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All the right moves
Priest Holmes may not talk much about his success in NFL, but his chess game speaks volumes
By JOE POSNANSKI
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
"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
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
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
"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.'
"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
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
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
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,
Holmes gives you that same blank look he offers over a chess
"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 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
On the Saturday before every game, Holmes will walk on the field
and slowly walk through his plays. He visualizes everything before it
"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"
"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."
"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
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
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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.