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Convention 2010
June 23-26
Marriott City Center,
Salt Lake City

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First place

All the right moves
Priest Holmes may not talk much about his success in NFL, but his chess game speaks volumes

Kansas City Star

Priest loves bishops. They are his assassins. In chess, bishops rush diagonally across the board. Priest Holmes loves that. He hides his bishops in corners until the right moment. Then, he lets them slash in.

"Bishops," he says, "are cold-blooded."

Everybody in America, it seems, tries to get Priest Holmes to talk about himself these days. Why not? He is one incredible story. He ripped up his ACL in college. He watched Ricky Williams take his job. He didn't get drafted by any NFL team. He finally earned his chance in Baltimore and rushed for 1,000 yards. He promptly was benched. He came to Kansas City. He became the best running back in football.

That's some story.

Trouble is, you can't get Priest Holmes to tell the story. He won't talk about himself. Guys on the Chiefs will tell you: Holmes can go days without talking at all. You would need to put him in a dark room with one of those World War II interrogation lamps blazing in his eyes to get him to give much more than his name, rank and uniform number.

There is another way.

You can sit across the chess board from him.

"Come on," Holmes says, "let's see if you figure me out before I figure you out."

In so many ways, Priest Holmes is still that seventh grader. His family had just moved to the northern part of San Antonio. And that was a different world from the south side. People looked at him a little funny. A kid can feel that.

So, here's what Priest Holmes did: He entered the school chess tournament.

"Everybody just sort of stared at me, like, 'Uh, I think you're in the wrong place,' " Holmes says. "You could see it in their eyes. They wanted to say, 'Hey, the football field is that way,' or 'The basketball court is over there.'

1. A job well done

2. All the right moves

3. Darrell Porter's sad final chapter

"But I stayed. And I won the tournament."

The point of the story is not that he won. That just shows he was a pretty good chess player. The point is that he stayed. That's Priest Holmes. He won't let anybody label him. He won't let anybody brand him. Every Wednesday evening, Holmes goes to the Police Athletic League (PAL) Center and plays chess with a few children from the inner city. He sponsors this chess club because he knows what the game did for him.

He knows what chess can do for them.

"All your life, you will have people tell you what you can and can't do," Holmes says. "These kids will have to hear that over and over again. But with chess, there are no limitations. It's whatever your mind imagines. Nobody can tell you who you are when you're playing chess."

Priest Holmes doesn't talk when he plays chess. He doesn't look at you either. He sits there with his arms crossed, and he glares at the board. On one side, he has my king surrounded. On the other side, though, I am menacing his king. The game can go either way. He has a blank look on his face. He dares you to try to figure out his next move.

There's a great chess story about a robotic machine called "The Turk." In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Turk was taken across Europe and America, and the thing beat pretty much everybody at chess. It was a wonder. People came from everywhere to play The Turk. After a while, the Turk became so famous, it crossed paths with Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin and Edgar Allan Poe.

Nobody could figure out how the Turk worked. Some thought it used magnets. Others thought it was remote controlled. Still others thought there was a man hidden inside. But nobody knew for sure.

Same thing goes with Priest Holmes. Nobody knows for sure. He is doing things that are virtually unprecedented. Last year, he became the first undrafted player in almost 50 years to lead the NFL in rushing. Holmes did not even start his senior year at Texas, and he now leads the NFL in touchdowns, is third in rushing and total yards, and is No. 1 in fantasy football points.

"You see his ability and his vision when he's running the ball," Chiefs quarterback Trent Green says. "He sets up his blocks very well. And he's hard to get down on first contact."

Throw in that he catches the ball too, and that pretty much covers everything a running back can do. The guy is a phenomenon. But how does he do it? He had a knee injury that wrecks careers. Scouts dumped on him pretty much every chance they had. Coaches consistently benched him for guys who looked bigger and better.

How did he get here?

"Character," Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil says. That's what Vermeil bet on when the Chiefs signed Holmes. Of course, Vermeil and the Chiefs didn't see this coming either. If they're completely honest, they saw Holmes as a quick little running back who might complement big Tony Richardson. The first two games last year, Holmes carried the ball a total of 15 times.

"Early last year we really didn't know what he had," Green says.

Holmes persevered. He always does. He has a rare combination of qualities. He's overwhelmingly humble. That comes from his mother, Norma Morris, who, after all, named him Priest. But, he's also unflinching in his confidence.

"I knew I could do this," he says, the closest thing to bragging you will ever hear from Priest Holmes. "You have to believe in yourself. That was never an issue for me. I always knew that if I worked hard, I would get my chance. And I always knew that if I got my chance, I would succeed."

When the Chiefs gave Holmes his chance last year, he rushed for 147 yards in Washington. And he was off. The NFL never knew what hit it. He went for 150 against Pittsburgh, not bad considering top running backs averaged 45 yards a game against that nasty Steelers defense. He had 276 total yards against Oakland. He cashed in on a one million dollar bonus for rushing more than 1,400 yards in a season. He set seven team records.

This year? He's been better. While some doubted, called him a one-year wonder, he scored four touchdowns at Cleveland. He rushed for 180 yards against the defending world champion Patriots. The entire Miami defense was geared to stop him, and he still managed 115 total yards and a touchdown. With Marshall Faulk hobbling, with Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis retired, with time pounding away on Eddie George and Emmitt Smith, is there a running back in the whole world you would rather have than Priest Holmes?

"Come on," you say to him. "I know you were confident. I know you had belief in yourself. But this has to be beyond your wildest expectations, right? This has to be bigger than your biggest dreams, right?"

Holmes gives you that same blank look he offers over a chess board.

"No," he says. "Not really."

Priest Holmes learned chess from his father. That's how most people learn. My father taught me. He won the Cleveland Open. He would sit at the chess board and patiently explain to me why this was a good move, why that was a mistake. There were times, I think, when he hoped his oldest son might be a chess prodigy. He probably gave up on that when I tried to eat a pawn.

Priest Holmes learned a little differently. The only time Holmes ever saw his biological father was at his funeral. Then, it is his stepfather whom he calls "Dad." Priest watched his Dad play chess.

"He never really taught me," Holmes says. "I remember that sometimes he used to say 'OK, let's play.' But by then I had sort of taught myself by watching him play against his friends."

Priest plays chess instinctively, the same way he runs with the football. There have been thousands of books written about chess strategy. Good players will study games played centuries ago. The best can look at a board a certain way and know that they will win in exactly 12 moves.

That's not Priest Holmes. He plays with freedom. He doesn't want to play by the book.

"What I love about chess," he says, "is that I can study every situation. I love that feeling of looking over a board, trying to figure out exactly what you're trying to do. I want to see exactly how it is that people are trying to beat me, and then try to counter that."

That crosses over to football too. Much has been made of the fact that, this off-season, Priest Holmes watched all 411 plays he was involved with last year, and he watched each one at least 10 times.

What people haven't talked about as much is that he loved doing it. He loved studying those defenses, seeing how linebackers reacted to him, seeing holes he missed.

That's what makes him tick. He's a perfectionist. He mows lawns precisely. His home is immaculate. Ask him about this season, and instead of talking about eight touchdowns or his 107-yards-per-game rushing average, he will talk about his one fumble.

One story goes that when Holmes was in high school, recruiters wanted to visit. He would not let them come over until he cleaned inside the cabinets.

"This guy's preparation is something else," Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders says.

His practice habits are legendary. The Chiefs asked him to become an even better receiver. Every day, he would catch 50 to 100 extra passes. And he was already one of the best pass-catching backs in football.

On the Saturday before every game, Holmes will walk on the field and slowly walk through his plays. He visualizes everything before it ever happens.

"The thing about chess," chess instructor Zeb Fortman says, "is that you don't have to be the biggest or the fastest or the strongest. You don't even have to be the smartest. The best player is the one who concentrates the best."

Is there any wonder that Priest Holmes is the best player?

Priest has me. And he knows it. At least I think he knows it. He obviously has my king paralyzed. Of course, Holmes' face still isn't showing anything. He's wearing a shirt with the words "Sore Loser" on it.

"A friend started this 'Sore Loser' clothing line," Holmes says. "I'm not really a sore loser."

He is a couple of moves from checkmating me. A few moves ago, I had him. And I made a stupid mistake. I moved my queen too soon. And Priest's bishop slashed in.

"I think football players are like chess pieces," Holmes says. "There are some guys out there who like knights, you know, they dance around and then swoop in out of nowhere. (Miami linebacker) Zach Thomas is a knight. You never see him coming.

"And there are some out there who are like rooks. They come straight at you, full force, nothing gets in their way. Some are like pawns, they throw their bodies out there to open up holes."

And you?

"Me?" Priest asks. "I'm a bishop. I love to slash."

He smiles. He does love talking chess. He once played chess with a friend for 12 straight hours. "It's the one thing," he says, "that helps me relax. I'm always on the move. I always have to be doing something. But with chess, I can just sit down and almost enter another world."

There aren't many football players he can play chess with. He used to play heated games with fellow running back Errict Rhett in Baltimore. So far, though, he has not found anyone on the Chiefs who plays. "We got this pool table in the locker room now," he says. "So nobody's going to let me bring my chess set."

Instead, he plays on the Internet. He plays with his oldest son De'Andre. And he plays with those kids at the PAL Center. He likes it there. They don't treat him like a superstar.

Heck, they barely know who he is. On the first day of the chess club, the kids were asking Fortman, who retired from IBM after 33 years, if he was Priest Holmes.

"It's fun to watch them relate to Priest," Fortman says. "There's so much kids can learn from chess. And when they see Priest Holmes is playing, they can see, 'Well, this must be a pretty cool game.' "

Back to our game. I'm squirming, trying to stay alive as long as I can. I'm thinking maybe if I frustrate Priest Holmes, he'll make a fatal error and let me back in. Of course, the question is: How do you frustrate Priest Holmes?

It didn't frustrate him to be benched for no apparent reason. It didn't frustrate him when scouts said he was too small and frail. It didn't frustrate him when people pretty much called him a fluke after his brilliant 2001 season.

So, a few extra moves in a chess game probably won't get the job done.

"Checkmate," he says very softly, almost as if he's embarrassed. Then he breathes out, as if he had been holding his breath the whole time.

"You know what your mistake was," he says after a minute. "You shouldn't have moved that queen."

"Yeah," I say.

"We all make mistakes," he says. "You just don't want to make the same mistake again. That's chess. That's life, too."

• • •

You can reach Joe Posnanski at (816) 234-4361 or e-mail at jposnanski@kcstar.com.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News