For an undrafted player who spent four relatively obscure seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before signing with the Chiefs, Holmes has been curiously indifferent to publicity. Last fall he declined an invitation from CBS to be a guest on its NFL pregame show during Kansas City's bye week because he wanted to watch his oldest son, DeAndre, play a Pop Warner game in San Antonio. He has rebuffed MTV and BET because of similar conflicts. During the summer, while the rest of the sporting elite was congregating in Hollywood for the ESPYs, Holmes, a nominee for the show's NFL player of the year award, was back in Kansas City sweating through solo two-a-day workouts. "At the end of our minicamp in June, I told my teammates, 'While you're off in the Caribbean for the next month, I'll be here, alone, doing two-a-days,' " Holmes says. "Once I made the commitment, I felt I had to honor it."
More was at stake than his word. During a game against the Denver Broncos last Dec. 15, Holmes suffered a right hip strain that ended his season. He underwent surgery in March and spent several weeks on crutches, leading some NFL personnel types to question whether he would ever return to form. Adding fuel to the speculation about Holmes's health, the Chiefs used their first-round draft pick on Penn State running back Larry Johnson, despite needing help on a defense that ranked last in the league in 2002.
Holmes, who had three years remaining on a contract that was due to pay him $1.95 million in 2003, had informed Peterson last November that he wanted an upgraded deal. There was little debate that his performance merited a raise. Just ask his teammates. ("The guy's phenomenal, the MVP of the league, and he's a joy to block for," says All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez.) Or his coaches. ("What does Priest mean to us?" asks offensive coordinator Al Saunders. "What's an engine to a car?") Or ask his opponents. ("He's what Marshall Faulk was two or three years ago—the premier back in the NFL," says New England Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel.)
Still, Holmes knew that if he didn't convince Peterson that his hip was sound, he would have no leverage in negotiations. So he showed up for training camp in the best shape of his life, then surprised everyone—even his agent, Todd France—by taking his case to the airwaves. Asked in a sideline interview during the Chiefs' preseason opener what was the next step to prepare him for the regular season, Holmes told a national TV audience, "Get paid, because I'm ready."
Peterson called France to express his displeasure with the comment, but ultimately the club president decided to satisfy his marquee runner with a four-year extension, upping the value of Holmes's deal to $35 million through 2009. To protect the investment, Vermeil says he's trying to keep his halfback healthy by scaling back his workload. ( Holmes played on Sunday despite having suffered bruised ribs in the Chiefs' 41-20 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers the previous week, but he carried only three times in the second half.) Though Holmes touched the ball 75 times in K.C.'s first three games, five fewer than he did over the same span in 2002, he played 32% fewer snaps.
Holmes, who tore his left ACL in college and sprained the MCL in the other knee while with the Ravens in 1999, believes his hip injury was a blessing. "Whenever I've overcome an injury, I've come back faster, stronger, more aware and more mature," he says. "I was reaching so many new heights, and then boom, I got hurt. It allowed me to remember what got me there, to do some soul-searching and decide, Do I really want this?"
It's late on a Friday afternoon at Chiefs headquarters, and most NFL players are off getting haircuts or at happy hour or taking the kids to soccer practice. Holmes sits in a media lounge, fidgeting as he discusses the significance of his new contract.
"My only financial goal coming out of college was to be debt free, and I have been since 1997," he says. "So for me, the contract changes nothing. But I have three kids [sons DeAndre, 10, and Jekovan, 5, and daughter Corion, 1, all live with their mother in San Antonio], and this money allows me to take care of them and my extended family. I'm not going to get caught up in it, though, because when you're a football player, it's easy to get spoiled. I'm not going to say I'm spoiled—well, that's not true. I am spoiled, with a capital S."
Given his spartan sensibilities, an intriguing notion is raised: Does Holmes feel conflicted about having struck the mother lode? But before the question can be asked, a Chiefs official comes to break up the interview. "Priest," the man says, "it's time for your massage."
The answer will have to wait, for if there's one thing we've learned, Holmes will be getting that massage, at all costs.