‘He’s an icon in this neighborhood’: Injuries kept Michael Holmes from the NFL. His head, and his heart, brought him back to Leo.


JAN 04, 2021 AT 12:13 PM

If Michael Holmes hadn’t suffered leg and knee injuries in 1980, there are no guarantees he would have been an NFL player.

Those injuries, however, didn’t help Holmes in training camp when the Buffalo Bills gave the former Illinois running back a quick look before taking a pass.

“I could still run in a game,” he said. “But the cartilage was deteriorated, and I could only seldom practice. You can’t do that in the pros.”

One of the most decorated sports figures in Leo history called it a career after a season with the Chicago Fire in the American Football Association.

Who knows how far he could have gone if injuries hadn’t cut short his career? Holmes doesn’t dwell on that.

After stints working with Mayor Harold Washington’s planning department and coaching and teaching at Fenger, Holmes came back to Leo. He has spent 30 years at the school as a teacher, coach and administrator.

Holmes will be the fifth recipient of the Leo Lions Legacy Award at the school’s scholarship benefit, which will be held Jan. 12 as a virtual event due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Holmes follows Andrew McKenna, William Conlon, Thomas Owens and William Sheehy as legacy honorees.

Holmes’ biggest supporters laud his ability to change the lives of hundreds of students over the years, and he doesn’t think that would not have happened if he had made it to the NFL.

“I probably wouldn’t have been involved personally, but I probably would have been involved financially,” he said. “I think God needed me to be personally involved. That’s the blessing that I look at it as. Yeah, you can always give money, and we have some alumni who give a lot of money and we are appreciative of that.

“But for me, being a kid from a neighborhood, I needed to be back here. I believe God puts you where he needs you the most. He needed me at Leo High School and doing the things that I’m doing.”

Holmes was the head coach of the football team from 1993 to 2000 and took the position over again in 2007. He still holds that spot. In 2013, the Lions won 10 games, just the seventh time in school history with double figures in victories.

In the late 2000s, Leo was at a crisis stage with less than 125 students, and the possibility of closing the school up loomed large. Dan McGrath took over as president of the all-boys school in 2010.

McGrath said Holmes has played a big part in recruiting students. Now, the school has close to 200 students, and next year could be in the 210 range.

“His dedication to the kids and his dedication to the school is remarkable,” McGrath said. “He worked with Harold Washington. Mike could have had a (more comfortable) life but decided that Leo was in his heart.

“He’s an icon in this neighborhood, and even students who have never stepped foot in Leo High School know who he is and respect him.”

One of Holmes’ former students and players is Shaka Rawls, who’s now the school’s principal. McGrath said Rawls has been another key player in boosting Leo’s enrollment.

Rawls, meanwhile, praised Holmes.

“Michael Holmes has been an influential figure in my life since I played football for him back in the ’90s,” Rawls said. “He’s a main reason I am working at Leo.

“I’m not sure where I would be in life, much less working at Leo, had it not been for the investment he made in my life.”

Jeff Vorva is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.