wished him luck.

MAKING HIS MARK

Without a job, Priest received a helping hand from Banks, his former Ravens teammate. The QB had played for the St. Louis Rams under coach Dick Vermeil, now the head man for the Chiefs. Banks told the coach that Priest was the one guy he would pluck off the Baltimore roster. Vermeil, who remembered the back from the Nebraska game in 1996, took the passer's advice and called him.

Ever meticulous, Priest had compiled a list of the 15 things he was looking for in a new team. The first item was a starting job. In his initial conversation with Vermail, the coach made that very offer. Kansas City was also a good fit because of its proximity to San Antonio, which would allow Priest to see his kids on a weekly basis. (Today he flies home every Monday to take DeAndre and Jekovan to school Tuesday morning.)


Priest Holmes, 2000 Vanguard

 
 

Vermeil had no problemconvincng Chiefs President and GM Carl Peterson to open his wallet on a five-year deal. He, too, remembered the young man who had burned the ’Huskers for three TDs in his final college game. After signing Priest, Vermeil said that he had coached two great runners—Wilbert Montgomery and Marshall Faulk—and that he was sure his new tailback would be the third.

In 2001, Priest was to be the centerpiece of an offense overhauled by Vermeil and coordinator Al Saunders, who had come over from the Rams. They licked their chops at the thought of pairing him with rugged fullback Tony Richardson. Instead of running Priest through piles of bodies, as the Ravens had, the Chiefs planned to use him on end runs, traps, screens and draws, where he could find a little daylight. That meant Priest would now be tackled more often by defensive backs rather than 270-pound linemen. With less pounding, he could stay in for more plays.

Running with great patience behind an athletic line that could spread out its blocking, Priest began to pile up 100-yard games. In Week 3 he ran for 147 yards, with 78 receiving yards and three touchdowns against the Washington Redskins. But it was not until a November game against the Chargers that Priest became fully integrated into the KC offense. In that contest, he burned the vaunted San Diego rush defense for 181 yards.

Priest later went for 150 yards against Pittsburgh and 168 yards against Oakland. The performance versus the Raiders gave him 643 yards in three games—the most in a three-game span since Walter Payton racked up 746 in 1977. Priest ended up edging Curtis Martin for the NFL rushing title with 1,555 yards, and beating Faulk for the lead in yards from scrimmage with 2,169—not bad for a 28-year-old second stringer. Baltimore fans, who watched their offense grind to a halt in the playoffs after Lewis injured his knee, howled at Billick and GM Ozzie Newsome for letting Priest go.

Despite Priest’s breakout year, the Chiefs—who finished at 6-10—had a lot of work to do, especially on defense. Still, the question around football was whether Priest was for real. If so, he had a chance to turn Kansas City into a winner. Indeed, along with tight end Tony Gonzalez and quarterback Trent Green, another Vermeil favorite from a past life, the Chiefs had the makings of a potent offense.

Used to fading into the woodwork between January and August, Priest had plenty of interesting opportunities as the reigning NFL rushing champ. After waiting so long to get his shot, he was definitely tempted to make the most of his title. But when Priest realized that many of the paid appearances he was being offered would prevent him from attending DeAndre’s basketball games, he turned most of them down.

Priest hung around San Antonio and concentrated on staying in shape. He also worked on his pass-receiving skills, knowing the Chiefs would be looking for him to do even more in this area come 2002. Priest watched tapes of the 400-plus plays in which he was involved—more than a dozen times each—and noticed that the deeper into the season he got, the more in sync he was with the blocking. In addition, he saw that on some plays, he could have given his line even more time to open holes.

Thanks to his self-imposed offseason grind, Priest followed up his huge ‘01 campaign with a great start in 2002. Running behind a pair of Pro Bowl-ers—Will Shields and newly acquired Willie Roaf—the KC ground attack was even more formidable than the year before. The defense, however, was still awful.


Wilbert Montgomery, 1979 Topps
 
 

After five games the Chiefs were just 3-2, but Priest was leading the NFL in rushing yards and scoring. He was also the top pass-catching back in the AFC. One of those receptions came with 27 seconds left against the Jets. Priest took the ball to paydirt for the winning touchdown. Meanwhile, Priest was also answering lingering questions about his stamina, as he was leading the league with more than 30 touches per contest.

By mid-season, Priest looked like a shoo-in for his second rushing title. He also had a shot at Faulk’s record for touchdowns (26), Emmitt Smith’s mark for rushing touchdowns (25), and Paul Hornung’s record for points (176). On top of that, Saunders was capitalizing on Priest’s talents as a receiver, designing several plays that isolated him on linebackers with room to run. It also helped to have skilled receivers like Gonzalez, Johnny Morton and Eddie Kennison to open things up for him.

The season’s 11th game, against the Seahawks, saw Priest come within two yards of Stephon Paige’s franchise record for yardage in a single contest (309 yards). But the defense collapsed for a 39-32 loss, leaving Priest far less satisfied with his big day. The defeat also meant the Chiefs would have to win all of their remaining games to have a shot at the postseason. The challenge was too daunting, and Kansas City finished out of the playoffs at 8-8.

Priest wasn’t around for the season's conclusion. The old running back’s saying—“give ’em the hip, then take the hip away”—provided some cruel irony in a December game against the Denver Broncos. With Priest closing in on 2,000 yards, he was hauled down at the end of a long run by Tyrone Poole. When he got up, his right hip was killing him. The Chiefs lost the contest and their top offensive threat.

Priest ended the year with 1,616 yards and 24 TDs (21 on the ground), despite missing the final two games. Still, he took some heat from the fans, who thought he should have sucked it up and played hurt. At the time, it was unclear whether he had suffered a Bo Jackson-type shearing injury. Priest told Vermeil that he wanted to go, but it didn't seem prudent to test the hip. The coach agreed.

Priest had an operation to repair his hip in March of 2003, then started getting ready for camp. In June, the Chiefs drafted Penn State running back Larry Johnson in the first round, just in case Priest experienced a setback. When he showed up healthy for training camp, Johnson was shifted to a reserve role and Kansas City inked their star runner to a four-year contract extension.

Priest picked up where he left off in ‘02, bedeviling enemy defenses as the Chiefs started the 2003 season with six straight victories. As usual, the spotlight shone on others—most notably teammate Dante Hall, the only guy on the team shorter than Priest. When he began returning kicks for spectacular touchdowns, the team suddenly had another formidable weapon—another hallmark of Vermeil clubs. Ever since 1969, when he was hired by the Rams as the NFL’s first special teams coach, he has paid special attention to developing this part of the picture.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City defense—a putrid unit in 2002—was showing actual signs of life. Coordinator Greg Robinson, whom Vermeil kept on despite numerous calls for his head, was starting to look like the genius he was supposed to be, simplifying his schemes and pulling back on the more daring stuff. It also helped that the team plugged three holes with free agents Shawn Barber, Dexter McCleon and Vonnie Holliday.


Priest Holmes, 2002 UD Authentics
 
 

The offense had been tweaked, too. With a full understanding of Priest’s talents, the team devised running plays to open multiple holes. More and more, his number was being called on draws and other delays that gave him an extra second to spot daylight. Within a few weeks, it was apparent that the Chiefs had elevated the screen pass to an art form. With Green continuing to mature, and Kennison and Morton making things difficult for enemy secondaries, Kansas City had its eye on the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs remained unbeaten until Week 10, when they lost 24-19 at Cincinnati. The rest of the league went to school on Kansas City in the defeat. Rudi Johnson, the back-up to Corey Dillon, ran wild with 165 yards. It quickly became clear that the Chiefs could be punished with an effective rushing attack. In turn, Holmes and company would get fewer chances to do their thing.

Over the campaign’s last six weeks, Kansas City went 4-2, but several of those games were shootouts. Though the team earned a first-round bye with a 13-3 record, the Chiefs slipped from an AFC front-runner to a major question mark. In the playoffs they drew a problematic match-up in the Indianapolis Colts, who were coming off a blowout of the Broncos. To no one’s real surprise, the visitors set the tone early with two long drives for touchdowns. Kansas City hung tough, thanks in part to Priest, who finished with 176 yards and two scores on the ground. But the Chiefs—unable to stop Indy with the money on the line—were ousted from the post-season, 38-31.

Priest walked away from the ‘03 campaign with mixed feelings. Kansas City’s slide from contender to pretender was troubling. From a personal standpoint, however, he bounced back from his hip injury to have another monster year. His final numbers included 1,420 yards rushing (5th in the AFC) and a career-high 74 receptions. He also scored a league-leading 27 touchdowns (all on the ground), a total that broke the NFL mark set by Marshall Faulk in 2000.

Entering 2004, Priest and his teammates hoped to regain their pride and confidence. Days after their playoff loss to the Colts, the Chiefs fired Robinson, replacing him with a familiar face, Gunther Cunningham. But the change had little effect, as Kansas City opened the season with three straight losses. Priest and the offense was again producing big numbers, but the team couldn't stop anyone.

Looking to turn their campaign around, the Chiefs hosted Michael Vick and the Falcons in October. Priest sparked his club with fast start in the first quarter, and Kansas City ran all over Atlanta in a 56-10 romp. In the win, Priest combined with backup tailback Derrick Blaylock to set a league record with eight rushing touchdowns.

The following week KC exploded again, scoring 45 points in a victory over the Colts. Statistically, Priest had one of his best games of the year, rushing for 143 yards and three scores, and adding another 82 yards on three receptions. Looking to climb back into the AFC Wild Card race, the Chiefs traveled to Tampa to take on the Bucs. With his team trailing 28-24 midway through the third quarter, Priest felt a slight pain in his right knee. Though the injury wasn't thought to be serious, he left the game and didn't return. Kansas City limped home without its star runner, losing 34-31.

Afterwards, an extensive examination found considerably more damage in Priest's knee than expected. At the time, he was leading the league in rushing (892 yards) and scoring (14 TDs). When the Chiefs dropped their next three, the coaching staff saw no reason to risk further injury to Priest. He was shut down for the year, as Vermeil gave second-year back Larry Johnson an opportunity to carry the load.

Priest is focused solely on his return in 2005. He waited a long time for his chance to be a starter, and has no desire to give up his job.

Modest and hard-working, universally liked and widely respected, Priest would seem to be football’s ultimate good guy. But just beneath the surface lurks the heart of a cold-blooded killer. Ask anyone who plays serious chess and they’ll tell you—it’s all about laying in wait, getting your opponent to relax...and then ripping his throat out.


Priest Holmes, 2003 SI for Kids
 
 

Don’t be fooled by the shy smile or gentle manner . That is what’s on Priest’s mind every time he takes a handoff.

PRIEST THE PLAYER

 
 

Few runners in the NFL carry the ball with the patience and intelligence Priest displays. He is not big enough to bull his way through minute openings, so he waits for them to develop—then explodes through to the other side. Once in the open field, he’s extremely shifty and difficult to run down. Priest’s pet move is the cutback. When he angles through a hole, it is not unusual to see three tacklers miss him in the space of a few yards, after which he’s off to the races.Though small, Priest does have the power to run inside when the situation calls for it.

Priest has worked hard to become a top receiver. In Baltimore, as well as his first season with Kansas City, he was utilized on screens, flairs and check-downs. Since then he has learned how to sharpen his routes and use his hands in different ways to become a legitimate weapon out of the backfield. The Chiefs will often call specific pass plays where he is the primary downfield receiver.

Priest’s goal is to create the same kind of rhythm with Trent Green as Marshall Faulk had with Kurt Warner when they were at the top of their games. He has watched hours of tape of the two working together. That’s one thing that separates Priest from other NFL runners: his preparation and focus. No one studies the game or works harder off the field than he does.

What drives Priest on the field is his intense desire to prove people wrong. In his mind, every week he’s starting with a blank slate. Despite his phenomenal success, Priest still thinks like a 5-9 tailback who nobody believes in, who nobody wants.

 


Priest Holmes, 2002 SP Authentic
 
 

Priest Holmes

 
   
 

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