They do not put themselves through the torture of training camp just to prove what everybody already suspects -- that it's all over.
So it is two weeks before camp, nearly two years since the helmet-to-helmet collision that sent Holmes to the sidelines, his career and life preserved in a kind of time capsule -- complete with his empty uniform still hanging in the Chiefs' locker room and a Christmas tree still standing in his Missouri home, gathering dust since 2005. Understandably, the Chiefs want some closure. President/general manager Carl Peterson calls Holmes' agent, with visions of an early-season retirement ceremony in mind. Todd France has to get back to him because he hasn't talked to Holmes, either. Hold on, he says.
Priest wants to play.
But why? Why is he doing this? Who knows? There is no way to crawl inside the head of an enigma, a man of contradictions prone to making confounding choices.
Maybe he doesn't even know himself.
Just a month earlier, Holmes was signing autographs at a kids' camp in San Antonio, staring at old photos, telling old stories, giving off the vibe of a man who had definitely moved on. When asked if there was anything that could convince him to come back, he shrugged.
"It won't be something where I'll have a dream or, you know, a prophet comes to me," he says. "It won't be anything like that."
Four weeks later, Holmes arrives for the Kansas City Chiefs' training camp in River Falls, Wis. He's asked what pulled him back.
"A dream," he says.
MARCHING TO HIS OWN DRUMMER
Those who have followed his career even peripherally know Priest Holmes always seemed a little disconnected.
When he was in the midst of a season, Holmes could go weeks without talking to family and friends. He'd change his cell phone number before anyone memorized it. One time he went to Houston after his sister had a baby. He knocked on the door of the apartment, said hello to the guy who answered, walked in, looked in the crib and asked, "Hey, where's the baby?" He was in the wrong apartment.
Though it's hard to find the right person who can explain Holmes' wiring, there is a man in Texas who says he knows Holmes better than just about anybody. They were college roommates and half of an inner circle so tight and underground that the other two names cannot be divulged. Tell too many secrets and the mystery might be revealed. In 1997, in an '88 Mustang, Theo Andrews and his best friend, Priest Holmes, drove 1,600 miles together. They barely talked during the whole trip.
"The way you figure out who Priest is," Andrews says, "is to just understand that you will never figure him out."
In high school, Holmes went by the name Anthony -- his real name is Priest, but, according to his brother-in-law, Jeffrey Guess, he thought going by Anthony would make life easier. And he sat in the front of the bus, next to his coach, while the rest of the seniors lounged in the back. Holmes, apparently, wanted to learn how to drive a stick shift.
At the University of Texas, he stood out so much that he was snubbed by 32 teams.
One NFL exec claims he can explain at least part of Priest. He says Holmes once told him a secret. On draft weekend in 1997, Holmes' family had a party. It wasn't a Day 1 bash, mind you, because he had torn up his knee in college and just happened to play in the same backfield as Ricky Williams. As Sunday rolled on and a litany of unfamiliar names passed him by, Holmes felt hurt, then an iron-willed determination. From that day on, the exec believes, Holmes used this personal affront to motivate himself.
Holmes tells a different version of how that day affected him. He says as it dragged on, he didn't really want to be drafted. That way, he could choose where he'd play. He liked Baltimore, because Bam Morris was the starting running back. It seems Morris was supposed to be Holmes' host on a recruiting trip at Texas Tech, but blew it off because he was too busy having fun. "I said, 'Hey, if he had that attitude then, maybe he'll have it now,' " Holmes says. "For me, that was just business."
So off to Baltimore he went, in the Mustang he'd driven since high school, an undersized, unknown rookie who'd carried the ball only 59 times his senior season for the Longhorns.
"I don't know if he ever told anybody this," Andrews says. "But after about a week of camp, he said, 'Oh, this is easy. I can do this.' That was when he realized that he knew he was going to be successful. He just looked up, looked around and said, 'This is not going to be a problem for me.' "
Holmes would toil on special teams in '97, run for 1,000 yards in '98, hurt his other knee in '99, watch the Ravens draft Jamal Lewis in the first round in 2000. He would win a Super Bowl in 2001 as a third-down back. And then Holmes was gone.
He was always thinking. His preparation was impeccable. One offseason, he watched all 411 plays he was involved in at least 10 times.
When it came to his own self-interest, he was not shy, never a supplicant. Visiting Kansas City as an unrestricted free agent, a weekend that is normally a question-and-answer session controlled by management, Holmes brought along a yellow legal pad full of questions. Who made roster decisions? Whom did he have to beat out if he was unwilling to accept the team's vision of him as a backup?
The Chiefs were impressed, on many levels. "He was very respectful," Peterson says. "'Yes sir' and 'no sir.'
"We had two other running backs we were going to visit, and I asked Dick [Vermeil], 'Do we need to see those guys?' And he said, 'No. Do you need to see them?' This was the guy we wanted."
A PRIVATE MAN
There's a story beat writers in Kansas City like to tell about Holmes. It was 2002, and the Chiefs had just beaten the Browns 40-39 on opening day, inexplicably winning on a helmet-flinging penalty and a field goal with zeros on the clock. After the game, everybody in the locker room had something to say about one of the wackiest games in franchise history. Everybody but Holmes, that is.
He was taking questions in an interview room -- he'd just scored four touchdowns -- when he suddenly got up and walked out, in midsession, with no explanation. He wasn't angry. He was just ... being Priest.
"Priest is kind of different, but he's different in a good way, you know what I mean?" says Billy Long, the Chiefs' former strength and conditioning coach.
Holmes will linger in the training room to avoid an interview; he'll be in the middle of an e-mail session with a teammate, then log off when the conversation drifts to the personal side.
"If you don't know him, you say, 'Man, he's not sociable,' but that's just Priest," Guess says. "He likes to lay back in the shadows and watch. He's like Casper. You can't find him."
The need for privacy, friends say, might have been picked up from his stepfather, a strict but loving, God-fearing Army sergeant who volunteered for a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2003 when he was 50. One recent afternoon, Herman Morris answered a phone call from a reporter and was asked about his son. He politely declined to talk. The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree.
When Holmes was a little boy, Morris taught him to play chess. The kid loved studying people, anticipating their moves. He also loved doing things that were unexpected. In the seventh grade, the new kid in school, he entered his first chess tournament. Everybody stared at the jock who didn't belong. Holmes won the tournament.
His life has been a series of silent "I told you sos." When he hurt his hip in 2002, the whispers were that he was finished. The Chiefs drafted Larry Johnson. A few months later, Holmes broke the NFL single-season record with 27 touchdowns. In 2004, his season ended with a knee injury; Holmes came back stronger the next year.
"All his life, he has had people say, 'You can't do this, you're not big enough, you're not fast enough,' " says Vikings fullback Tony Richardson, who played with Holmes for five years in Kansas City. "I think Priest has made a living off just proving people wrong. That's kind of part of his fabric. 'If you tell me I can't do it, I'm going to show you I can.' "
Each injury led to more private workouts with personal trainer Bremond "Bay Bay" McClinton. Was it here, in this gym in a strip mall off Austin Highway in San Antonio, that the secrets were kept -- why he ran to end zone after every snap in practice; why he disappeared after every season for long stretches, away from his teammates, and came back stronger?
McClinton says he's like a big brother to Holmes, a good friend, a confidant. They talk a lot.
But he pauses when asked if Holmes is a Democrat or a Republican. He doesn't know.
"I don't even like politics myself," McClinton says.
The first year he was out of football, Holmes used to go to Spurs games. The crowd and the energy consumed him. One day, he walked out to the parking lot during halftime and ran sprints between the cars. He wanted to see if he still had it.
"Anytime you watch a sport or you see kids doing something athletic," Holmes says, "when you see a guy do something you can't do, it makes your competitiveness come out."
He'd do little things like this during the 22 months after his neck injury. He'd wake up and sprint around his neighborhood for no particular reason. When he came in, he'd usually say the same thing:
"I still got it."
It is sometime in May, the 20th month of Priest Holmes' hibernation, and Peterson is sitting in his office, staring out the window of his skybox at Arrowhead Stadium. He used to watch Holmes from this spot on Saturdays, during the meaningless walk-through practices, when Holmes would stay 20 minutes afterward, football in hand, visualizing and walking through the catches he'd make and the touchdowns he'd score a day later.
Peterson turns back to his desk. "So where is he now, right?" Peterson says to a reporter. "You may not find him."
At this point, the Chiefs had seen Holmes only a handful of times in nearly two years. In Dallas, at owner Lamar Hunt's funeral in December, he stood in the back, behind about 3,000 people. He never told anyone he was coming.
It wasn't a shocker when he didn't return calls. Holmes never was much good on the phone. Their infrequent conversations never changed much: How's the neck? What are the doctors saying? How are the kids?
Holmes is single with five kids. Friends say he feels guilty for missing so many things -- first days of school, last kisses at bedtime. When he broke into the NFL, he had one boy. Now, his two oldest sons have won Pop Warner championships. Dad didn't miss a game last fall.
But on Sundays, he'd stay away from the team that still employed him for the better part of two years. After Holmes first suffered his neck injury, Vermeil told reporters his star back would stick around Kansas City to inspire the team. But after a press box appearance during the Oakland game a week after the injury, Holmes slipped away to San Antonio and pretty much disappeared.
He rarely talked football. He followed the instructions of his doctors and rested. All of his structured life, Holmes was chasing something -- Ricky, Jamal, Larry. Suddenly, he had no one to beat. He ate hamburgers, fries and homemade bread, and jumped on his jet skis and took off at full throttle. He'd jog, and then stop.
Apparently he was just fine with that.
A HINT OF CHANGE
One of the first hints Holmes might return to football came in early July. He flew to Los Angeles with his buddy Andrews for the ESPYS. He hobnobbed with a bunch of old faces at a charity event. They asked if he was coming back.
Holmes liked the attention, but flew back to San Antonio before the awards ceremony. He had to be home for his son's birthday.
He talked to at least four close friends in the next couple of weeks. He told none of them that he was going to Kansas City to take a physical. But Andrews knew something was up. He stopped by Bay Bay's gym and saw Holmes on the treadmill. Andrews' eyes lit up. "Wow, Priest," he said, "I can't believe it. You're going to make it happen."
The news of Holmes' comeback came one day before the Chiefs left for training camp, when a football-crazed town had its thoughts elsewhere. Chiefs fans were fretting over LJ, who was coming off his second straight Pro Bowl and holding out for a bigger contract. They'd moved on.
As the months had gone by, and Holmes had blended in with the football dads and the computer analysts, it had been assumed in Kansas City that he had given up football. He will be 34 in October and had sat out nearly two years. More than half of his old team -- plus the head coach -- was gone.
Money was the most well-circulated theory when word of Holmes' comeback hit in late July. True, he has a lot of it, but he is also a single father with five kids to support. And Holmes never really cashed in on his fame during the Pro Bowl years. "I think Priest is a hard-core businessman," says Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock. "He believes the NFL is strictly about business. So he's trying to make some more money."
But friends say hawking underwear, a la Michael Jordan, or selling hip-hop clothing, like LJ, was never Holmes' thing.
Peterson is settling down to a light lunch of sliced tomatoes and salad during camp one afternoon, just after the comeback announcement, when he addresses media speculation over Holmes' intentions. At least two reports say Holmes will be bunking in an RV instead of roughing it in the dorms with his teammates. Some call him greedy.
An agitated Peterson says Holmes came back for the veteran minimum of $870,000, and that he's staying in McMillan Hall, not an RV, with the rest of the team's sleepless millionaires.
But Holmes' first news conference does nothing to settle the hubbub. He walks in wearing sunglasses -- indoors -- and dodges questions as if he's avoiding tacklers. "Without struggle, there is no purpose," he says, going on to describe the dream he had, claiming he has come back to be an inspiration to the Chiefs, the same team he was absent from for 22 months.
The next few weeks are a blur of solitary workouts and a minicontroversy. Just before a preseason game against the Dolphins, Holmes slips back to his hometown of San Antonio for a few days. Across the top of the Kansas City Star is a column ripping him for going AWOL. A friend later explains Holmes just wanted to be with his kids.
This seems fine with the Chiefs. When Holmes returns, coach Herm Edwards assures the media that he is back for good, determined to be on the sidelines supporting the team.
Richardson, one of Holmes' best friends in the NFL, can't even guess why he's back. But he says it isn't because of money. "He definitely didn't come back for the money. Priest is probably the cheapest rich person I know. He doesn't spend money."
A NEW MAN?
So, are we talking about a "new" Priest Holmes here? He seems slightly controversial and definitely chattier. Sometimes, he even opens up.
After at least five years of sticking to his old-school principles, Theo Andrews has a cell phone now. He has text messaging and caller ID, just like the rest of people in the 21st century. He got the phone because of Holmes.
The old Priest Holmes never would have called his friends during training camp. They'd go eight months without talking. Now Holmes wants Andrews to text him inspirational quotes to read while he lies in his dorm room late at night, the body aching, the incense burning.
When Holmes first left for camp, Andrews assumed his friend was going into shutdown mode. Andrews told him to take care of his business and they'd talk in a few weeks. Holmes called within a few days.
"The life he currently has ... he can't drop that and pick up his football life and have it be football only," Andrews says. "It's going to be harder for him this time around. He has his family. Before he could put one of them on hold for a couple of months. He can't do that now. He can't, and he won't."
In their 22 months together, during Holmes' hiatus from football, the Texas inner circle played cards, bowled and watched their kids grow up. Now, the friends log on and track his progress through the Internet. When Holmes made a somewhat controversial statement during LJ's holdout, that he'd take the money if Johnson didn't want it, the circle got a big chuckle out of it. Priest said that? The old Holmes blended in and never really drew attention to himself off the football field. But now, they say, he's different. Spunkier. Smarter. More dangerous, Andrews says.
"I think mentally he's probably stronger than he has ever been," Andrews says. "There's no stopping him."
Everyone in the circle has a title. They call Andrews "The Regulator," the one who keeps them in line. Holmes is "The Main Attraction."
STILL IN LIMBO
He is alone again, sitting on a bench, in between practices he cannot participate in because the body is not yet in football shape. Holmes, finally, is about to get deep.
He's asked to compare himself to an object, animate or inanimate. He barely pauses.
"I'm not exactly sure where it's located, but there is a guy, and he's sitting like this," Holmes says with his hand on his chin. "The thinker. There you go. I'm always thinking. Positively."
People close to Holmes -- well, as close as they can get -- believe he wants to prove himself one last time. Holmes says about five different things. One moment, he's talking about how he's a businessman; the next, he's going on about how there aren't enough older role models in the NFL anymore.
He tells this story about when he was a rookie and he thought Earnest Byner playing at 35 was really weird. No way would he be going past 30, he told himself. He eventually launches into rah-rah talk, which is so unlike Holmes, and says he wants to be in Glendale, Ariz., this winter for the Super Bowl. The Chiefs go 0-4 in the preseason and get pounded in their season opener by the lowly Texans.
Six weeks pass, and Holmes still can't practice. He's not in football shape. He tells the Chiefs that the body is at 82 percent. Nobody really knows what that means. He's placed on the physically unable to perform list, and now the comeback will wait until at least October, when LJ has piled up his yards and a city has forgotten him. Maybe that's what Holmes really wants, one last chance to prove everybody wrong. Maybe he just wants to remain a mystery.
In the locker rooms around the NFL, they're asking why he did it. He had the money and the Mercedes and the house on the hill in a gated community where he could sit and watch and rest his pounded body. His legacy was intact.
"The NFL is a dream," he says. "It's not real. It's not the same as the real world."
He smiles, stands up and a PR flack whisks him away toward an elevator. Where it stops, nobody knows.
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Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.