That’s how Priest Holmes, a former All-Pro running back, described head-to-head crashes on the football field. For a moment, as bodies are peeled off a woozy ballcarrier by officials and teammates, the sky can change color or become a heavenly light.
“This color obviously isn’t going to be blue. It can be a color that can be orange. It can be red. The sky could turn green,” Holmes told The Daily. “There’s even an episode where you see a clear light, like light at the end of the tunnel.”
It’s the cruel trade-off of pro football: Play long enough to earn riches, and fame and the toll on the body and mind may be irrevocable. Some of the hardiest of former players like Holmes — a workhorse runner for a large chunk of his career with the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs from 1997-2005 before a comeback as a part-timer in 2007 — admit that the hitting involved is unnatural for a human body.
“As much as I loved it (football), that same love now has put me in situations that I have to live with,” said Holmes, now an analyst for the Longhorn Network.
An undrafted free agent, Holmes led the league with 1,555 rushing yards in 2001. But the hundreds of body blows and head-rattlers on Sunday afternoons affects his daily life.
“The frontal headaches, the migraines. Laying in bed, it’s tough to get out mornings just because of the pain that is setting in with an arthritic condition, it’s things like that that you never would have really thought about,” he said.
Holmes is not the only one with scars that won’t mend. Scores of former players are involved in a consolidated lawsuit against the NFL, stating the league had concealed information linking head injuries and concussions to permanent health problems. Holmes, 38, would have been a headliner in this case and, after 1,780 career carries, would seem a likely candidate to do so. In 2005, head and neck trauma nearly ended his pro career, and when he did return in ’07, he was no longer an elite back.
One of his former protégés, Jamal Lewis, is part of the concussion-related suit, as is one of his idols, Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett. Still, Holmes is not attached to the litigation.
In Holmes’ view, every former player suffers in a unique way. But he said for running backs, the odds of major wear and tear increase dramatically if you hit a certain statistical benchmark: four years with 350 or more carries per season. In those cases, he theorizes, long-term health issues can show up before an athlete has even retired.
“The body is just not built to be able to do that,” Holmes said. “I think it truly does have a big effect on players — especially players such as Jamal that have been a 2,000-yard rusher, invincible, helped take us to the Super Bowl (in January 2001), done so many amazing things, and then it results in ‘Why can’t I remember certain things? I can’t remember the exit I need to take when going back to the grocery store.’ ”
Lewis, who did not speak to The Daily despite repeated attempts to reach him, carried the ball 300 or more times during his first three seasons. In May, Lewis, who recently filed for bankruptcy, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that occasionally doesn’t know where he is when driving in his native Atlanta.
During Lewis’ first season in 2000, Holmes visited the rookie at his home on Thursday nights to eat barbecue and then go over game film. Asked if he could go back and tell the young back that it’s OK to run out of bounds at times, Holmes said it’s difficult to tell a runner to go against his nature.
“It just didn’t fit his demeanor,” Holmes said. “It probably would have worked against him if he went out of bounds. Mentally, that would change the mindset of the linebacker. Now that linebacker would approach him differently.”
In Week 7 of the 2005 season at San Diego, a hit by Chargers rookie linebacker Shawne Merriman drove Holmes out of the game with what was originally termed a “mild concussion.” For the next three to four months, the running back said he visited specialists on both coasts. Alarmingly, neither could come up with a diagnosis.
“Take some time off. You need some rest,” Holmes was told. "Other than that, there was no treatment. There was nothing they could provide for me,” Holmes recalled. “Was it a lack of research? Or was it just a step that hasn’t been developed by the league?
“That was just seven years ago, and the league has been around for a lot longer than those seven years.”
Holmes was lukewarm about his three sons playing football, encouraging them only if they showed interest on their own. When getting hit can turn a blue sky to green, it gives a father pause.
“I always let them know, this isn’t a have-to,” he said. “Believe me, there’s other avenues you can choose in life.”