Heart of a Lion: Holmes recounts how he battled back from accident that left him in a coma
Allen Park — Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes still can't wink with his right eye, and his hand strength isn't what it once was on that same side. But that's the only remnants from an accident that nearly took his life a little more than two decades ago.
Holmes had just wrapped up his sophomore season at North Carolina A&T and was back home in Tampa, Florida for Christmas break when his Honda Accord was t-boned by an SUV.
His injuries were bad, including a ruptured diaphragm. While in the hospital, he suffered a stroke and was in a coma for a week. And when he came to, that right side which still has some residual effects, was paralyzed.
At that point, it was unclear if life would ever return to normal, and playing football again seemed beyond reason.
An athlete from a family of athletes, one of Holmes' lingering memories from his hospital stay was watching a football game from his bed. To be fair, it's not an easy one to forget. With friends and family visiting, he vividly recalls watching the Tennessee Titans pull off a stunning playoff victory over the Buffalo Bills in the Music City Miracle.
With 16 seconds remaining, and the Titans trailing the Bills by one, fullback Lorenzo Neal fielded a high-lofted kickoff at the 25-yard line. He handed it off to tight end Frank Wycheck, going right, who threw a cross-field lateral pass to Kevin Dyson. The receiver then raced down the left sideline behind a convoy of blockers for the game-winning touchdown.
Fittingly, Holmes was preparing to embark on his own miracle.
In total, he was hospitalized three weeks and underwent multiple surgeries. But by the time he was discharged, he had regained the ability to walk. Sure, he could only handle short distances, but at something close to a normal pace. That limited positive progress was enough to convince him he'd play football again.
"That's what boosted my confidence and I was like, I think I can make it back," Holmes told the Detroit News in a sit-down interview. "My college coach, Bill Hayes, came down and I said, 'Coach, I'm going to come back.' I'm all mangled in the hospital and he's like, yeah right. He's like, 'Yeah, yeah, I'm sure.' And I'm like, 'No, I'm going to play again.'"
The road back was far from easy. Holmes took a job at the rec center at the University of South Florida, where his mother Joan was an educator. And he also started regularly going to the golf course with his grandfather, not to swing a club, but to build up his strength and walk longer and longer distances.
"At first, we would drive in the cart," Holmes said. "Then I would walk the course. Slowly, I basically dedicated everything to returning back to football."
Holmes eventually added weight lifting to his routine at the rec center, but he missed the 2000 season and still wasn't medically cleared for Aggies' spring game the following year. It wasn't until May, 2001, doctors game him the green light to resume football activities.
When he rejoined the team, Holmes, a 270-pound defensive tackle, surprised everyone, including himself, with how well his recovery had gone.
"I was literally the fastest and strongest I had ever been," Holmes said. "I did the most I ever did on 225, reps. I did my max bench. I could never bench 400 pounds, and I never thought I'd get close, but I put up like 395 and was like, 'Wow.'
The dedication and resiliency Holmes showed resonated with the coaching staff and his teammates. He earned a starting job and was named captain for a team that would go 8-3 that season.
"Obviously one of the biggest moments of adversity that I've ever faced in my life," Holmes said. "... It taught me not to take anything for granted. Life is short and can be taken away from you at any moment."
After college, Holmes' career arc has been more thoroughly reported, from working for a car rental provider to interning in the PR department for the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Rams.
With the Rams, Holmes was able to transition into a low-level scouting position. And after climbing the ladder for the next 18 years, culminating with a promotion to director of scouting director in 2013, he earned an opportunity to run his own team in Detroit this offseason.
Fittingly, in a story for North Carolina A&T's school newspaper in 2001, teammate Steve Shipp summed up Holmes' journey from accident to captainship.
“He has the heart of a lion — never giving up," Shipp said.
Holmes earned that reputation overcoming his personal adversity. And he'll need it as he tackles his next great challenge, one that could be considered equally daunting, turning around this football team in Detroit.