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Dean Justiz with NFL running back Priest Holmes

Former University of Texas and NFL running back Priest Holmes’s list of accomplishments is long. In 1992, before joining the Longhorns, he led San Antonio’s John Marshall High School football team to the Texas State Championship game. In 1997, he earned a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens. Later, with the Kansas City Chiefs, he became the NFL’s leading rusher and went on to break Marshall Faulk’s NFL record for total touchdowns in a season.  Holmes racked up one athletic win after another before retiring from the NFL in 2007.

But there stood one goal that he had yet to achieve: earning his bachelor’s degree. On Friday, May 22, 2015, Holmes met that challenge too, adding a degree in youth and community studies from UT’s College of Education to his list of accomplishments.

“Even though playing professionally in the NFL was one of my long-term goals, not completing my degree was still weighing on me. Philanthropic work has been a huge part of my mission and purpose, but I knew I could only evolve so much until I could go back and finish it. I knew doing so would not only benefit my philanthropic goals but also my family, hopefully inspiring my kids and other individuals to stay motivated to learn everything about their field of interest and not just settle on what they have at the moment. I wanted to be able to inspire young athletes who may be in similar situations to not give up on their educational goals, even if life takes them in new directions.”

Teachable Moment

But according to the 41 year old, who founded the Priest Holmes Foundation in 2005 to help young students maximize their potential, getting to his goal was a challenge he initially found “intimidating. ” Returning to school “quickly became a very humbling experience because I felt very out of my element,” he explained. “From registering for classes, which used to be done sitting with a counselor, to submitting papers, quizzes and exams online, and sitting in class while being the only person without a laptop who was taking notes by hand—I knew I needed to adjust. I wasn’t used to feeling as if everything was foreign.”

Not one to back away from a challenge, however, Holmes began to reflect on the idea that his experience of discomfort could be a teachable moment for people he intends to serve. “I knew I could really turn this experience into support for any person who came to me for advice,” he said. “Coming back and being a little older, with a family and a business, and commuting every Wednesday and Thursday from San Antonio, I realized that I could really support a completely new generation, and that is a major part of my mission.”

Located in San Antonio, the Priest Holmes Foundation helps lay the groundwork to encourage education, enhance the lives of children and empower young people through comprehensive programs and scholarships. One of the foundation’s programs, Fundamentals in Training, is an afterschool program that promotes health and wellness, physical fitness and healthy choices, all activities Holmes is intimately familiar with.

The UT Experience

Priest HolmesFueled in part by his desire to earn his UT-T-Ring [a class  ring for graduating student athletes], Holmes said that a highlight of his return to school was “returning to UT itself—“the campus, friends, classes and professors. I firmly believe that if I had to finish my degree anywhere else, my experience wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.” And though he said all of his professors stood out in unique ways because of how their personal experience enhanced their ability to provide a quality classroom experience, he mentioned Adjunct Associate Professor James Patton, who teaches ALD 322: Individual Differences, as someone particularly valuable to his education. “Dr. Patton seems to have genuine compassion for working with individuals with disabilities,” said Priest. “He’s not only given me inspiration, but has been able to captivate the entire class into focusing on the overall purpose of choosing that field in particular. He’s a solid role model and an ambassador for the special needs. I look up to him and respect him tremendously.”

Another First

Reflecting on his latest achievement, Holmes was reminded of words from former Kansas City Chiefs coach, Dick Vermeil: “Coach Vermeil would ask the team the morning after each game, ‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ I’ve accomplished many first-time moments with the Chiefs—touchdown records, offensive records and individual records. And no matter how rewarding those accomplishments have been, there really is nothing like experiencing something for the first time. This Friday, I will experience another first, as I walk across the stage at The University of Texas.”