When the Chiefs signed Priest Holmes as an unrestricted free agent in 2001, the team expected him to be its third-down, change-of-pace running back.
Instead, Holmes became the most prolific running back in franchise history.
That’s why Holmes, the club’s all-time leader in rushing and touchdowns, was introduced by Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt as the 44th member of the Chiefs Hall of Fame on Saturday night at the 101 Awards dinner at the Westin Crown Center hotel.
“It’s a great honor,” Holmes said. “I’m excited because not only do my parents get a chance to be a part of this, but it’s leaving a legacy for my kids. I remember walking down the halls (at Arrowhead Stadium) seeing those great names and saying, it would be pretty nice to get my name up there one day.
“So when Clark called me, I asked, ‘Who is going to pick out the picture they’re going to make the bust from?’ He said, ‘No one has asked that before.’ But I want to send them the picture that will be part of Kansas City history for a long, long time.”
The picture is of No. 31 spreading his arms and holding the ball parallel with the ground as he crossed the goal line … a franchise record 83 times.
“When people ask me what’s the thing I miss most about football,” said a now-bearded 40-year-old Holmes, “it’s the touchdowns.”
Holmes, who joined the Chiefs after spending four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, was the centerpiece of the most dynamic offense in the NFL from 2001 to 2005 — highlighted by 2003, when Kansas City led the NFL in scoring, and in 2004, when it led the NFL in total offense.
“We thought, especially in our offensive scheme, he would be a very, very fine player,” said Dick Vermeil, the Chiefs’ head coach over those five years. “He went beyond being a fine player. He became a great player.”
Holmes led the NFL in rushing in 2001 with a then-franchise record 1,555 yards. He was on his way to an even bigger year in 2002, but he missed the last two games because of a hip injury. Still, Holmes was selected NFL Offensive Player of the Year after leading the league with 2,287 total yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns while finishing third in rushing with a club-record 1,615 yards.
Holmes’ signature season was 2003, when he helped the Chiefs to a 13-3 record and scored an NFL record 27 touchdowns, a mark that has since been broken twice. Holmes not only led the Chiefs in rushing with 1,420 yards in 2003 but also caught a team-high 74 passes, breaking the club record of 70 for a running back that he had set in 2002.
By the time Holmes retired after the 2007 season, he had rushed for a club-record 6,070 yards. He could have accomplished even more had it not been for an injury Holmes suffered late in the 2005 season when struck in the helmet by San Diego linebacker Shawn Merriman.
Holmes sat out the final nine games of that season and all of 2006 before appearing briefly in 2007. But he has few regrets.
“The only thing that would have changed is I would have made more money, I would have made more yards and definitely would have broken a few more records,” Holmes said. “That being said, I think my accomplishments are something that speak volumes for me. … I had enough history in the game to make the decision to put down the cleats.”
Holmes spent his college and professional careers overcoming adversity.
After missing his junior season at Texas because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the spring game, Holmes bounced back in 1996 and, as a backup to Ricky Williams, rushed for 324 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior. He capped his career with a 120-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Longhorns’ upset of third-ranked Nebraska in the inaugural Big 12 championship game.
However, Holmes, 5 feet 9 and 213 pounds, went undrafted and signed with the Baltimore Ravens. He rushed for 1,088 yards in 1998, but his season was curtailed by another knee injury in 1999. Though he contributed to the Ravens’ Super Bowl championship in 2000, Holmes was consigned to a backup role to Jamal Lewis and became an unrestricted free agent.
“He was looking at more teams than the Chiefs,” said former Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson. “When Priest came to visit us, he had a yellow legal pad, and he had a list of questions for me. … I was taken aback by that but impressed. He asked questions about the direction of our club. … It was very measured, and refreshing.”
The Chiefs had made a coaching change, hiring Vermeil as head coach and Al Saunders as offensive coordinator, and, after obtaining quarterback Trent Green from St. Louis, were installing the offense that had taken the Rams to two Super Bowls in three years.
The plan was for former fullback Tony Richardson to be the power back and Holmes to come in on third-and-long and other passing situations. Holmes had just 19 touches — 15 carries and four receptions — in the Chiefs’ first two games, losses to the Raiders and Giants.
“I was wondering what was going on,” Holmes recalled. “I thought the organization brought me in to run the ball. I got with (Richardson), and he said, ‘I know I was running the ball last year, but I’d rather be your fullback. I’m going to do everything to make you successful.’ That’s when we built that brotherhood, and from that point on, we had a phenomenal team.”
The next week at Washington, the Chiefs turned Holmes loose, and he erupted for 147 yards rushing in 23 carries with two touchdowns and caught five passes for 78 yards and another touchdown in a 45-13 rout.
Holmes was off and running. He would become the first undrafted player to lead the NFL in rushing since San Francisco’s Joe Perry in 1954. During 2001-06, he averaged 97.3 yards per game, best in the NFL.
“A lot of running backs have great speed, and a lot of running backs have tremendous vision, and a lot of running backs have patience,” Green said, “but Priest had all of those things.
“He had the patience to let plays develop, let those athletic guys on the offensive line make their blocks. … He had the vision where to cut it in and out, and when that thing opened, he had the acceleration and speed to rip right through there.”
Holmes, a three-time Pro Bowler, was at his best in the red zone, running behind an offensive line that included future Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf, who joined the club in 2002, Pro Bowl guards Will Shields and Brian Waters, and center Casey Wiegmann.
Holmes’ total of 66 touchdowns during 2002-04 was the second highest in a three-year span in NFL history, and his 48 rushing touchdowns during 2002-03 were the best two-year production ever.
“Whenever we did a toss left, and we were out there with Willie Roaf and my guys,” Holmes reminisced. “It’s always something I think back on.
Holmes, who was born in Fort Smith, Ark., and grew up in San Antonio, is the son of an Army master sergeant. His upbringing gave him a sense of community and social responsibility.
After his retirement, Holmes established the Priest Holmes Foundation in San Antonio, where he is one of the city’s most active philanthropists, providing college scholarships to dozens of youngsters in San Antonio and Kansas City and running summer camps.
While with the Chiefs, he established a Chess Club at Kansas City’s Police Athletic League Center and taught chess to youngsters every Wednesday night. He provided custom mouthpieces for 1,200 high school football players in the Kansas City school district in 2003. He bought 10 season tickets and invited children from Operation Breakthrough to games in 2005.
Holmes’ father, Herman, was a world away while on duty in the Army Reserve, serving in Iraq overseeing transportation supply convoys when Holmes was playing with the Chiefs, but never far from his mind.
When the Chiefs played a Monday night game at Baltimore in 2004, the ABC producers established a live hookup with the sergeant’s unit from Iraq.
“The unit wanted to say good luck to Priest. … But he couldn’t see it because it was going to be at halftime,” Peterson recalled. “We went out on the field, and it flashed on the big JumboTrons before the game. Priest’s dad said, ‘Son, just play the game the way I taught you,’ and the whole unit yelled, ‘Go Priest!’ ’’
Holmes followed his father’s orders. He rushed for 125 yards and two touchdowns against his former teammates and the Ray Lewis-led defense, and the Chiefs won 27-24.