High Priest The Chiefs' Priest Holmes, the NFL's best running back on the league's hottest team, is finally earning the respect (and cash) he deserves

September 28, 2003

He picked up the pen and moved it across the heavy white paper,
dotting his I and crossing his t with a calligrapher's flourish.
Then, and only then, did Priest Holmes flash his $35 million
smile. In addition to the joy inspired by signing such a deal,
Holmes, the Kansas City Chiefs' relentlessly driven running back,
felt relief, vindication and even humility. Mostly, though, as he
sat at the round oak table in the office of team president Carl
Peterson on Sept. 3, Holmes was overcome by hunger. "Hadn't eaten
all day," Holmes recalls, grimacing at the memory. "At that point
all I could think about was getting some food."

First, however, Holmes had to go to practice, after which he
showered and got some treatment in the training room. Finally,
his 12-hour workday complete, it was time for Priest to feast.

A first-class celebration certainly was warranted, not just
because Holmes, a month shy of his 30th birthday, had finally
been able to get paid (the term he uttered on national TV in a
calculated effort to accelerate the negotiating process), but
also because of how much adversity he'd had to conquer along the
road to riches. As Holmes says, "If you want to tell my story,
it's all about overcoming obstacles and not giving up."

On that special night Holmes made a point of continuing two of
his most cherished customs--the deft avoidance of both pretense
and dinner checks. After stopping at a grocery store to pick up
some Epsom salts for a restorative bath later that night, the
NFL's most dangerous running back pulled into a shopping center
off I-70 in Independence, Mo., and hightailed it to the Macaroni
Grill. There, at a table near the back, Holmes met his suburban
Kansas City neighbor and former high school teammate, Michael
Gann, and Gann's wife, Misty, for a typically low-key meal.

The drama would come later. Having wolfed down pork chops,
vegetables and a salad--eschewing champagne for tap water--Holmes
was back at the bargaining table. He and Gann, a retail manager
for RJ Reynolds who had not just bagged more than $10 million in
guaranteed money, each reached for the check. "Mike never lets me
pay for anything," Holmes says, "but if ever there was an
occasion when you'd figure I'd pick up a tab, this was it. So I
put up a little fight. But anyone who knows me knows I'm not
going to fight for long. When he said, 'Let me get it,' I said,
'O.K., O.K. You got it.'"

He may be a tightwad, but put him on the football field, and
Holmes is the gift that keeps on giving. Since joining the Chiefs
as a free agent before the 2001 season, the 5'9", 213-pound
Holmes has endowed Kansas City with 3,466 rushing yards, 41
touchdowns and 4,923 total yards, all NFL highs over that span.
By virtue of Sunday's 42-14 victory over the Houston Texans,
Holmes, a San Antonio native who ran for 89 yards and two
touchdowns and caught four passes for 67 yards in a triumphant
return to his home state, also helped give the 3-0 Chiefs
something they haven't had since 1997: bona fide Super Bowl
aspirations.

"We have a chance to be pretty good, and Priest is where it all
starts," Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil says. "How big a
component of our success is he? Well, Priest Holmes is the
component." In the next breath Vermeil goes out of his way not to
cast Holmes in an egotistical light. "There are some superstars
who other players don't care for--guys who are a pain in the ass
and act like superstars," Vermeil says. "Priest is the opposite.
He's not a big-timer, and his teammates love and respect him so
much, they feel they can all share in his rewards."

Maybe so, but as those Chiefs who've dined with the All-Pro
running back are acutely aware, good vibes aren't all they can
expect to share. Holmes admits that he splits restaurant checks
as adroitly as he breaks down defenses with his slashing running
style. If Holmes had a posse, rolling with the Dirty One (the
nickname given to Holmes by K.C.'s other running backs, for
reasons he claims not to understand) would be an entourage
member's worst nightmare. "I might invite you to dinner," Holmes
says, "but when the bill comes, I'll go around the table and say,
'O.K., you had the linguine, you had the chicken....'"

Just don't jump to the conclusion that Holmes, who has handled
the ball 380 times since his last fumble--the league's longest
active streak--is as tightfisted with his cash as he is with the
rock. When it comes to this enigmatic player, nothing is ever
that simple. Take it from Miami Dolphins halfback Ricky Williams,
he of the dreadlocks, pierced tongue and numerous personality
quirks, who says of his former University of Texas running mate,
"Priest is a different cat."

You want different? For all of his parsimonious tendencies,
Holmes has invited the Chiefs' entire team to accompany him to
Hawaii for his two Pro Bowl appearances, on his dime. A tireless
shill when it comes to charitable efforts--his foundation, Team
Priest, has worked extensively with underprivileged youths and
minority-owned businesses in the Kansas City area--Holmes is far
more reluctant to pad his own pockets. If a potential appearance
or autograph session conflicts with his rigid training schedule,
Holmes will say no faster than Jeremy Shockey fielding a
guest-appearance request from a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
producer. Holmes once passed on a five-figure appearance fee just
so he wouldn't miss his midweek rubdown. "I know it sounds
crazy," he says, "but I guess you could say I got a $15,000
massage."

For an undrafted player who spent four relatively obscure seasons
with the Baltimore Ravens before signing with the Chiefs, Holmes
has been curiously indifferent to publicity. Last fall he
declined an invitation from CBS to be a guest on its NFL pregame
show during Kansas City's bye week because he wanted to watch his
oldest son, DeAndre, play a Pop Warner game in San Antonio. He
has rebuffed MTV and BET because of similar conflicts. During the
summer, while the rest of the sporting elite was congregating in
Hollywood for the ESPYs, Holmes, a nominee for the show's NFL
player of the year award, was back in Kansas City sweating
through solo two-a-day workouts. "At the end of our minicamp in
June, I told my teammates, 'While you're off in the Caribbean for
the next month, I'll be here, alone, doing two-a-days,'" Holmes
says. "Once I made the commitment, I felt I had to honor it."

More was at stake than his word. During a game against the Denver
Broncos last Dec. 15, Holmes suffered a right hip strain that
ended his season. He underwent surgery in March and spent several
weeks on crutches, leading some NFL personnel types to question
whether he would ever return to form. Adding fuel to the
speculation about Holmes's health, the Chiefs used their
first-round draft pick on Penn State running back Larry Johnson,
despite needing help on a defense that ranked last in the league
in 2002.

Holmes, who had three years remaining on a contract that was due
to pay him $1.95 million in 2003, had informed Peterson last
November that he wanted an upgraded deal. There was little debate
that his performance merited a raise. Just ask his teammates.
("The guy's phenomenal, the MVP of the league, and he's a joy to
block for," says All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez.) Or his
coaches. ("What does Priest mean to us?" asks offensive
coordinator Al Saunders. "What's an engine to a car?") Or ask his
opponents. ("He's what Marshall Faulk was two or three years
ago--the premier back in the NFL," says New England Patriots
linebacker Mike Vrabel.)

Still, Holmes knew that if he didn't convince Peterson that his
hip was sound, he would have no leverage in negotiations. So he
showed up for training camp in the best shape of his life, then
surprised everyone--even his agent, Todd France--by taking his
case to the airwaves. Asked in a sideline interview during the
Chiefs' preseason opener what was the next step to prepare him
for the regular season, Holmes told a national TV audience, "Get
paid, because I'm ready."

Peterson called France to express his displeasure with the
comment, but ultimately the club president decided to satisfy his
marquee runner with a four-year extension, upping the value of
Holmes's deal to $35 million through 2009. To protect the
investment, Vermeil says he's trying to keep his halfback healthy
by scaling back his workload. (Holmes played on Sunday despite
having suffered bruised ribs in the Chiefs' 41-20 victory over
the Pittsburgh Steelers the previous week, but he carried only
three times in the second half.) Though Holmes touched the ball
75 times in K.C.'s first three games, five fewer than he did over
the same span in 2002, he played 32% fewer snaps.

Holmes, who tore his left ACL in college and sprained the MCL in
the other knee while with the Ravens in 1999, believes his hip
injury was a blessing. "Whenever I've overcome an injury, I've
come back faster, stronger, more aware and more mature," he says.
"I was reaching so many new heights, and then boom, I got hurt.
It allowed me to remember what got me there, to do some
soul-searching and decide, Do I really want this?"

It's late on a Friday afternoon at Chiefs headquarters, and most
NFL players are off getting haircuts or at happy hour or taking
the kids to soccer practice. Holmes sits in a media lounge,
fidgeting as he discusses the significance of his new contract.

"My only financial goal coming out of college was to be debt
free, and I have been since 1997," he says. "So for me, the
contract changes nothing. But I have three kids [sons DeAndre,
10, and Jekovan, 5, and daughter Corion, 1, all live with their
mother in San Antonio], and this money allows me to take care of
them and my extended family. I'm not going to get caught up in
it, though, because when you're a football player, it's easy to
get spoiled. I'm not going to say I'm spoiled--well, that's not
true. I am spoiled, with a capital S."

Given his spartan sensibilities, an intriguing notion is raised:
Does Holmes feel conflicted about having struck the mother lode?
But before the question can be asked, a Chiefs official comes to
break up the interview. "Priest," the man says, "it's time for
your massage."

The answer will have to wait, for if there's one thing we've
learned, Holmes will be getting that massage, at all costs.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO SHORT DAY'S WORK Holmes left the Texans in the dust as he rushed for 89 yards and two scores on just 18 carries. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES MILLION-DOLLAR SMILE After an off-season spent rehabbing a hip injury that some thought might derail his career, Holmes has proved he's worth the big contract he campaigned for on national TV. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER FOOTING THE BILL Often accused of being a tightwad, Holmes offered a Pro Bowl vacation to the teammates who have helped make him the NFL's top rusher since the start of the 2001 season. COLOR PHOTO: DICK WHIPPLE/AP ASSET MANAGEMENT "Priest is where it all starts" for the Chiefs, says Vermeil (left), so he's trying to reduce the wear and tear on his prized back by curbing his workload.

Michael Silver's Open Mike, every Thursday at si.com.

"Whenever I've overcome an injury, I've come back faster,
stronger and more mature," says Holmes, who sees his hip injury
AS A BLESSING

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)