KANSAS CITY — Three-time Pro Bowl running back Priest Holmes will report to the Kansas City Chiefs’ camp Saturday in a surprise development that comes 21 months after he was knocked out of football by a devastating hit.
The return of the team’s career leading rusher adds an interesting twist to the situation surrounding Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson, who has vowed to hold out of camp until he gets a new contract.
Ironically, the Chiefs drafted Johnson over the objection of former coach Dick Vermeil in the first round in 2003 partly to gain leverage over Holmes, who was involved in his own contract dispute at the time.
The Chiefs announced Wednesday that Holmes informed them he will report to their camp in River Falls, Wis., on Saturday, the day after they hold their first full workout.
“In my conversation with Priest, he was excited about playing,” Chiefs president Carl Peterson said.
Many thought Holmes, who turns 34 on Oct. 7, was done. Since suffering neck and head trauma in the hit by San Diego’s Shawne Merriman on Oct. 30, 2005, he has kept his distance from the Chiefs, staying in Texas and having little to do with the team.
But the Chiefs, hopeful he might one day resume a career that has seen him rush for 5,933 yards since signing as a free agent in 2001, kept him on the physically unable to perform list and kept paying his salary.
Although age and nearly two years of inactivity suggest his skills could be significantly eroded, his history offers evidence that might not be the case. He had hip surgery after the 2002 season that some felt would end his career. But he rebounded the next year to rush for 1,420 yards and score an NFL-record 27 touchdowns
Pro Bowl left guard Brian Waters, one of Holmes’ closest friends on the team, said last month he would not be surprised to see Holmes play effectively this year.
“One thing we’ve learned about Priest is you should never try to second-guess him,” Waters said at the time. “If Priest says he’s ready to play, you know he’s going to have kept himself in shape. You know he’s going to be ready to resume his place as one of the best in the business. You don’t ever want to count Priest out.”
It was a sentiment often expressed by Peterson, who signed Holmes as a free agent after he was cast off by the Baltimore Ravens in 2001.
“You never want to say never with Priest Holmes,” Peterson has said.
Head coach Herm Edwards said the Chiefs would proceed cautiously with Holmes to gauge his conditioning and readiness. He also seemed to send a message to Johnson that Holmes will not be counted on as the starter.
“The combination of Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes has previously proved very difficult to stop in the past,” Edwards said. “At this point, we will need to proceed slowly to determine where he is from a health and conditioning standpoint. Hopefully, he’s able to come back and continue his career with the Chiefs.
“I believe Priest Holmes is a team guy and has indicated to me his desire to help this team. If he’s able to come back, he understands and accepts the fact that he would have a different role than when he was the starter. I look forward to monitoring his progress throughout training camp.”
Holmes might be placed on the active physically unable to play list initially to gauge his conditioning. He will also be watched closely in noncontact drills.
“I have said many times that I would never count this player out like so many did after his hip surgery,” Peterson said. “He’s a very unique human being.”
Holmes was cleared to play in 2007 after being examined by the team’s orthopedic doctors in Miami.
The Chiefs and Johnson, in the meantime, remain far apart. Johnson wants guaranteed money in the $28 million range, although he remains under contract for two more seasons. He will be fined more than $14,000 every day he misses camp.
Johnson’s career has always been closely linked to Holmes.
He stewed impatiently for more than two seasons while Holmes maintained his spot as the Chiefs’ starting running back. But when he got his chance in October of 2005 with Holmes’ severe injury, Johnson responded brilliantly and emerged as one of the league’s finest running backs. Last season he set an NFL record with 416 carries and rushed for 1,789 yards, breaking the team’s single-season record for the second year in a row.
Since joining the Chiefs in 2001, the 5-foot-9, 213-pound Holmes ranks first in the NFL by averaging 97.3 yards per game and 136 yards from scrimmage. He also is an accomplished blocker and pass-catcher.