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A Small Miracle Cast into the wilderness by the Ravens, undersized running back Priest Holmes has found a home, and stardom, in Kansas City

May 20, 2002
May 20, 2002

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May 20, 2002

A Small Miracle Cast into the wilderness by the Ravens, undersized running back Priest Holmes has found a home, and stardom, in Kansas City

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.

This is an article from the May 20, 2002 issue

"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," Holmes 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
team, I think everybody was thinking, That's what his voice
sounds like?" Shields says. "I swear the 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.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Show of faith Baltimore thought Holmes was too small, but the Chiefs were believers, and he answered their prayers last season.COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER Pressing duty Holmes likes to spend his off-seasons in San Antonio with his sons, Jekovan (aloft) and De'Andre.
"Priest is a beast," says Wiley. "A lot of guys have talent, but
he gets yards because of his will."