In the early 2000s, Priest Holmes was considered one of the best running backs in the National Football League.
In fact, during a three-year span, he may have been the best in the game.
However, nothing about his early years suggested he would have anything close to the dominant run he had. In fact, he had an uncanny habit of being overshadowed by teammates.
Even though he put up monster numbers, many fans have forgotten how great a back Holmes was.
Growing Up in the South
Priest Holmes was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas on Oct. 7, 1973, and he was raised in San Antonio, Texas.
Life dealt him a significant dose of adversity very early on, as he never knew his biological father, who left when he was very little. In fact, Holmes saw him only once – at his funeral shortly after his death.
He was instead raised by his mother Norma and a stepfather named Herman Morris. Morris spent 20 years as an aircraft technician at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Holmes’ stepfather was also a sergeant in the Army. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, he volunteered for a tour of duty that lasted 12 months.
Morris raised Holmes with strict discipline, which may have set the stage for the latter’s success later on.
Holmes started to get a taste for the laws of success when he was 13. That summer, he did work to assist his grandfather’s lawn care service, putting in 12-hour shifts six days a week.
Working hard alongside older men started to hone the work ethic that would take him to unexpected heights in the years to come.
Holmes idolized Tony Dorsett, the Hall of Fame running back for the Dallas Cowboys, while growing up. While attending John Marshall High School, he started to show his potential, rushing for 2,061 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior in the 1991 season.
For his efforts, he was named Offensive Player of the Year, and he led John Marshall all the way to the state championship game, where it would lose to Odessa Permian.
Starting to Bloom
Holmes decided to remain close to home for college by attending the University of Texas. His collegiate career started slowly, as he only appeared in the final seven games of his freshman season.
He didn’t do too badly, putting up 191 yards in those contests on 5.6 yards per carry, although he didn’t have a single touchdown. He exploded for 114 yards in a game against the University of Houston Cougars, but it didn’t seem like a sign of things to come at the time.
As a sophomore, he again played seven games, starting just two of them, and he posted 237 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns.
It was in 1994, as a junior with the Longhorns, that Holmes started to show that he was on another level. Carrying the ball 120 times that year in 11 contests, he rushed for 524 yards and scored five touchdowns.
Under head coach John Mackovic, who was hired the same year Holmes came on board, the Longhorns had improved from 5-5-1 the previous season to 8-4, which was tied for first place in the Southwest Conference.
The team made it all the way to the 1994 Sun Bowl, where it faced the No. 19 University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Leading 21-17 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Longhorns gave up consecutive touchdowns, and trailing by 10, it looked like they were on their way to defeat.
But Holmes saved the day with two touchdowns of his own, and the University of Texas won the Sun Bowl, 35-31. For the game, Holmes had 161 rushing yards and four touchdowns, earning him MVP honors.
#TBT 1994: Priest Holmes vs North Carolina pic.twitter.com/nPNj62eGo8
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) April 8, 2021
The next season, however, he suffered a knee injury and missed the entire campaign as a result. It created an opening for a freshman running back named Ricky Williams, who would instantly become a force to be reckoned with for the rest of NCAA football.
Holmes returned for his final campaign in 1996, but by now Williams was the Longhorns’ clear number one option in the backfield, and Holmes was only a third-string back.
Still, the San Antonio native was named team captain and managed to score 13 rushing touchdowns that year. Finishing first in the South Division of the new Big 12 Conference, Texas scored a win in the first Big 12 Championship Game over the two-time defending national champion University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, with Holmes named the game’s MVP.
#TBT 1996. Priest Holmes goes off on Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game. #ThisIsTexas #HookEm #Big12Championship pic.twitter.com/pCWX7CTqKC
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) November 29, 2018
However, the outstanding production of Williams, who was now a sophomore, obscured what Holmes had accomplished in college.
Early Years in Baltimore
Holmes was not exactly a sought-after commodity in the 1997 NFL Draft. In fact, every team passed on the chance to draft him – in all seven rounds.
He decided to sign on with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted player. The franchise had just completed a controversial move from Cleveland, where they were the original team known as the Browns, and owner Art Modell was looking for a clean slate.
Before the season even started, Holmes was convinced that he would be productive as an NFL running back.
“I don’t know if he ever told anybody this,” Theo Andrews, Holmes’ best friend, once said. “But after about a week of camp, he said, ‘Oh, this is easy. I can do this.’ That was when he realized that he knew he was going to be successful. He just looked up, looked around and said, ‘This is not going to be a problem for me.’ “
The Ravens were very unimpressed, however, and Holmes was only a fourth-string running back. In his first game as a rookie, he played as a member of special teams. In all, he got on the field for seven games that season, but didn’t record any numbers.
The team’s first-string running back was Bam Morris, who apparently had some history with Holmes. According to Holmes, Morris was supposed to host him during a recruiting trip to Texas Tech, but didn’t show up.
Holmes said it was why he liked the idea of playing for the Ravens.
“I said, ‘Hey, if he had that attitude then, maybe he’ll have it now,’ ” Holmes said. “For me, that was just business.”
There was also another reason having to do with Morris that led Holmes to join Baltimore.
“I chose Baltimore because Bam Morris was there,” Holmes said. “He was well over 6-1, 6-2 and he was a good 235 to 250. I told myself, ‘There’s nothing he can do that’s going to look like me, and nothing I can do that’s going to look like him. I’ll be able to at least stand out and provide something different as a running back in this system.’”
But Morris was gone in ’98, as was second-string running back Earnest Byner. Holmes was hoping that he would earn the starting running back spot for the upcoming season.
Instead, head coach Ted Marchibroda made him the third-string running back at the start of the campaign.
But in Week 4 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Holmes was promoted to starter, and he made the most of it, rushing for 173 yards and two touchdowns in a victory.
He remained in the starting lineup for the rest of the schedule, and he would end the season with 1,008 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Later that season he posted 227 rushing yards against the Bengals, which was the highest single-game rushing yards total for any player that year.
The NFL probably didn’t notice Holmes’ mini-breakout season much, as the Ravens won just six games and missed the playoffs.
If Holmes thought that it was the start of a meteoric rise, he was in for a rude awakening in 1999. He appeared in only nine games that year due to a knee injury, and although he averaged a very strong 5.7 yards per carry, he only had 506 rushing yards on the season.
Flying to the Summit
Things didn’t look too bright for Holmes or the Ravens heading into the 2000 season. The team had drafted running back Jamal Lewis with the fifth overall pick in the draft, a signal that it didn’t have a high level of belief in Holmes.
Lewis would instantly become the squad’s starting running back, relegating Holmes to second-string status.
In addition, Baltimore’s star linebacker Ray Lewis was arrested and charged with murder following an incident outside of a nightclub in Atlanta. He agreed to testify against his two companions who were also involved, and as a result of the resulting plea bargain, he only faced one year of probation, allowing him to be in uniform for the 2000 season.
Holmes’ numbers that year were fairly pedestrian: 588 rushing yards and two touchdowns. However, for the Ravens franchise, it was shaping up as a dream season.
Baltimore won five of its first six games, and ended up winning 12 games. It finished second in the AFC Central, yet rivals were concerned come playoff time because of its staunch defense.
The Ravens set a record for the fewest points allowed per game since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule with 10.3 per game. They even shut out their opponent in four different contests.
21 Years Ago Today,
The @ravens would shut out the division rival @steelers for the first time in team history! in a 16-0 victory lead by RB Priest Holmes 151 total scrimmage yards. It was also the last 100-yard rushing game for Holmes in a Ravens uniform. pic.twitter.com/1EIXqU5epj
— 1-0 (@TheDailyRaven) September 3, 2021
In the AFC Divisional Game, they easily defeated the Tennessee Titans, who had finished first ahead of them, then took down the Oakland Raiders in the championship game to advance to Super Bowl XXXV, where they walloped the New York Giants.
Holmes didn’t get much credit for the Ravens’ world championship. Jamal Lewis, the rookie back, ran for 1,364 yards, while veteran tight end Shannon Sharpe, who had previously won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, did some heavy lifting himself.
Meanwhile, Ray Lewis was named the Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press, as well as MVP of the Super Bowl, and the Ravens were anointed as perhaps the greatest defensive team in the history of the sport.
Even if Holmes remained in the shadows of the pandemonium that broke out in Baltimore, he had his championship ring at the age of 27.
Exploding in K.C.
That spring, Holmes was an unrestricted free agent, and perhaps wanting more freedom and responsibility, he met with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Usually, teams meeting with a free agent will have a laundry list of questions to ask in order to properly vet their man. But unexpectedly, Holmes had his own list of questions for the Chiefs.
By this point in his career, he had honed a preparation regimen that bordered on the obsessive. One offseason, he would watch all 411 plays he took part in the past season – at least 10 times.
The Chiefs, coached by Dick Vermeil, were decently impressed, and they signed him to a contract.
“He was very respectful,” Carl Peterson, the team’s president and general manager, said. “‘Yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’
“We had two other running backs we were going to visit, and I asked Dick [Vermeil], ‘Do we need to see those guys?’ And he said, ‘No. Do you need to see them?’ This was the guy we wanted.”
After consistently making the playoffs for much of the 1990s, the Chiefs were in rebuilding mode. But they had no idea what would happen with the modestly-successful running back they had just acquired.
Simply put, he exploded into a supernova.
After starting slow in Week 1 and 2, Holmes started to dole out major punishment on the rest of the NFL. He rushed for 147 yards in a Week 3 blowout win over Washington, and from the point on, opposing defenses became his personal punching bag on a regular basis.
9-30-2001, the Chiefs beat the Redskins 45-13. Against his former team, @trentgreen10 completed 21 of 26 for 307 yards & 3 TDs. Priest Holmes ran for 147 yards & 2 TDs & caught 5 for 78 yards & another score. @TonyGonzalez88 caught 5 passes for 88 yards & a TD. pic.twitter.com/rkkqXQ8RoY
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) October 1, 2021
In all, he would post seven 100-yard-plus games that season. He finished the season with a very impressive 1,555 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns, leading the league in the former category.
He was the first undrafted player to have as many rushing yards in a season as he did that autumn of 2001.
At 5-foot-9 and 213 pounds, Holmes wasn’t the most powerful back in the world, but he blended the power he did have with speed and quickness. When combined with his maniacal preparation, opposing defensive coordinators had their hands full.
He also showed his versatility by hauling in 614 yards and two touchdowns that season as a receiver. This made him one of a handful of backs to record over 2,000 all-purpose yards in a single campaign.
If the rest of the NFL was impressed, it hadn’t really seen anything yet.
Holmes was even more prodigious in 2002, running for 1,615 yards, tallying 672 yards in the air, and scoring a total of 24 touchdowns, 21 on the ground, which led the NFL and earned him Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Most scrimmage YPG, single season:
2002 Priest Holmes: 163.4
2016 Le'Veon Bell: 161.6
1975 O.J. Simpson: 160.2
2009 Chris Johnson: 156.8 pic.twitter.com/VXcRv5hbcy
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 15, 2016
In Week 3 at the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, Holmes rocked Bill Belichick’s squad with 180 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He also added a third touchdown as a receiver.
He erupted for 197 rushing yards, 110 receiving yards and three touchdowns in a shootout with the Seattle Seahawks in November.
Priest Holmes. @shaunalexander. Each running behind an elite O-Line.
The @Chiefs and @Seahawks put on a show in 2002. (Nov. 24, 2002) #KCvsSEA pic.twitter.com/i04lQTC1th
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) December 23, 2018
Then in Week 14, he put up 132 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against the defending NFC champion St. Louis Rams.
Had Holmes not missed the final two games of the season with a hip injury, his numbers that season might’ve been even more eye-popping.
Some thought that hip injury may be the beginning of the end for him. As an insurance policy, the Chiefs took running back Larry Johnson in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft.
Instead, Holmes came back healthy and ready to turn defenses into bowling pins yet again.
He put up 1,420 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns in ’03, again pacing the league in the latter category. To that point in NFL history, no player had ever scored as many touchdowns in one season.
He also continued to be an adept receiver out of the backfield, putting up 690 yards in the air that year.
It all added up to one of the most dominant multi-year spans any offensive player has ever enjoyed in pro football. Holmes is one of only two running backs (the other being Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith) with consecutive seasons of 20 or more rushing touchdowns.
He also put himself into rarefied air by becoming one of just a few players to register over 2,000 all-purpose yards in three consecutive seasons.
As one would expect, Holmes earned both Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors in all three years.
Priest Holmes had quite the career after going undrafted in 1997.
🏈 Super Bowl XXXV Champion
🏈 2002 Offensive Player of the Year
🏈 4,590 rush yards from 2001-2003
🏈 66 touchdowns from 2002-2004 pic.twitter.com/GswscJY9oJ
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) August 2, 2020
Unfortunately, it didn’t translate into team success. The Chiefs made the playoffs just once in that span, losing to the Indianapolis Colts early in the 2003-04 postseason.
Still, Holmes put the league on notice in a rather noisy way.
Fading Into Obscurity
Holmes started the 2004 season in much the same way he started the previous three. He put up a season-high 151 rushing yards, as well as three touchdowns, in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos.
By midseason he was sitting on a total of 892 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, and observers wondered if he was having his best year yet.
Alas, he sustained a knee injury and was forced to miss the rest of the season. At the age of 31, Holmes likely thought that it was just a temporary setback.
When he returned for the 2005 season, he wasn’t quite the same player. He gained 451 yards and six touchdowns on the ground through the first seven games of the campaign, but he was nowhere near the monster he used to be.
In Week 8, Holmes was brutally hit by San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, which caused head and neck trauma. Again, he had to deal with the frustration of a season that was ended prematurely by injury.
The injury did not improve by the summer of 2006, and as a result, Holmes had to miss the entire ’06 season.
He did return to the team for training camp the following year, but he was not on the active roster when the season began. He finally got back on the field for an actual game in October against the Oakland Raiders, and appeared in a total of four contests that year.
But he re-injured his neck against the Colts in November, and Holmes decided that his time was up. He announced his retirement just days later.
Making an Impact Off the Field
Holmes has looked to be productive since hanging up his pads for the last time. In 2005, he started the Priest Holmes Foundation, which has a mission of encouraging children, enhancing their lives and empowering them.
In starting the foundation, Holmes has been nurturing the lives of young people by helping them reach their goals in multiple areas of life and teaching them the importance of a strong work ethic by drawing upon his own experience as a young teen helping his grandfather mow lawns.
Each year, the Priest Holmes Foundation emboldens some of its most impressive participants by giving them a scholarship towards their college education.
Priest Holmes’ legacy as a football player is instructive in more ways than one.
For one, it teaches us that one doesn’t need to be a fast or great starter in order to make it big in any arena in life.
After being overshadowed by Ricky Williams at the University of Texas, and then by numerous other backs as a young pro, Holmes no doubt had tons of motivation to use to his advantage.
At the same time, it’s also a reminder to us that when someone comes out of nowhere to achieve incredible feats, then disappears like a bright meteor flashing across the night sky, we must appreciate and recognize that individual.
Almost 15 years after his last NFL game, plenty of fans may not have vivid memories of Holmes terrorizing NFL defenses.
Perhaps it’s because he had his best years playing for a mediocre Chiefs team, and because his Super Bowl season came as a second-stringer in the shadows of several more heralded teammates.
As of this writing, Holmes hasn’t gotten the nod to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Perhaps that snub will continue to light Holmes’ fire as he gets deeper into his second life as an ex-athlete looking to pay it forward to the next generation.
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