He picked up the pen and moved it across the heavy white paper, dotting his i and crossing his t with a calligrapher's flourish. Then, and only then, did Priest Holmes flash his $35 million smile. In addition to the joy inspired by signing such a deal, Holmes, the Kansas City Chiefs' relentlessly driven running back, felt relief, vindication and even humility. Mostly, though, as he sat at the round oak table in the office of team president Carl Peterson on Sept. 3, Holmes was overcome by hunger. "Hadn't eaten all day," Holmes recalls, grimacing at the memory. "At that point all I could think about was getting some food."
First, however, Holmes had to go to practice, after which he showered and got some treatment in the training room. Finally, his 12-hour workday complete, it was time for Priest to feast.
A first-class celebration certainly was warranted, not just because Holmes, a month shy of his 30th birthday, had finally been able to get paid (the term he uttered on national TV in a calculated effort to accelerate the negotiating process), but also because of how much adversity he'd had to conquer along the road to riches. As Holmes says, "If you want to tell my story, it's all about overcoming obstacles and not giving up."
On that special night Holmes made a point of continuing two of his most cherished customs—the deft avoidance of both pretense and dinner checks. After stopping at a grocery store to pick up some Epsom salts for a restorative bath later that night, the NFL's most dangerous running back pulled into a shopping center off I-70 in Independence, Mo., and hightailed it to the Macaroni Grill. There, at a table near the back, Holmes met his suburban Kansas City neighbor and former high school teammate, Michael Gann, and Gann's wife, Misty, for a typically low-key meal.
The drama would come later. Having wolfed down pork chops, vegetables and a salad—eschewing champagne for tap water—Holmes was back at the bargaining table. He and Gann, a retail manager for RJ Reynolds who had nor just bagged more than $10 million in guaranteed money, each reached for the check. "Mike never lets me pay for anything," Holmes says, "but if ever there was an occasion when you'd figure I'd pick up a tab, this was it. So I put up a little fight. But anyone who knows me knows I'm not going to fight for long. When he said, 'Let me get it,' I said, 'O.K., O.K You got it.' "
He may be a tightwad, but put him on the football field, and Holmes is the gift that keeps on giving. Since joining the Chiefs as a free agent before the 2001 season, the 5'9", 213-pound Holmes has endowed Kansas City with 3,466 rushing yards, 41 touchdowns and 4,923 total yards, all NFL highs over that span. By virtue of Sunday's 42-14 victory over the Houston Texans, Holmes, a San Antonio native who ran for 89 yards and two touchdowns and caught four passes for 67 yards in a triumphant return to his home state, also helped give the 3-0 Chiefs something they haven't had since 1997: bona fide Super Bowl aspirations.
"We have a chance to be pretty good, and Priest is where it all starts," Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil says. "How big a component of our success is he? Well, Priest Holmes is the component." In the next breath Vermeil goes out of his way not to cast Holmes in an egotistical light. "There are some superstars who other players don't care for—guys who are a pain in the ass and act like superstars," Vermeil says. "Priest is the opposite. He's not a big-timer, and his teammates love and respect him so much, they feel they can all share in his rewards."
Maybe so, but as those Chiefs who've dined with the All-Pro running back are acutely aware, good vibes aren't all they can expect to share. Holmes admits that he splits restaurant checks as adroitly as he breaks down defenses with his slashing running style. If Holmes had a posse, rolling with the Dirty One (the nickname given to Holmes by K.C.'s other running backs, for reasons he claims not to understand) would be an entourage member's worst nightmare. "I might invite you to dinner," Holmes says, "but when the bill comes, I'll go around the table and say, 'O.K., you had the linguine, you had the chicken....' "
Just don't jump to the conclusion that Holmes, who has handled the ball 380 times since his last fumble—the league's longest active streak—is as tightfisted with his cash as he is with the rock. When it comes to this enigmatic player, nothing is ever that simple. Take it from Miami Dolphins halfback Ricky Williams, he of the dreadlocks, pierced tongue and numerous personality quirks, who says of his former University of Texas running mate, "Priest is a different cat."
You want different? For all of his parsimonious tendencies, Holmes has invited the Chiefs' entire team to accompany him to Hawaii for his two Pro Bowl appearances, on his dime. A tireless shill when it comes to charitable efforts—his foundation, Team Priest, has worked extensively with underprivileged youths and minority-owned businesses in the Kansas City area—Holmes is far more reluctant to pad his own pockets. If a potential appearance or autograph session conflicts with his rigid training schedule, Holmes will say no faster than Jeremy Shockey fielding a guest-appearance request from a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy producer. Holmes once passed on a five-figure appearance fee just so he wouldn't miss his midweek rubdown. "I know it sounds crazy," he says, "but I guess you could say I got a $15,000 massage."