How a near-death experience helped shape Lions GM Brad Holmes

Brad Holmes spent 18 years in the Rams organization before being named Lions general manager. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

DETROIT -- There was a lot to catch up on when Brad Holmes arrived home in Tampa, Fla., for Christmas break of 1999.

Not far removed from helping North Carolina A&T win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Black college football national championship as a sophomore defensive tackle, Holmes, 20, wanted to unwind.

So, he and his crew gathered early in the day at his best friend Gabe Galdos’ townhouse off Lake Magdalene to enjoy the day.

When it was time to head back to his parents’ house, Holmes got in his champagne 1992 Honda Accord.

He made a left turn on busy Fletcher Avenue. His next memory was waking up in the hospital.

“I don’t remember anything,” Holmes said.

He could have been killed. A driver’s side, head-on collision with another car knocked him unconscious.

The official crash report has long been purged by the state of Florida, so it is unknown how it occurred or what happened to others involved, but the flashbacks of the aftermath are forever etched in Holmes' memory.

He spent more than three weeks in the hospital after initially going into a coma and then suffering a stroke. Holmes required emergency surgery for a ruptured diaphragm, then a second operation.

The stroke left Holmes partially paralyzed on his right side, and he lost much of his motor function. But even with his body severely damaged from the crash, he made a promise to A&T coach Bill Hayes, who had made the nine-plus hour drive from Goldsboro, N.C. to visit him in the hospital.

“Coach, I’m gonna play again,” Holmes said.

And he did.

The road to recovery lasted roughly five months, with Holmes dedicating himself to a process that included speech therapy and activities to strengthen his body. By May, not only was Holmes back on the field, he was named team captain.

Holmes graduated cum laude from A&T in 2002 with a Bachelor of Science in journalism and mass communication before climbing his way into the executive ranks of the NFL, spending 18 seasons in the Rams’ front office before being named the Lions general manager in January. With the Rams, Holmes began as a public relations intern in 2003, before moving over to the scouting side and working his way up to become the organization's director of college scouting.

“[The Lions] can expect him to not try to cut any corners. What he does is gonna be well-thought out and solid,” Hayes said of Holmes' latest challenge: resurrecting a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in 30 years. “He ain’t gonna wave no magic wand, that ain’t who he is, but he’s gonna roll up his damn sleeves and every time the sun comes up, he’s gonna be standing right there, ready to go to work.

“That’s who he is. He’s a worker,” Hayes added. “I know he’s up to the task because he’s prepared himself for the task and he’ll get it done. He will get it done.”

Student of the game

Months of planning, preparation and discussion led to Holmes entering the Lions’ war room for Day 1 of the 2021 NFL draft. Holding the No. 7 overall pick, he couldn’t contain his excitement when it was time to call Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell and inform him of the Lions' selection.

“Alright, man. We’re about to pick you here. Congratulations, man,” Holmes told Sewell. “It’s One Pride over here, man. We want you in this Pride all right? You’re gonna be a big part of what we’re doing going forward all right?”

Holmes then embraced first-year head coach Dan Campbell with a tight hug before yelling out “Wooooo!” in celebration. It was a moment Holmes had been waiting for his entire life.

“Even back in high school, when nobody used to watch the draft and it wasn’t really popular back then, it was something that he would talk about nonstop and we would discuss the draft and the players and stuff that the average NFL fan wouldn’t care about,” said Galdos, who met Holmes as a sophomore in 1994 at Chamberlain High School in Tampa.

“Really, back then, it wasn’t talked about like it is now, but he was all over it even back in 1994 and ’95. He’s a straight-up football guy,” he added.

Former Rams general manager Billy Devaney helped elevate Holmes’ responsibilities from scouting the combine to becoming a national scout within the organization.

“He’s an excellent talent evaluator,” Devaney said. “He knows players. He’s extremely detailed, and he’s got a great way of presenting. When you’re in your draft meetings and you’re talking about players, he’s got a great way of being able to present and paint a picture of the player exactly the way he feels about him.

“The other thing is he’s very strong in his convictions. He doesn’t mind, he’s going to voice his opinion, and if he’s in the minority it’s not going to bother him. He’ll fight for his guys and he’ll fight for his opinion. As much as anything, you know what really jumped out early on? He could take hard coaching.”

Holmes’ mother Joan described him as being “very social,” with strong leadership skills growing up. In high school, Holmes was a likeable guy who played football, wore jerseys and was named homecoming king.

Holmes’ father was the late Melvin Holmes -- a former offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s.

His uncle, Luther Bradley, was a standout defensive back at Notre Dame before being drafted by the Lions with the 11th pick in the 1978 draft.

“Brad has pretty much lived, eaten and breathed football,” Joan said. “In our family he’s perceived as kind of a walking encyclopedia of every aspect of football. And as you probably read, we come from a very proud football family, so his whole DNA has been football.”

Tall task ahead

Football, however, wasn’t the reason Galdos called Joan on that day during Christmas break in 1999.

“I knew for a fact that she had to know what was going on, because at that point, too, we didn’t know that he was gonna be OK,” Galdos said. “We really had no idea how serious or not serious the situation was.”

Galdos still resides in Tampa where he runs the Ark Realty company as a broker and realtor. He often drives past the crash scene to reflect how far everyone in their high school circle has come, especially Holmes.

Joan said her son being unconscious for days is her most “devastating experience.” All she could do was pray over him as she moved into the hospital to be by his side.

“If you ask him, he never really talks about it. But I sent him a picture, they did a story on him, his recovery and how he got through the accident and it was a big article on him with his helmet on,” Joan said. “I got it laminated and sent it to him as a gift, and he has it now in his home office. I said, ‘This is to motivate you every day. That you were saved for some reason.’”

Holmes is one of five Black GMs in the NFL, and he is tasked with taking over an organization that finished 5-11 in 2020 with the worst defense in the NFL.

A full rebuild is underway. And Holmes isn’t running from that history.

“Man, I just control what I can control. That’s how I was raised. That’s what I go by and I think that’s all that we can do,” Holmes said. “I will say the narrative, because of losses that have mounted up in the past, we don’t ignore it and we understand that that narrative is out there. But Dan and I just have a process and plan in place that we trust, that we have confidence in and we’re sticking to it and we’ve stuck to it since day one.

“We’re right on path, and we’re right where we’re supposed to be at, and I feel like we haven’t had any real roadblocks in that so far. I know adversity’s gonna come at some point, but I think adversity’s gonna make us stronger as well.”

But, even on those tough days, he’ll never forget what it was like being in the intensive care unit when life wasn’t promised. That alone keeps everything in perspective.

“It’s the biggest adversity I’ve ever had to go through in my entire life and I’ve had some adverse moments from my father passing away and all that, but definitely that was the biggest for sure,” Holmes said.

ESPN’s Michael Rothstein contributed to this report.