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A Higher Calling

Undrafted but undaunted, Priest Holmes is a self-made NFL star

September 29, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was no bed, no sofa, not a stick of furniture. Still, the parents of Priest Holmes understood. Their only concern was that their middle son was indeed chasing his dream, which happened to be playing running back in the NFL.

They didn't fret that he'd gone undrafted out of Texas, or that his signing bonus from the Baltimore Ravens was a mere $2,500, or that his chances of carving out a career in pro football were about as slim as the meager pickings in his bachelor-style refrigerator. Priest was living like a monk.

"We went up and visited him and slept on the floor with him," said his stepfather, Herman Morris, the only dad Holmes has ever known. "He had blankets and pillows, linens, but no bed. Priest will probably kill me for telling you this, but he used boxes and stuff as tables. He had a small TV and a VCR to watch game films. It was very humbling."

Humility runs deep in Holmes, even now, five years removed from his rookie season. He's the centerpiece of Kansas City's offense, led the league in rushing last season, made the Pro Bowl, and is coming off a 30-carry, 180-yard rushing performance in a 41-38 overtime loss to New England--even though the defending Super Bowl champions knew who was getting the ball down after punishing down.

The day after the Patriot game, Holmes didn't stick around Kansas City, collecting handshakes and backslaps. He did what he does every week: boarded a plane for San Antonio to spend 24 hours with his three sons and their mother, Stephanie, his longtime girlfriend. Holmes has been trying to persuade her to move to Kansas City. So far, she's resisted. In the meantime, the frequent-flier miles are piling up.

"He's very involved with their schoolwork," said Morris, who still lives in San Antonio with his wife, Norma, where they raised their family. "Their teachers all have Priest's number, and he goes by their school quite a bit. His coming home every week has really helped those kids; they were getting to be a real handful. He stays until Tuesday night every week. He pretends he isn't sore, but I know he is. I'm just really proud he's doing what he's doing."

When the Chiefs play host to Miami today, the game will have special meaning for Holmes and Dolphin running back Ricky Williams, who were teammates at Texas for two seasons. Holmes was the undersized mentor with the oversized heart, the senior who came back from a devastating knee injury to have a 120-yard rushing game against third-ranked Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game. Williams, almost four years his junior, was the high school All-American who went on to win the Heisman Trophy. The Longhorns also had another outstanding back, Shon Mitchell, who was faster than both.

"It's pretty amazing how they worked us all in," Holmes said. "Pretty much, we'd give Ricky the ball at the 20, and he'd probably get an 80-yard run. If he didn't, we'd give the ball to Shon Mitchell at the 50-yard line, and once we'd get down to the goal line, they would give it to me."

The three backs got along remarkably well, considering each would have been the offensive focal point on just about any other team in the country.

"No one was greedy," said former Longhorn coach John Mackovic, who now coaches at Arizona. "Clearly, Priest was the most unselfish of them all."

Apparently, that didn't carry much weight with NFL scouts. Holmes was not drafted, an especially low point because his parents had planned a celebratory barbecue that weekend and filled the house with well-wishers. With each round, the mood grew darker.

"There weren't any tears, but there were some sad expressions," Morris said. "There was some gloom. But those were close, supportive friends. Today, those same people will tell you, they knew all along it would work out. And they did."

Holmes signed a free-agent deal with the Ravens in 1997 and bucked long odds to make the team as a special-teams player and reserve running back. When he was sure he had a job and those weekly paychecks were rolling in, he sent for his oldest son, De'Andre, who was 5 at the time.

"Priest wanted to play an active role in [De'Andre's] life," Morris said. "He came to Stephanie with a plan, a proposal. He made sure he had families around them who could help give them support."

The boy lived with his father for the better part of two years, going home to San Antonio for holidays and the summer months.

"Having De'Andre up there helped Priest, also," Morris said. "It balanced him. The kid had to be ready for school every day, do his homework. Priest had a legitimate excuse not to go wild."

Meanwhile, Holmes' career flourished. He burst into the national consciousness in his second season, starting the first 13 games at running back and finishing with 1,008 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.

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