Q&A: Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes discusses inspiring African American youth, HBCUs

Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes participated in a Q&A discussion with Detroit high school students at Ford Field on Wednesday. Eric Woodyard, ESPN

DETROIT -- North Carolina A&T’s 1999 homecoming festivities still stick out in the mind of Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes.

After beating Howard University 51-0 on the gridiron, Holmes, who was a standout defensive lineman for the Aggies, capped the weekend at the Greensboro Coliseum by attending a concert headlined by hip-hop stars Noreaga, Drag-On, Mobb Deep, Eve and Juvenile.

“That definitely was my best homecoming experience for sure,” Holmes recalled.

Holmes was speaking to roughly 50 or so Detroit high school students in a Q&A discussion put together by Alpha Kappa Alpha Foundation Detroit Chapter and HBCU For Life to highlight Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in which he shared personal stories, such as the 1999 homecoming experience.

Addressing the students from inside the Ford Field Hall of Legends, Holmes encouraged local kids -- such as 16-year-old Na’Kyah Adjuman and 17-year-old Jeremiah Green -- to consider attending HBCUs and to set lofty career goals as young African Americans, particularly in football.

“The point I want to get across is I don’t want to keep this as the ceiling of general manager and head coach, and I get it because that’s the face that everybody sees,” Holmes, who is one of five Black GMs in the NFL, told the room. “Head coach is the face of the team and then the general manager is providing the resources for the coach and for the team and getting the players and for the draft and all that, but I want us to soar above that. Like, we need Black presidents. We need Black VPs of football operations. It’s not just GM and head coach.

“The world of analytics is big in football right now and [there are] roles of director of analytics so if you’re really skilled in numbers and math and you aspire to go to an HBCU and study that, then you can have a field and a career in that. So, I don’t want us to keep that as the ceiling to just be another Black GM.”

After the event, ESPN caught up with Holmes for an exclusive interview about the importance of inspiring the younger generation of African Americans in Detroit and using his platform to bring awareness to HBCUs.

(Some questions have been edited from their original versions.)

Why was this so important for you to be here, on a game week, speaking about HBCUs in the Midwest -- where they aren’t as popular as the South?

Brad Holmes: I think awareness needs to continue to be raised at all times. I remember when we were talking over the summer and I wasn’t joking when I said I want to fully inject myself in the Black community with anything I can do to help and raise that awareness to help the cause by all means. I’m definitely doing it. So, yeah, it was a busy day on a Wednesday. It was roster shuffling, I’ve got to get back to the house and we’re closing on a house, but I’m not missing this because HBCUs, [North Carolina] A&T, the HBCU community and all my family that were A&T grads, that did so much for me and helped shape me that who am I to not pay it forward [and] give back when there’s an opportunity to give back.

What’s the biggest misconception about HBCUs? What does the average person have totally wrong about them?

Holmes: I think there’s a stigma that possibly because they don’t have the resources and the exposure that you’ll get at the big Power 5 schools that there might be an underdevelopment and that’s so far from the truth. I mean, it’s some sharp, sharp, sharp kids that are coming out of these schools. I remember I was talking to a guy on a trip. It was a guy that was working for NASA and he was like, ‘Man, before my retirement, I used to always go to [North Carolina] A&T to find my engineers and I never told anybody that.’ So, it’s like that was his little secret stash of getting the top engineers. But I’m like, 'Why does that have to be a secret?' A&T is a top engineering school and I’m like, ‘No, that’s gotta be known worldwide, don’t keep it a secret because it is a lot tougher.’ My sister was an engineering student at A&T and she’s still a successful engineer at the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]. No, it’s not a secret, we just want an opportunity.

That’s interesting that people would keep that quiet. It’s like a hidden gem...

Holmes: Yeah, yeah. And I get it from a competitive standpoint, he’s like, ‘Look, I’m gonna get all the guys,’ but still I thought it was very, very interesting, but then also, from a football standpoint, it’s the same. It’s no shame in there. We don’t have a lot of margin for error. You better dominate during the school year. You better be one of the standouts at the All-Star game. You better hit all the marks and that still might not get you there, depending on what your makeup is and your physical abilities. If you’re a Darius Leonard [Indianapolis Colts linebacker], if you’re a Tarik Cohen [Chicago Bears running back and former NC A&T star], you can go on the second day of the draft. Sometimes, even doing all that, that’s just to get picked late or still have to battle as an undrafted free agent. Again, we just need opportunities, man. I know with me coming from an HBCU and knowing what it’s like, I don’t put anybody behind the eight ball because I know that they’re just as good and they’ve got the same ability as the next person. It’s just giving them the opportunity.

How important is it for you to embrace being Black and in your position, especially in a city like Detroit? The Detroit Pistons also have a Black coach and GM in Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver. How are you guys feeding off each other?

Holmes: It’s so much Black success in this city of Detroit. It’s blown me away. Me and Ray Agnew, we were talking about it the other day. Man, to go out and see successful Black people like going out to different places in Birmingham, Michigan -- where me and my family had been living. And then now, we’re in Northville (a Detroit suburb), but I think that is very important. You can’t forget where you came from and hopefully being in a city with so much Black success and so much diversity. A city like Detroit, it just makes you feel at home. You want to do it for them for sure.

I know it’s tough times here in professional sports, though, with the Pistons going through a rebuild as well. How is your relationship with Troy Weaver?

Holmes: Yeah, me and Troy keep in contact. He came to the Baltimore Ravens game and has invited me to a few games. It was just when I first started and I couldn’t get out there, but Troy is a great brother. He actually texted me earlier today. And he went to an HBCU and knows what it’s all about. I remember when he came and spent the day with us and it was kind of just irons sharpening irons with him being in kind of a similar place in terms of trying to build this thing the right way and how his scouting philosophy and processes go. So it was very, very intriguing and encouraging to hear. I’m a huge supporter. I can’t say that I was a Pistons fan before I got here, but I’m a ride-or-die Pistons fan now because Troy’s a great brother and I know he’s doing the right thing over there.

Going back to HBCUs, in a perfect world, how would you like to see HBCUs be viewed moving forward? Like what would be an ideal situation, in your opinion?

Holmes: Just continuing to grow, continuing to expand with more opportunities. I think that’s happening. It’s a little bit slower process than I would like, but I do think there is progress that’s being made. If we can continue to keep that light shed and we have those guys like [Jackson State head football coach] Deion Sanders, Eddie George [Tennessee State head coach] and those kind of guys who are bringing even more light from a national standpoint. And again, we’ve got to hold ourselves accountable, too. Like, we can’t just sit back and think that things are gonna be given to us just because we’re an HBCU. We’ve got to go out there and prove it. We’ve got to perform. We have to support people like myself. I have to give back. I have to do those things to make sure opportunities are provided for them as well.

If you see a guy coming through the draft or free agency that might have an HBCU background, do you have a little bit more affinity just to look at him closer and check him out? That clearly doesn’t guarantee a spot, but does it help at all?

Holmes: [laughs] I would say, I know what he’s gone through. I’ll never forget when I went and scouted Tarik Cohen, I actually ran into him at the Bojangles at the corner. And, I said, ‘Are you Tarik?’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I had my Rams stuff on and I’m like, ‘I’m coming to see you.’ We were in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was getting some Bojangles for the staff. I was gonna get some biscuit sandwiches to bring to the football staff and he was in there with a couple of his teammates and we just sat down and started having breakfast. He was telling me that he had to get a new phone because his phone was broke, but just that was like, ‘Man, I know what you’re going through.’ I’ll never forget when I scouted Darius Leonard from South Carolina State and was just chopping it up with him in their field house and you just know the grind, you know the hustle that they’ve gone through, and it kind of takes you back. You know their 'why' and the adversity that they’ve battled and overcame and it gives you a perspective because we’re trying to look for intangible pieces anyways. That’s the separator anyways, I’ve always said that. It’s easy to find out who’s fast and who’s explosive, but [what are] the intangibles? How are you wired? How hard do you work when you have to face adversity? When you come from an HBCU, you’re gonna have to face adversity. You’re gonna have to overcome some things so that does mean something.