Monday, July 30, 2007

Someone to root for

The first Big 12 Championship Game was played in 1996 in St. Louis. I was in college there at the time and couldn't get tickets, but I had a chance to watch the Texas/Nebraska matchup with a football player on my school's team from San Antonio. Texas was on their way back to prominence while heavily favored Nebraska had one of the country's premier programs. Led by fifth year senior Priest Holmes 120 yards and 3 touchdowns on 9 carries and a gutsy naked bootleg on a huge 4th and 1, the Longhorns shocked the Cornhuskers and Mack Brown earned his place in Texas lore.

Largely because he had spent much of his career sitting behind Ricky Williams, Holmes managed to go undrafted in 1997 before being signed by the Ravens. He sat for a year, playing some special teams, before earning the starting job and becoming one of the league's success stories in his second season, when he rushed for 400 yards against Cincinnati alone. The following year the team hired Brian Billick as head coach, and Holmes didn't get 20 carries in a game that season. I was at training camp that year and I will attest that I've never seen anyone more accommodating to fans than Holmes. When the rest of the team was in the locker room, he hadn't left the practice field, signing autographs literally until every Ravens fan at camp was satisfied, looking people in the eye and striking up conversations. Here was a guy who had worked his way from being a backup in college to an undrafted free agent playing special teams on the fringe of the team to becoming a starting running back in the NFL, and the new coach couldn't replace him quickly enough. Yet he wasn't sulking, he wasn't demanding a trade, he was the last one to leave the practice field, earning fans for his team.

The Ravens drafted Jamal Lewis, his eventual replacement, with the fifth pick in the 2000 draft. Priest Holmes, never complaining, backed him up, played some on third down, and helped the Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV. He left as a free agent, signing with Kansas City. Through two weeks, he totaled 51 yards on 15 carries, splitting carries with fullback Tony Richardson, before exploding for 3 TDs and 225 yards from scrimmage against the Redskins. His first three years with Kansas City he put up Hall of Fame numbers, breaking the single season touchdown record in 2003 with 27. He signed an extension, and his following two seasons were cut short by injury, including a spinal injury incurred by a typically violent Shawne Merriman tackle in 2005.

21 months later, with starting RB Larry Johnson holding out for more money after setting the single season record for carries with 416, Priest Holmes is back in Chiefs camp after being cleared by doctors. Now I'm not going to call Holmes brave or foolish for coming back from this injury, because he was cleared by doctors. (When asked what he had been told by doctors, Holmes said "No one wants to be hit with a malpractice suit so, of course, the doctors are going to respond accordingly.") And I'm not going to imply that Holmes didn't have to rehab and could sit at home counting his money, because since he was cleared by doctors the team could fine him if he didn't report, especially after paying him $1.5 million last year instead of pursuing an injury settlement. But Priest Holmes is one of the truly good guys in sports and is trying to come back from a devastating injury. He's never had a starting job handed to him and has never complained about having to prove himself all over again year after year. And amid Bonds chasing Aaron, Feds chasing Vick, and mafia hitmen chasing Donaghy, you can truly look forward to seeing linebackers chasing Priest Holmes.

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