SAN ANTONIO — When the roll call of players who had stellar careers after being bypassed in the NFL Draft is taken, the name of Marshall High School graduate Priest Holmes will have to be near the top of the list.
Holmes’ career as a running back is the quintessential success story that stands as a testament to perseverance, self-discipline, commitment, the value of a strong work ethic and the power of one’s dreams.
Twenty-three years after he went undrafted, Holmes’ success remains an inspiration to NFL rookie free agents.
Holmes rushed for 8,172 yards and 86 touchdowns in 10 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens (1997-2000) and Kansas City Chiefs (2001-2007) before retiring. He earned first-team All-Pro honors in his first three seasons with K.C., when he ran for 4,590 yards and 56 touchdowns. Holmes was inducted into the Kansas Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2014.
Holmes defied the odds before he completed his career at Texas in 1996, returning for his senior season after missing the entire 1995 campaign with a knee injury.
“A guy that has had that experience of being drafted, I’m sure it’s phenomenal,” Holmes said. “I didn’t have that experience, but I’ll you that my journey was something that you couldn’t have written about."
“It was a great opportunity, especially for me coming off of the ACL tear at UT and being able to bounce back from that, which typically doesn’t happen. And it definitely doesn’t happen if you go undrafted.”
As he watched the start of another NFL Draft on television Thursday night, Holmes thought back 23 years to April 19 and 20, 1997, when he waited for a call that never came.
“I think every college player wants to get drafted in that first round, of course, or that first day,” Holmes, 46, said. “I talked to my agent at the time and he said, ‘Hey, the guys are saying that if they do pick you up, it’s going to be in a late-round.’"
“My mindset once we got to the late rounds, five through seven, I was thinking in my head, 'Man, I’d rather be able to pick a team that I can go find out who the running back is and where I can stand out and not be covered up.'”
As history notes, Holmes never got selected in the seven-round draft that featured three future Pro Football Hall of Famers – No. 1 overall pick Orlando Pace, No. 6 Walter Jones and No. 13 Tony Gonzalez.
“The Cowboys and Redskins had shown some interest in me, but no one was willing to jump on that line and reel me on in,” Holmes said. “I started to think, man, I don’t want to go in the Draft as a late, late-rounder. My agent told me the Cowboys and Redskins were not going to draft me, but that I would be invited to their camp.”
A longtime Cowboys fan, Holmes considered signing with Dallas.
“Of course, the Cowboys stood out to me,” Holmes said. “I grew up in San Antonio. Between the Oilers and the Cowboys on Sunday, I was watching the Cowboys during that time. I always had a love for Dallas, always thought that if I had the opportunity, I’d love to run the ball with the star on my helmet.”
But he passed on the Cowboys when he began thinking more with his head and less with his heart.
“Once I started diving a little deeper, I said to myself, ‘Emmitt Smith isn’t going anywhere.’ Of course, they were coming off some Super Bowl wins. That was obviously not the place I needed to go. I couldn’t even tell you who the Redskins had at running back.
“My mindset was that I needed to go to a team that has a running back that looks nothing like me, he doesn’t run anything like me and he can’t move like I can move.”
Determined to catch on with an NFL team, Holmes signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent. He made the Ravens’ roster in 1997 as a special teams player but never carried the ball as a rookie.
Holmes busted out in 1998, rushing for 1,008 yards and won a Super Bowl ring in his last season with the Ravens in 2000 as a backup to Jamal Lewis.
That a player with so much upside went undrafted is difficult to believe, and demonstrates how the evaluation of college players by pro scouts is far from an exact science.
To appreciate how Holmes’ career was nothing short of remarkable, ponder this: Of the 45 players ahead of Holmes on the list of the NFL’s career rusher leaders, all but one were drafted.
No. 34 Joe Perry, who served with the Navy during World War II, signed with the San Francisco 49ers, then in the All-America Football Conference, in 1948 after his discharge.
“I chose Baltimore because Bam Morris was there,” Holmes said, referring to the former Texas Tech running back. “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.’”
While Holmes was confident he could make the Ravens’ roster, he had a reality check after a conversation with then-Ravens head coach Ted Marchibroda when he reported to his first training camp.
“Ted Marchibroda came to me and said, ‘Priest, we invited you here because we think you’ve got a good opportunity to make this ballclub,’” Holmes said. “’Now, one thing I’ve got to tell you before the season even starts is that you’re not going to touch the ball one time this year. We’re going to leave that up to Bam Morris, Earnest Byner and Jay Graham.’ I said OK. That was a dose of reality I wasn’t prepared for.
“Then Ted said, ‘I’ll tell you the good news. The way you’ll make this team is if you can make it through special teams. If you can show some improvement in that area, then you’ll have an opportunity.’ I can always respect a coach who’s going to give it to me straight. Tell me, ‘Here’s what you’ve got to do if you want to make the ballclub.’”
And so began the pro career of Priest Holmes.
After dropping off the radar of NFL scouts when the knee injury wiped out his 1995 season, Holmes rehabbed and kept the fire burning with a grueling rehab program during his redshirt year. Despite playing behind Ricky Williams and Shon Mitchell as a senior in 1996, Holmes scored 13 touchdowns on only 59 carries.
Holmes capped his final collegiate season with an outstanding performance in the first Big 12 title game, rushing for 120 yards and three touchdowns in UT’s 37-27 upset of No. 3 Nebraska.
As it turned out, former NFL coach Dick Vermeil did the color commentary for the TV broadcast of the game, which was played in St. Louis. Five years later, Vermeil was the head coach of the Chiefs when Holmes went to Kansas City as a free agent.
“It’s funny that I played in the game and Coach Vermeil was the commentator,” Holmes said. “Coach Vermeil interviewed several players who had played alongside me in Baltimore. He asked them, which is what he told me, ‘I’m thinking of bringing in Priest Holmes from the Ravens. What do you think of this guy?’
“I got nothing but rave reviews. They said great things about me. Team guy. Hard worker. Puts it on the line. Doesn’t quit. Brings his hard hat when he’s ready to play and puts a helmet on somebody. Those were the things that were said about me, Coach Vermeil said.”
When Vermeil and Holmes met, the coach told Holmes that he reminded him of former Abilene Christian running back Wilbert Montgomery, who had played for him when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles in the mid-1970s and early ‘80s.
Vermeil then told him a story related to the Big 12 title game in 1996.
“He said, ‘I remember that championship game that you played against Nebraska, when they were supposed to beat you all and go to the national championship,” Holmes said. “’I asked your head coach at that time (John Mackovic). who was going to be the standout player for that game?’” Holmes said. “Coach Vermeil said, ‘Believe it or not, Coach Mackovic said, ‘I know Ricky (Williams) is our starter, but you need to watch this kid Priest Holmes.’
“'He’s going to be the MVP of this game. You just watch. Sure enough, the game comes down to it. James Brown comes up with that crazy play on fourth-and-one, gets the ball to our tight end and gets it down to the 10, and I run it in.'"
“Coach Vermeil remembered what Coach Mackovic had told him, and was able to foresee what was going to happen. He said, ‘Hey, you need to be watching this guy Priest Holmes. No one knows about him because he’s coming off an injury, but he’s a game-changer.’”
Texas led 30-27 and had the ball at its 28 with 2:40 left before Brown rolled to his left and connected with tight end Derek Lewis for a 61-yard completion that put the ball at the Cornhuskers’ 11. Holmes scored on the next play.
“Coach Vermeil said he remembered me from that game and he said that if he ever had a chance to get me on his squad if he were coaching, he would bring me in,” Holmes said. “That’s how I ended up in Kansas City.”
While Holmes rushed for only 1,276 yards in four seasons with the Longhorns, he finished with 20 TDs and averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
“I didn’t have the big stats on paper that could get me in the door,” Holmes said. “I wasn’t that guy. You had to bring me in to see what kind of work ethic I had to understand what you had on your hands.”
Holmes played the best football of his career when he was with Kansas City. He ran for 1,555 yards and eight TDs, and had 62 receptions for 614 yards and two scores in his first season.
Holmes was even better in 2002, rushing for 1,615 yards and 21 TDs. He added 70 catches for 672 yards and three TDs. Holmes capped his impressive three-year run by running for 1,420 yards and 27 TDs. He had 892 yards and 14 TDs in eight games in 2004 before a back injury ended his season and stopped his streak of 1,000-yard campaigns.
Emmitt Smith and Holmes are the only players in NFL history to rush for 20 TDs in back-to-back seasons. Holmes was well on his way to make it three in a row before he injured his back midway through the 2004 season. Holmes’ 27 TDs in 2003 were the highest in NFL history before LaDainian Tomlinson broke the record with 28 in 2006. Shaun Alexander had tied Holmes’ mark in 2005.
Born in Fort Smith, Ark., Priest Anthony Holmes grew up in San Antonio and graduated from Marshall in 1992. He helped lead the Rams to the Class 5A Division II state final, rushing for 2,061 yards and 26 TDs. Holmes is a member of the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame.
Holmes still lives in San Antonio and stays busy working in real estate and the Priest Holmes Foundation, a nonprofit that’s “committed to encouraging education and enhancing the lives of children and adults in our community,” according to the organization’s mission statement.
“I always wanted to give back to the community,” Holmes said. “I always thought that was important.”
Thirteen years since his last NFL seasons, Holmes continues to tap into the drive and perseverance that carried him on the football field in his daily life.
“As you get older and you’ve had some success and been able to navigate through life and reach some of these heights within a career, it does wonders for me,” Holmes said. “It allows me to know that whenever I take on a new project, it helps me understand that I can always lean on that ace of spades.
“I was able to go from nothing in terms of being not a draft pick, not being on the leader board for any of these teams, to going in as a free agent, undrafted, undersized, to the highest level in my career, at my position. I was the best. So whenever I go and take on another project, I know the ability that I have. I know I have the fortitude, I know I have the ability to be successful.”
Holmes will be driving north on Interstate 35 more than usual this football season. His youngest son, Corion, was a senior running back at Brandeis last season and will play at Mary Hardin-Baylor this season.