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Priest Holmes: the engine of the Chiefs’ original high-power offense

Our Lords of the Ring series highlights the careers and personal lives of the greatest Chiefs of all time.

Kansas City Chiefs v Houston Texans Photo by Joseph Patronite/Getty Images

In 2014, the Kansas City Chiefs inducted running back Priest Holmes into their Ring of Honor. The second-most productive rusher in team history, he gained 6,070 yards over the six seasons he played for Kansas City — 4,490 of them in an amazing three-year stretch from 2001 through 2003.

But amazingly, it might never have happened.

After rushing for an eye-popping 2,061 yards during his senior year at John Marshall High School in San Antonio, Holmes committed to the University of Texas. In his first three years with the Longhorns, he saw the field only sparingly — but he made the most of his opportunities, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt on just 193 carries. He capped his junior season by being named MVP of the 1994 Sun Bowl, where he rushed for 161 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-31 victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels.

But in 1995, Holmes was ruled out for the season after suffering a knee injury. In his absence, freshman phenom Ricky Williams averaged 6.0 yards per carry. By the time Holmes was back on the practice field in 1996, his opportunity to be the bell cow was gone.

Still, he and Williams split goal-line carries that season — and Holmes scored a ridiculous 13 touchdowns on just 59 rushing attempts. He finished his college career by helping the Longhorns upset the Nebraska Cornhuskers 37-27 in the first-ever Big 12 Championship game — during which he famously gave an inspirational halftime speech — finishing the game with 120 yards rushing and three touchdowns.

Big 12 Championship

But despite his success in postseason games, NFL teams didn’t seem interested in a player who had managed just 252 carries in a four-year college career. 240 players were selected in the 1997 NFL Draft. 19 of them were running backs — and Holmes wasn’t among them. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens, playing solely on special teams during seven games of his rookie season.

Then in 1998, everything changed. Named the starting running back to begin the season, Holmes rushed for 1008 yards (and seven touchdowns) on 233 carries. For the first time in his career, he was the guy.

But in 1999 — just like in Texas — a knee injury put him on the sidelines. After rushing for at least 100 yards in three consecutive games, Eric Rhett displaced him as the starter. The following season, the Ravens used the fifth draft selection to acquire Tennessee’s Jamal Lewis, who led the Baltimore rushing attack through their Super Bowl XXXV victory.

A free agent in 2001, Holmes wanted to make sure that his next team was a good fit. As described in the Bill Althaus book Priest Holmes: From Sidelines to Center Stage, Holmes showed up to his interview with the Chiefs with a list of 15 things he was looking for in his next team — including being closer to his home in San Antonio, playing for a head coach who believed in him and the right kind of turf in the home stadium.

“When we talked with Priest, we were just blown away. He was such a great kid,” said brand-new head coach Dick Vermeil at the time. “Did I think he would become one of the four or five best players in the league? I can’t say that... but I did believe we could win an AFC championship game with him as our starting running back.”

Thus began one of the best three-year stretches by any player in NFL history.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In 2001, Holmes wasn’t just good. He was a revelation. Repaying the Chiefs’ faith in him, he led the league in rushing, toting the rock 327 times for 1,555 yards and eight touchdowns. Catching passes from quarterback Trent Green — whom Vermeil had brought along from the St. Louis Rams — he added 614 yards and two touchdowns on 62 receptions to also lead the NFL in scrimmage yards, earning him his first of three consecutive All-Pro selections.

In 2002, he rushed for 1,615 yards and 21 touchdowns — adding three more in his 672 receiving yards — to lead the league in rushing touchdowns, scrimmage yards and scrimmage touchdowns.

In 2003, Holmes rushed for 27 touchdowns, setting the NFL single-season record. Although Ladanian Tomlison would eclipse him with 28 in 2006, to this day, Holmes is still tied with Shaun Alexander in second place.

But on January 11, 2004, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts came to town for the Divisional round playoff game, going blow-for-blow with the Chiefs in what can only be described as a heavyweight title fight similar to the Thrilla in Manila. Today, Chiefs fans simply call it the No-Punt Game.

I was there that day. A young man of 22, I remember being in the stands, screaming myself hoarse, banging on the seat in front of me, trying to do everything I could to help the Kansas City defense slow Manning down — just once.

But the Chiefs defense did not get a stop that day. And Holmes — who rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns that day — was at the center of one of the most heart-wrenching moments in Kansas City postseason history.

At halftime, the Chiefs were down 21-10. When the stadium erupted, I was in line at the concessions stand — watching the game on a concourse TV. Holmes had taken the handoff and darted up the middle. Splitting the defenders, he was off to the races. The TV announcer shouted, “He has one man to beat!”

Sporting News Archive Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

But that one man was able to slow Holmes down just long enough for a second Indianapolis player to catch up — and at that moment, Holmes had a rare moment of poor ball security. While he was sandwiched between two defenders, the football was stripped from his grasp. The Colts pounced on the ball — and just like that, an electric 48-yard run was wiped off the board.

The Colts defense had made the one stop that both teams were trying to get — and it made the difference in the 38-31 loss that ended Kansas City’s season.

In 2004, Holmes rushed for 892 yards and 14 touchdowns through eight games — a blistering pace that was on pace for career bests in both yards and touchdowns. But against the Buccaneers in Week 9, a knee injury ended his season.

Holmes returned to the field in 2005. It was clear from the beginning he wasn’t the same player Chiefs fans had grown accustomed to seeing — but he still had a nose for the end zone and was effective through the first seven games of the year, averaging 64.4 yards per game and scoring seven touchdowns. Still, his yards per attempt had fallen to a career-low of 3.8.

In late October, he suffered a spinal cord injury after being tackled by San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman — effectively ending an era of Chiefs football. Holmes would miss the 2006 season entirely. In 2007’s fourth game, he suffered a neck injury against the Indianapolis Colts. Three days later, Holmes announced his retirement at the age of 34. f Holmes had suffered six injuries through his career: three to his knee, two to his neck and spine and one to his hip.

Still, only nine NFL players have rushed for 20 or more touchdowns in a season. Only two players have done it twice: Emmitt Smith and Priest Holmes.

Holmes’ story is one to which we can all relate: to be great at something, to want something so badly — only to have your body betray you. But that is life. You must move forward. Holmes has done that, founding his non-profit Priest Holmes Foundation and making public speaking engagements — attacking this next chapter of his life just as he did defenses throughout his NFL career.

New York Jets v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Al Pereira/New York Jets/Getty Images

While his all-time stats may have been diminished by injuries, his memory is not. We will forever remember Holmes as the shifty runner with great vision who always made it over the goal line when his number was called. And he did it all with an infectious smile and personality that made you want to root for him.

Few NFL players have enjoyed a greater three-year stretch of success than Priest Holmes from 2001 through 2003. Like Batman, Holmes wasn’t the hero Chiefs fans wanted. But he was the hero we needed.

And if the Ravens hadn’t signed him to a free-agent contract in 1997, we might never have known his name.

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