Commentary

Fear of failure drove Holmes

Former Steelers defensive lineman had intense approach to football, life

Originally Published: April 7, 2010
By Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This is excerpted from The Ones Who Hit The Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight for America's Soul, by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne, to be published this September by Gotham Books.

No NFL owner likes to hear that his star quarterback, the plump and grizzly face of his franchise, has allegedly been behaving badly … again. No NFL owner likes to read about his Super Bowl MVP receiver causing trouble. But, when it comes to Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes and the Steelers, at least the team's longtime owner, the Rooney clan, has some experience dealing with controversy.

Way back in the spring of 1973, a couple of days before St. Patrick's Day, Dan Rooney was sitting in his office at Three Rivers Stadium. It was after five. Most of the people on the Steelers' staff had gone home. His phone rang, his private line, and when he picked it up he heard his wife. She sounded anxious, troubled. "Ernie Holmes just called me," she told him. "He's in trouble. You better call him right away."

[+] EnlargeOnes Who Hit The Hardest
Gotham Books"The Ones Who Hit The Hardest" will be available in September.

Holmes, a defensive tackle, was country strong -- his nickname had been "Fats" from the time he was a boy -- and built like a powder keg. He had the same temperament. When he first arrived at a reception for Steelers rookies in 1971, he kept eyeing fellow rookie defensive lineman Dwight White from across the room, staring at him but never talking to him. When they eventually came face to face, White stuck out his hand but the stockier, broader Holmes just looked at him and said, "Yeah, fat boy, you know you're going to have to leave here. There's not room for more than one of us here."

Holmes needed to make the Steelers. He had grown up on his family's forty-five-acre farm in Jamestown, Texas, halfway between Dallas and the Louisiana border. But while at Texas Southern, in Houston, he had married his girlfriend. And they had two kids before he graduated. While he struggled in Pittsburgh, his family was waiting in Houston for his checks. The distance, and the stress he felt financially, was straining his relationship with his wife.

He went all out on every play, in practice and in games, blindly attacking -- every snap he didn't win was a threat to his livelihood. But the ferocity with which he played came from a deeper well than where most players find personal motivation. Something seethed inside him. "I don't know what my life is," he once told Time magazine, "except there's something pounding in the back of my head."

Occasionally he'd stop by Dan Rooney's office to talk, worried that people were out to get him. During practices veteran Steelers offensive linemen had to ask him to slow down so they didn't get hurt. Holmes played low, and used his helmet like a ram's horns, butting opponents under the chin to knock them off balance and, literally, make their head spin. "He had a look that was really scary," says former Steelers safety Mike Wagner. "I think he wanted to beat people to death -- within the rules of the game."

But this is how he lived, all the time, at the extreme edges. Once, at a party in a restaurant hosted by defensive line coach George Perles, the Steelers entered a back room to find a gluttonous spread: A full roasted pig, piles of pasta, roast beef. They attacked the food at first, pouring it down their throats, before they finally slowed down, everyone settling into chairs with full bellies and heavy breaths. Terry Hanratty, the backup quarterback, walked in at that moment. "And there is Ernie Holmes almost contented," Hanratty says. "Then he looks at the pig's head, throws it down, cracks it, and starts eating the brains."

Holmes had split time at defensive tackle in 1972 with Ben McGee. But McGee retired after that season, and Holmes got the job. He had the stability and recognition he craved, that he fought for on every play. Players and coaches hoped it would help mellow him off the field.

But in March 1973 Holmes was in Texas when he and his wife separated. He worried he'd never see his kids again. He was overextended financially -- "I was the successful one in my family and helped people out," he told a reporter back then -- and knew he was facing an expensive divorce. He needed money, and he'd asked Rooney to help him. Without promising anything, Rooney told him to come see him in Pittsburgh, that he'd help him work it out.

[+] EnlargeErnie Holmes
Vernon Biever/NFL/Getty ImagesErnie Holmes played with a mean streak, which often followed him off the field.

That night, Holmes jumped into his car and raced through the night and the next day to Pittsburgh, without sleeping. He arrived after the Steelers offices had closed, so he kept driving, onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike until it became the Ohio Turnpike. He was distraught and tired and battling demons in his head, real and imagined. At the scene of an accident he stopped and told a police officer that trucks were trying to cut him off. But the cop ignored him. Back in his car, Holmes grew more paranoid as traffic built up around him, blocking his car. He pressed on the brake, he pressed on the gas, lurching forward ever so slightly.

He was convinced the trucks were after him. He pulled a shotgun from the floor and started shooting at the tires of passing trucks. He stuck his shotgun out the window, already blasted open by his own bullets, and kept shooting. The state police were on his tail now, chasing him at ninety miles an hour. He veered off the main road, blew out a tire, and jumped out of his car, running into a nearby forest. He carried his shotgun with him.

A police helicopter swirled overhead and Holmes, surrounded by state police, began shooting at it, hitting an officer in the ankle. Moments later, surrounded and exhausted, he was finally in cuffs. Said one officer afterward: "We could have killed him a dozen times."

That night in jail, Holmes called Dan Rooney. "We'll do everything we can for you," Rooney told him. "Try not to worry." It was a Saturday. Holmes would be in jail for the weekend, until a judge could hear his case and consider bail. He slept with a stick by his side, unaware that he was the biggest man in the cell.

That Monday, represented by a lawyer paid for by the Rooneys, Holmes was released on $45,000 bail, also paid by the Rooneys, and admitted to a psych hospital in western Pennsylvania, again paid for by the Rooneys. He was supposed to be there for a month. He stayed for two. Art Rooney visited nearly every day. L.C. Greenwood took him on supervised trips around town. This was a kid who showed only flashes of the kind of mental strength necessary to be a consistent starter. Yet he was treated as if he were Joe Greene. "We all thought," says Art Rooney Jr., "he needed mercy."

That summer, after his stay in the hospital, Holmes went back to Ohio and pled guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. At sentencing, a psychiatrist testified that he suffered from acute paranoid psychosis. Holmes was given five years probation. That July he was back in training camp. And that September he was the Steelers starting defensive tackle.

Chad Millman is a senior deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine and writes the Behind The Bets blog for ESPN Insider. Shawn Coyne is a former publisher and Pittsburgh native who is now a literary agent in New York.