Ignore the Pain

Even though the game was unmemorable, I will always remember it. Well, specifically, I will remember the last 18 minutes of the game … and the next morning. The game was in 2002, a November bloodbath between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills. The Chiefs won the game 17-16, if you care, which you probably don’t. When it ended, both teams were exactly 5-5. In the end, neither team made the playoffs.

I imagine many of those who actually PLAYED in that game don’t remember it.

But I will remember it for the rest of my life.

With less than three minutes left in the third quarter, the Chiefs got the ball at their own 40. They trailed by six. On first down, they gave the ball to Priest Holmes who ran right for 4 yards. On second down they gave the ball to Priest Homes, who smashed up the middle for 1. After completing a pass for first down, the Chiefs repeated the pattern. First down, Priest Holmes up the middle for 6. On second down, Priest Holmes up the middle for 2. On third down, Priest Holmes, right tackle, for no gain. On fourth down, Priest Holmes up the middle for 3 and a first down.

The Bills, you should know, were coached by Gregg Williams then, the same Gregg Williams who would later be suspended for paying players bonuses for particularly ruthless hits, the same Gregg Williams who is now defensive coordinator of the Jets.

Williams’ philosophy of football was about hitting players in the head repeatedly. “Kill the head,” he has been heard saying many times, “and the body will die.” And so every single time Holmes got the football, the Bills defenders attacked him with maniacal fury. If they couldn’t stop him, they might yet break his spirit.

Well, that’s football, right?

Holmes, right tackle, five yards. Holmes, right tackle, no gain. After a missed field goal, it was the same, Holmes, left tackle, three yards. Holmes, left end, one yard. Holmes, up the middle, no gain. He got the ball repeatedly and he dragged the Chiefs down the field for the go-ahead touchdown.

Bills’ quarterback Drew Bledsoe promptly threw an interception and the Chiefs had to kill the final four or so minutes of the game. And you already know how they did it.

“You again, Priest,” Chiefs quarterback Trent Green said. Holmes ran right for 15.

“You again, Priest,” Green said. Holmes went off right tackle for 12.

“You again, Priest.” Left end for 8.

“You again, Priest.” Up the middle for 9.

“You again, Priest.” Right tackle for 1.

In all, he carried the ball 20 times in a little bit more than a quarter. Even Woody Hayes might not have done that to his players. For 18 savage minutes. Holmes took hit after hit after hit; it was one of the most brutal displays of football I have ever seen.

And when the game ended, I went down to the locker room and watched Priest Holmes. It was like agony radiated off him, like steam.

I wrote this:

“He limped slowly to his locker, though calling it a limp wouldn’t be quite right because he sort of hobbled equally on both legs. His shoulders sagged. His arms dropped. He looked as if he had been hit about 478 times by men roughly the size of Chrysler LeBarons. Which, of course, he had.

“You have to be a warrior,” he said. “because it’s not a matter of if you will get hit. You know you will get hit.”

I wrote a lot about Priest Holmes in those days. He was the most electrifying player in football at the time — his 14-game 2002 season still boggles the mind, and in 2003 he set the NFL touchdown record — but more than that, he generously let me inside his world. He let me see the howl behind the football mask. He showed me, just a little bit of the hurt. Understand, Priest Holmes was no taller than I am. He weighed barely 210 pounds. He did not have sprinter speed. He willed himself to greatness by preparing for every situation, by perfecting his steps and, most of all, by going full speed and refusing to flinch, ever, even when linebackers came flying at his head.

But I haven’t gotten to the part about why I will never forget the game.

As you can see, I wrote about his pain. I wrote about the cost. There didn’t seem to be anything else to write. Priest Holmes gave up a little bit of his life on that random Sunday just so the Kansas City Chiefs could beat the Buffalo Bills in a game that didn’t really matter. It seemed the only story to write.

The next morning, I got emails. I always got emails on Mondays after Chiefs games, but these were different. This is why I will never forget the game.

The people behind the emails wanted me to shut the hell up about Priest Holmes’ pain.

I couldn’t believe it at first. I mean, sure, you can and will get random emails from people saying crazy things. But these just kept coming, a dozen of them, then a few more, and they had the same rhythm, the same vibe, often the same words.

They didn’t want to hear that Priest Holmes was hurting.

They were sure that Priest Holmes wasn’t REALLY hurting.

They wanted me to know that Priest Holmes got paid a lot of money to play football.

They raged at me that I had exaggerated Holmes’ pain to sell papers (?).

There was a desperation to those emails, something I couldn’t quite understand. In the end it was a small number of people, but I still read each note with wide-eyed astonishment; I had always come to associate Kansas City with humanity, and I still do. But these were angry people. And why were they angry? They had woken up on a Monday morning excited to read about the Chiefs’ victory over the Buffalo Bills and instead found themselves reading about how Priest Holmes had given up days, weeks, months, perhaps years of his life for the victory.

They didn’t want to read that.

They didn’t want to believe that.

They didn’t like it one bit.

I think about this now because on Saturday, Andrew Luck — who in the last few years has sprained his shoulder, torn cartilage in his rib, suffered at least one concussion, torn his labrum, torn his abdomen, strained his calf, wrecked his ankle and lacerated his kidney — announced that he is walking away from football.

“I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab,” he said. “And it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and off-season. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football.”

Most people, I suspect, understand and empathize. But some do not. Some Indianapolis fans booed Luck as he left the field (“It hurt,” Luck conceded). A few talk radio hosts saw this is as glorious opportunity to attack Luck’s toughness. A lot of people, including owner Jim Irsay, already speculate about Luck’s return.

And I think back to that odd morning in 2002, the morning after a game, and I realize this impulse doesn’t change, this need so many football fans feel to close their eyes and cover their ears and turn away from the pain.

Years after that Kansas City-Buffalo game, I visited Priest in San Antonio. He would tell me about lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling, praying for the feeling to come back to his arms and legs. He told me about looking for cracks in the sidewalk when he walks because he knows that if he hits a crack wrong now, his whole body might crumple. He told me about the migraines that split his head open. He told me that he would never have a full-night’s sleep for the rest of his life.

Priest Holmes didn’t complain about it. He also didn’t regret. He understood the price he was paying by playing football. He had made his choice. He wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.