Real Life or Fantasy?

Neither pain nor memories are fleeting for fantasy football legend Priest Holmes

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SAN ANTONIO – The greatest fantasy football player of them all wakes up in the middle of the night. He has lost all feeling in his arms; he can’t move them. He lies on his bed, stares at the ceiling and patiently waits for feeling to come back.

Priest Holmes talks to himself while he waits. Talks to himself. “Come on arms,” he whispers to his arms. “I’m bigger than this injury,” he says to his mind. “I’m stronger than what’s happening to me,” he says to his body. When the feeling comes back, it comes slowly, a few centimeters of life prickling at a time, and once all feeling returns he gingerly gets out of bed. There is no more sleeping this night.

Understand: This is not one specific night. This is every night, every single night since the day he retired from the NFL five years ago. The doctors don’t know exactly what to do. This doesn’t seem to be one injury, one damaged nerve, but the product of a lifetime of runs and falls and crashes. When you ask Priest Holmes about a full night’s sleep, he shrugs like you are asking about vaudeville or childhood or something else that is gone and is not coming back. He never gets a full night’s sleep. He never expects to get one again.

* * *

Housewives wrote thank you notes to him. Office workers built desk shrines to him. People around America would spend more time in the fall thinking about Priest Holmes than they would about their families. They named their fantasy teams after him – “Holmes Wreckers” and “Judas Priests” and “The High Priest of Touchdowns” – and they moved their lineups around him and they spent their Sundays shrugging when opponents took a big lead because nothing mattered, nothing at all, until Priest Holmes stepped on the field and began his weekly fantasy football scoring spree.

“I met a couple of guys, they were out in Vegas, and they told me that they had won $250,000 in fantasy football because of me,” Holmes says. “I was like, ‘Really?’ I didn’t realize fantasy football was that big. But the height of my career, I think that was the time when fantasy football exploded. I’d hear from so many people, they didn’t even know me, they would just get me by happenstance and then win their leagues and they would thank me. … I didn’t get into it myself, but I guess it made me a household name.”

In 2001, after joining the Kansas City Chiefs, Priest Holmes led the NFL in rushing. Fantasy points galore. In 2002, before he got hurt, he was on his way to the greatest season an NFL running has ever had. More points. In 2003, he broke the NFL record for touchdowns. In 2004, he was on pace to break his own record before suffering an injury that more or less ended it all. It was just three and a half years.

He had three and a half glorious seasons as a fantasy football god. That’s all.

Priest Holmes says it was worth it.

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all looks for cracks in the ground when he walks now. “Cracks,” he says. “Divots. Unlevel ground. A shift in the pavement. A crack in the hall.”

He looks for these things because the tiniest variation in elevation can throw his body now. If he hits one of those cracks just a little bit wrong, his ankle turns. His hip jolts. “I can blow out a knee,” he says. The body that once bounced off the ground after the most savage crash went dark now teeters with the slightest incline or dip.

“I watch football on television now,” Holmes says, “and it’s almost surreal. I’m watching guys leaping and jumping and spinning and busting tackles, and I think, ‘Was I really able to do all that stuff?’ I know that I did, but I don’t know how.”

He pauses. “It was just a mentality I developed over the years. I’m glad I bought into it.”

The good thing is that Holmes always could see the cracks.

* * *

Priest Holmes loves telling the Levon Kirkland story. This happened when he first started in the NFL. That took time. Nobody drafted him out of college. Why would anyone draft him? He had been a backup at Texas, where he spent his senior year mentoring a bigger, stronger, faster young man named Ricky Williams. He had blown out his ACL. He was 5-foot-9, a little more than 200 pounds, not much top-end speed. He was not a prospect. Of course nobody drafted him. All he had was his reputation as a force of nature.

Baltimore brought him to training camp, and he was … just … so … relentless. He never stopped. He latched on to the old warhorse, running back Earnest Byner, who was in his mid 30s and had seen it all. Byner worked as hard as any of the kids. Holmes saw a guru.

“I was mesmerized by him,” Holmes says. He studied the way Byner practiced, studied the way Byner watched film, studied the way Byner carried himself on and off the field. There was a football player. But he was more. “There’s a difference between a professional football player and a professional football player who leaves behind a legacy,” Byner told Holmes. Yes. He wanted to leave a legacy.

He made the team as a special teams player that first year and continued to play so hard, with so much heart, that one day that team’s coach Ted Marchibroda came up to him and said: “Priest, you’re our starting running back against Cincinnati.”

Holmes ran for 173 yards and scored two touchdowns in his first game as an NFL starter. For the season, he ran for 1,000 yards. “I didn’t know anything yet,” Holmes would say. “I did that on pure enthusiasm.”

That was the year of the Levon Kirkland story. Remember Kirkland? He was a freakishly big linebacker for Pittsburgh – the Steelers listed him at 270, but the guy was 300 pounds on dieting days. He moved like a Land Rover.

Holmes ran a short square-out pattern – go five yards, turn to the quarterback, show your hands for the pass. Eric Zeier was the Ravens quarterback that day, and it was cold and windy. Zeier’s throw fluttered a high.

“I saw that ball moving up in and down in the wind,” Holmes says, “and I thought: ‘I don’t want this one.’ But you know me. I went up and got it. And I turned and … all I saw was a 99. You know how the Steelers wear their numbers on their helmets? All I saw was Levon’s 99 on that helmet.

“The sun was behind him. And that black helmet came in, like it was a lunar eclipse, you know? Then it blocked the sun. And everything went dark.”

Priest Holmes smiles. Everything went dark.

“He decleated me,” Holmes says. “That was the hardest I ever got hit in my whole life. And I don’t even know how I did it, but I bounced up off the ground, and I ran back to the huddle. I went right up to Zeier and said, ‘Don’t you EVER do that to me again. If you ever throw a ball like that to me again, it’s going the other way for six because I’m not catching it.”

Now, Priest Holmes is laughing hard.

“Man, Levon loves that story. Every time I see him, he says: ‘Go on Priest. Tell that story about the time I hit you.'”

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all is trimmer now. Every day, he goes out with his old trainer Bay Bay McClintock, and they do some of the old training routine. No, they’re not quite climbing the stadium stairs yet, and they’re certainly not running the hills the way they did when Holmes was an athletic rock. In those days, Priest Holmes would do stuff that Bay Bay couldn’t believe – and he’d trained professional athletes most of his life. One time, he saw Holmes run the stadium stairs and, at the end, jump over the brick wall onto the concourse without stopping.

Anyway, they’re not doing those kinds of routines. But they’re doing some real training.

“Comeback!” Bay Bay yells sometimes.

“You are out of your mind,” Priest Holmes yells back.

At one point, not so long ago, Holmes was pushing 250. This happens to elite football players sometimes – they retire and stop working out but they keep eating and living like they’re football players. Priest Holmes went into real estate, he opened up a lounge in San Antonio, he did some broadcasting, he worked on numerous charities. He could not accept that his body was changing; he could not stop seeing himself as that brick of a man who lit up fantasy football scoreboards. He could not accept it; until he did. And then he started working out because he felt like he was losing himself.

“It comes down to the question: ‘What am I?'” he says. “I’m not a 255-pound guy. I came close to it, but that’s not who I am. … It’s hard sometimes to remember who you are.”

* * *

Brian Billick had just taken the job as Baltimore Ravens coach, and he called Priest Holmes aside and told him, straight out: “You are not my kind of running back.”

This was just after Holmes’ 1,000-yard season, just after he had scaled those crazy odds and gone from NFL free agent to NFL star. “He told me, ‘People around this team respect you, I’m not even sure why,'” Holmes says. “And then he said that he wanted a big back, an intimidating back, he wanted his own Jerome Bettis, his own Eddie George, his own Corey Dillon. I didn’t blame him really. I just told him, ‘Well, I don’t think I can get any bigger.”

Billick and the Ravens brought in Errict Rhett, a former star running back with Tampa Bay. They drafted a big 240-pound bruiser of a back out of Tennessee named Jamal Lewis. They could not have made things more clear. But Holmes kept finding ways to make himself valuable. He became a third-down back who caught passes. He became a mentor for Lewis, even though he knew that he was teaching the man who had taken his job. He became a leader. Before the 2000 season, the year Baltimore won the Super Bowl, four players spoke to the team. Three were defensive players, led by Ray Lewis. The fourth was Priest Holmes.

That seemed to be Holmes’ destiny – an inspirational player who filled some gaps and led by example. That, in fact, was what the Kansas City Chiefs believed they were getting in 2001 when they signed Holmes. Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil badly needed a running back – the Chiefs had not had even a 900-yard rusher in nine years. Vermeil’s former quarterback Tony Banks told him that Holmes was the right kind of player for the team. “I think Priest Holmes will be a terrific player for us,” Vermeil said.

Priest Holmes and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil in 2007. (AP)

But, no matter how they would spin it later, Vermeil and the Chiefs did not think Holmes was a guy who could carry the ball 25 or 30 times a game. In his first two games, Holmes carried the ball just 15 times total – the bulk of the carries went to bigger and stronger fullback Tony Richardson. Holmes would admit being a bit frustrated (“Why did they bring me here if they aren’t going to give me the ball?”) but after those games, Richardson and Holmes had a talk.

Holmes: “He told me, ‘Priest, this just isn’t right. You should be the one carrying the ball. And I promise I’ll be there for you every step of the way.’ It all changed after that.”

“It was clear to me,” Richardson would say, “and I’m sure it was becoming clear to the coaches that Priest needed to get the football.”

In Week 3 against Washington, Holmes ran for 147 yards, caught five passes for 78 more, scored three touchdowns – a fantasy football cavalcade – and the greatest fantasy football run ever began.

“Surprised?” he asks. “Nah. I wasn’t really surprised. I always believed that I could do special things on a football field. The numbers and the touchdowns and all that stuff, I figured that would come if I got the chance.”

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all had to buy health insurance this year for the first time. That’s the way it goes for retired players – for five years Holmes was covered by the NFL insurance policy. When five years expired, he got a letter in the mail: “You are no longer covered by the NFL’s Cobra policy.”

Getting health insurance was just one more step into that realm Holmes has come to call: Real life. When you play in the NFL, there is only football. Everything else is handled. “If you need a room, you call somebody,” Holmes says. “If you need a rental car, you call somebody. What you eat, where you eat, where you go, what you do – call this person. They’ll take care of it. If I needed socks I would call our equipment manager. The league gives you this kind of fishbowl living, where you are concentrating on football only.

“Yes, there are players who become distracted with that kind of living, who do things they shouldn’t do. But, if you use it, the NFL environment allows you to think about nothing but football. That’s all I thought about for all those years.”

When the letter came, Holmes quickly found an insurance policy that sounded good, one that he thought would cover his needs. He got the bill: $2,500. He thought, “Well, that’s pretty expensive, but it seems like good insurance.” The next month, though, he got the next bill for $2,500.

“Wait a minute,” he thought. “I have to pay that much EVERY MONTH?”

He quickly canceled the policy and shopped around for health insurance that wouldn’t cost him $30,000 a year.

* * *

Back when Priest Holmes was playing, fantasy football was generally pretty simple. Running backs were the most valuable players, even more than quarterbacks, because they could score points in a variety of ways: With rushing yards, with receptions, with receiving yards and, of course, with touchdowns. This is still somewhat true though fantasy football rules are much more diverse and distinct now. Back then, in the early 2000s, most people played by the same rules and running backs were kings of the world.

Priest Holmes was the fantasy football king of kings.

In 2001, you suspect, Holmes wasn’t even drafted in many fantasy leagues. For those lucky enough to pick him up after the Washington breakthrough game, their fantasy football teams were transformed. Holmes ran for a league-leading 1,555 yards – essentially in 14 games – he caught 62 passes, he scored 10 touchdowns. He was the second-highest scoring fantasy player that year behind another fantasy football icon, Marshall Faulk. Holmes was only just starting.

Holmes’ 2002 season is one of the NFL’s greatest what-if questions. It began when he scored four touchdowns against Cleveland. Two weeks later, he ran for 180 yards and scored three touchdowns against New England. He scored at least one touchdown 10 games in a row, and in the team’s 14th game, against Denver, he was having one of the best days of that whole amazing season. Late in the third quarter, he broke off a 56-yard run and was pulled down from behind just as he was approaching the end zone.

At that moment, with two games and a quarter remaining, Holmes had 1,615 yards rushing, 70 receptions, almost 700 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. He was just about on pace for 2,000 yards rushing, and clearly on pace for records in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. Nobody had ever had a statistical season quite like it. In Kansas City, he was this wonderful player who kept a flawed team in games, but around the country he was something more: He was fantasy football god. He was for fantasy football what Bo Jackson had been in the classic video game “Tecmo Bowl.”

“I remember playing with Tecmo Bowl with Bo,” Holmes would say. “That’s all I wanted to do. Defenders would grab him and he would just shake them off and go, he was unstoppable.”

“Did you feel that way in 2002?”

“Well, I couldn’t just shake people off like that. And I couldn’t break those long Bo Jackson runs. But it was similar in that I didn’t think anybody could stop us.”

That tackle in Denver ended the magical season. It would be an illegal play today – Denver’s Tyrone Poole horse collared Holmes from behind. Holmes foot got stuck and fell awkwardly to the ground. At first the doctors couldn’t quite pinpoint what was wrong with Holmes; he would not have the necessary hip surgery for months. Either way, the season ended and a half dozen records were not broken.

“I still think about it,” Holmes said. “To this day, I remember how I got horse-collared and how my foot got stuck. I think, ‘Why did I do that? Why didn’t I just fall differently? Why didn’t he let go when I was going down? Why did my foot have to get stuck?’ I still think about it.”

He had hip surgery and was on crutches for four weeks in April and May the following season. There were doubts he’d be ready for the season. What few knew was that he was training with a vengeance, a hunger even he had never quite shown before. “He came back,” Bay Bay says, “and it wasn’t like anyone else I ever trained. He was on a mission. Of all the people I’ve trained, Priest is the one I couldn’t break. I’d work him and work him, and he wouldn’t show me his pain.”

“That was just me,” Priest says. “I didn’t show anybody my pain.”

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all admits having mood swings. He doesn’t think of them as mood swings exactly; he always did have a reputation for being temperamental. After some of his best games, he would sometimes, for no apparent reason, just refuse to talk to reporters. After some of his worst, he would talk and talk until reporters had to just walk away. His teammates would talk about how they admired him but didn’t quite get him. He seemed to change his cell phone number every other day.

It’s different now, he says. There are times when black clouds hover. The migraines come. The pain comes. The tingling sensation of lost feeling comes. They also go. That’s the important part. They always go.

Priest Holmes in October 2001. (Getty Images)

He was involved in a Chiefs fantasy camp once, not too long ago. A bunch of businessmen paid some money so they could act like football players for a day. Holmes and a few other players put them through some drills. Just drills – nothing with contact. He watched for two hours as hamstrings snapped like tennis racket strings and muscles pulled like taffy and ankles turned over and shoulders popped out of sockets. He watched these men hobbled and limped around the field in agony.

Just drills.

“This was just the stuff we would do to warm up before practice,” he says.

When the black clouds come, Holmes says he doesn’t get angry. He goes deeper inside himself. Deeper and deeper. When he played, he would often call himself a warrior. He only meant it metaphorically – his father, Herman Morris, was a master sergeant in the army and shipped off to Iraq when he was 50, and so Priest always knew and respected that football and war are really nothing alike. But being a football warrior was a mindset, one he needed to get through the injuries and the doubts and, later in his career, the black clouds that would build overhead. The warrior never stops. The warrior never lets down. The warrior sacrifices all for the war.

“Are you a warrior now?” I ask him.

“No,” he says. “The war’s over.”

* * *

Three steps. That’s the Lynyrd Skynyrd song. That’s what football means to Priest Holmes. Three steps. Every single thing he ever accomplished, every comeback he ever made, every game-breaking play he made, every one of the 27 touchdowns he scored in his record-breaking 2003 season, he chalks up all of it to the precision of the first three steps he would take when the ball was snapped.

Funny thing is that’s what he misses most. Three steps. He hears some of his old friends talk about the friendships, and he misses those. They miss the cheers, the action, the competition, and he misses those too. He misses the touchdowns – Holmes loved scoring touchdowns. He used to do this little move when he crossed the end zone, a move where he would hold both arms out like he was soaring into the wind. Home crowds would go bonkers, road crowds would go silent, the moment crackled with energy, yes, he misses scoring those touchdowns.

But more, he misses those three steps, the purity of three steps, the daily pursuit of something perfect and just a little bit out of reach. He believed: If a running back stayed true to his first three steps, did them exactly right, the play would work. It had to work. Defenders were powerless if he made step one, step two, step three in flawless synchronicity with his offensive line.

But there were countless distractions and diversions and barriers to prevent him from getting the three steps right. He had to trust his linemen unconditionally. He had to believe the hole that was not in front of him would materialize. He had to stay true to the steps even when an unexpected flash of color crossed his vision or when the play before had blown up unexpectedly or when something in front of him looked just a little bit out of order.

Three steps. He would go to bed thinking about them. He would wake up thinking about them. He would spend all offseason watching every one of his plays at least three times, and he always watched his first three steps.

“All we were trying to do was perfect five or six plays,” Holmes says. “I miss that singularity of purpose, you know? That was just such an awesome feeling. The play would be written on the chalkboard. And the question was: “OK, can you do it JUST LIKE THAT? Because if you do, you’re going to get points. If you do, you’re going to win the game and, on top of that, maybe you’ll lead the league in rushing or set the touchdown record.’

“Can you do it? That’s all it was. And I loved that feeling, all of us working together, me working on my three steps, Willie Roaf working on mauling his guy, Will Shields working on leveraging his guy, Tony Gonzalez working on turning his defender – just give me one yard, Tony! — all of us working to do it just like it was on the chalkboard.”

In 2003, those three steps carried him to the NFL touchdown record. He wasn’t the physical force he had been in 2002. Each week took a terrible toll on him. He would remember Friday nights when he still wasn’t sure if he could play. That’s because: The feeling happened every Friday night. “Something would happen between Friday night and Saturday night,” he says. “I guess it was the mental training of it, I’d just done it so many times that my body would come together.

“But I would know that the minute that game ended on Sunday, I wasn’t going to be healthy Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. It would be back to Friday, and me saying: ‘Come on body, I need you one more time.'”

So in 2003, he wasn’t the unrelenting physical force he had been, his yards per carry went down a bit, his brilliance lost a little bit of its edge, but he had honed those first three steps — it didn’t hurt that the Chiefs had a phenomenal offensive line with Hall of Famer Willie Roaf and soon-to-be Hall of Famers Will Shields and Tony Gonzalez — and he still had a season for the ages. He scored those record-breaking touchdowns (the record would be broken again by Shaun Alexander). Four times that year he rushed for three touchdowns in a game, and he scored two touchdowns in six other games.

The Chiefs won their first nine games that year and led the league in scoring and seemed like a real Super Bowl contender – but they lost to Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis team in a playoff game where neither team punted. Holmes ran for 176 yards, caught five passes, scored two touchdowns, and it wasn’t enough to beat Manning. From a fantasy football perspective, those two seasons were like outliers, like one of those Wayne Gretzky seasons when he would have more assists than anyone else in the NHL would have points.

If anything, Holmes was even better to start 2004. He ran for 151 yards and three touchdowns against Denver to start the year. He scored four touchdowns against Atlanta, went for over 200 yards from scrimmage in a revenge game against Indianapolis. He was leading the NFL in rushing and on pace to break his own touchdown record when in the eighth game of the season, he was running a stretch play and a defender came on him at the perfect angle. Holmes looked to his fullback Tony Richardson to get the block, but for one of the few times in their remarkable friendship Richardson missed the block. The defender hit Holmes right on the knee, and his season was over.

“I gave Tony a lot of hell about that,” Holmes says. “I said, ‘Man, that’s where you have to take one for the team.’ We laughed about it. But he really did feel bad.”

When Holmes went to the sidelines after that play, he didn’t know that his end had been written. He would spend the next three years fighting the end, but it was really over. And then there was what happens after the end.

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all doesn’t regret one bit of it. He doesn’t regret the vicious hits that made his sky turn different colors. He doesn’t regret the tackles that made him lose feeling in his arms and legs. He doesn’t regret the time he got tackled so hard that he found himself sitting on the bench and he suddenly reached for his helmet and shouted to Richardson, “Come on man, let’s go, we have to get back in there.”

And Richardson said: “Sit down man, the game’s almost over. You’ve been sitting here for an hour.” Holmes did not remember one minute of it.

He doesn’t regret the final comeback, the return to the game after his body all but pleaded with him to stop. The headaches had already begun. He would lose feeling in his limbs after even moderate hits. He could not stop. He played in four games when he was 34, and the final run was for no gain and the final hit left his whole body quivering.

No, he doesn’t regret any of it because Priest Holmes was a football player. That was the one thing he wanted to be. He was well paid, and he heard the cheers, and he won a Super Bowl, and he got into people’s lives. Those were nice benefits. But more, he got to play football. This was his dream ever since the moment he first carried a football all those years ago in San Antonio. He wants the game to be safer. He is outspoken now about concussions (he does not even venture how many he suffered) and he is for the rules the NFL adds for safety. But regret? No. He made his choice. He was, like Earnest Byner, a football player who wanted to leave a legacy.

“Was it worth it?” he asks. “For me it was worth it. Football gave an opportunity to be my true self.”

He doesn’t lack for things to do now. Holmes says that he’s made some good money in real estate, his foundation offers scholarships and hope to young people in San Antonio and Kansas City, he dabbles in some football coaching and broadcasting; he plans to do some more of that. His lounge, PHX Lounge, has its financial ups and downs but he says it’s going well now and, anyway, it keeps him busy. He offers to mentor players who are just leaving the NFL – help them adapt to Real Life.

And, in the few quiet moments, he thinks a lot about touchdowns and three steps and the biggest hits he ever walked away from. Even in bed, with no feeling in his arms or legs, he thinks about football. Priest Holmes says it was one hell of a career.

* * *

We finish up the interview and Priest says to me: “Let’s play a game of chess.” We used to play chess every week in Kansas City – it was a way for him to relax and for me to get insight into the greatest fantasy football player there ever was – and so he pulled out a chess board and set up the pieces and we played. He sat for a long time over every move, like he always did. When the match is over, and he has won again, we get ready to go to dinner and he says, “Give me a second.”

He explains that he had lost feeling in his legs and it was only just coming back.

“Yeah, I lost it there in the middle of the game,” he says.

“Why didn’t you say something?” I ask.

“There’s nothing to say,” he says. “I knew the feeling would come back. By God’s grace, the feeling always comes back.”