Professional football has forced Priest Holmes to be tough.
It all started as an undrafted free agent out of college struggling to break into the NFL. It continues with his annual battle to convince the Ravens that he's a viable starting running back.
But in his first start in a season opener Sunday, Holmes translated that tough character into a tougher runner.
Although his 119 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't come close to breaking any personal records, the manner in how he gained them would have. The 5-foot-9, 205-pound halfback busted hard on runs inside the offensive tackles, lowering his shoulder to inflict hits while raising some eyebrows.
"I was trying to get them before they got me," Holmes said. "There are 11 players out there, and they're gunning for you every minute. So whenever you have the opportunity to send the message back to them, that's one less you have to worry about."
While the fourth-year veteran insists that he has run the ball just as hard in other games, no one can recall a more tenacious performance.
In addition to accounting for 27 of the team's 36 carries, he assumed the last line of defense for quarterback Tony Banks. There were several times when Holmes had to take on the Steelers' 6-foot-3, 255-pound pass rush specialist Jason Gildon and won the size-mismatch battle with explosive cut blocks.
"I can't tell you if it was one, then it had to be a half-dozen times that he literally put a defensive end on the ground," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I'm talking about guys that are built to rush the passer, and he put these guys on the ground.
"And that's on top of carrying the ball as many times he did on a very hot day, on a very hard surface. When you look at a game like that, it just makes you realize what an asset he is for you."
Yet before this year, he was not given the starting job to open the season. He's had to fight for it throughout the season.
During his career with the Ravens, Holmes has backed up Bam Morris, Earnest Byner and Jay Graham, yet holds nine club rushing records, including most career rushing yards (1,633). He has recorded 100-yard games in six of 18 starts, yet the Ravens have always rewarded these performances by bringing in more competition.
This off-season, the team used the fifth overall pick in the April draft to select running back Jamal Lewis, whose time has been limited due to an elbow injury. But it's a foot race that Holmes has become accustomed to over the years.
"I feel that having myself and whoever else they bring on, at least the guy that comes in, he knows without a shadow of a doubt that I'm going to push him, that it's not going to be a walk," said Holmes, who becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. "It's just the fact that I work too hard, and there are so many things I can give to them."
Said Billick: "Priest understands like every professional that as Jamal gets better, we want to see more of Jamal. And like any back, all you can ask of a player is to say: 'I'm going to perform on the field to make you second-guess any decision you have of playing anybody but me.'"
Against the Steelers, Holmes ground out his point.
He carried the ball 16 times up the middle and continually chipped away at the defense with all but two rushes going for less than 10 yards. When he did break to the outside, he never went out of bounds before delivering a blow to an oncoming tackler.
His effort was a combination of blending his physical style with his vision of reading blocks.
"Priest made some incredible runs," Banks said. "Our line did a great job, but he made a few runs on his own. I've always been a Priest Holmes supporter."
The support comes from his teammates witnessing Holmes' tireless work ethic. He's always one of the last players in the weight room, which has produced his chiseled frame and just over 5 percent body fat.
"I think I try to get the most out of what I've been given," Holmes said. "That also goes back to not looking at someone else and saying: 'Only if I would have been this size or this stature, I could achieve more.' I believe if you take every inch you've been given and trying to multiple that in terms of off the field, then you can be successful."
Now, can Holmes remain the starter for the next 15 games with Lewis' health improving? Can he endure carrying the ball 25-plus times a game over the long haul at his size?
Although Holmes hasn't accomplished either, he isn't one to back down from a challenge.
"Clearly, no one has ever questioned Priest's toughness, no one has ever questioned his willingness or wanting to do that," Billick said. "So, it's just a matter of the right things happening at the right time."
When given the chance to start, Ravens running back Priest Holmes has produced. In 18 starts, he has recorded six 100-yard games, all victories, and has averaged 78.5 yards. A look at those starts:
Date Opp. Att-Yds Avg. TD
9-27-98 Cin. 27-173 6.4 2
10-11-98 Tenn. 14-29 2.1 0
10-18-98 Pit. 23-76 3.3 0
10-25-98 G.B. 10-41 4.1 0
11-01-98 Jac. 3-10 3.3 0
11-08-98 Oak. 27-99 3.7 0
11-15-98 S.D. 6-9 1.5 0
11-22-98 Cin. 36-227 6.3 1
11-29-98 Ind. 22-103 4.7 2
12-06-98 Tenn. 11-27 2.5 0
12-13-98 Min. 8-39 4.9 1
12-20-98 Chi. 11-17 1.6 0
12-27-98 Det. 28-132 4.7 1
12-12-99 Pit. 18-130 7.2 1
12-19-99 N.O. 10-28 2.8 0
12-26-99 Cin. 13-59 4.5 0
1-02-00 N.E. 16-95 5.9 0
09-03-00 Pit. 27-119 4.4 0
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars
Site: PSINet Stadium
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 3