By Tony McClean
Updated: January 18, 2008
“Ernie was one of the toughest players to ever wear a Steelers uniform. He was a key member of our famous Steel Curtain defense, and many people who played against him considered Ernie almost impossible to block. At his best, he was an intimidating player who even the toughest of opponents did not want to play against.”
– Dan Rooney, Steelers chairman.
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — When I got the chance to talk to Ernie Holmes last year, we were speaking about the passing of another ex-NFL star, George Webster. While speaking glowingly about his friend, the former Steeler standout was very humble about his own career.
Holmes, who won two Super Bowls as part of Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain” defense in the 1970s, died in a car crash late Thursday night. He was 59. While he was the least known of that great defensive unit, Holmes in many ways served as one of the team’s anchors.
The two-time All-Pro played for the Steelers from 1972-77 and spent part of the 1978 season with the New England Patriots before retiring. He played on a defensive line with Steel Curtain teammates “Mean” Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White.
Holmes was nicknamed “Fats” for most of his life. He also was nicknamed “Arrowhead Holmes” in 1974 when he shaved his head, leaving only an arrow-shaped pattern of hair on his skull.
He had 11.5 sacks in 1974, including a stretch of six consecutive games with a sack, which ties him with Greene and Greg Lloyd for the longest such streak in team history.
Holmes was part of a front four in the 1975 Super Bowl that helped limit Minnesota to 17 yards rushing and 119 total yards. The Steelers won their first Super Bowl, 16-6. They were back a year later, beating Dallas 21-17 in the title game.
The group stayed in touch, getting together at least three or four times a year, Holmes said last year in a story on the Steelers’ Web site. The Texas Southern standout served as an honorary captain in Pittsburgh’s game against Cleveland.
Holmes finished his six-year career with 40 sacks, still eighth on the team’s all-time list.
When asked what he remembered the most about his career in Pittsburgh, Holmes replied “It was the unity, the camaraderie, and the appreciation for one another. It was a family. The city of Pittsburgh was a family.”
Holmes did have his wild side off the field. He had a reputation for being “stone crazy,” he told Time magazine in 1975. That came mostly from a case early in his career when he pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon following a bizarre episode in which he fired a pistol at trucks and a police helicopter.
He was sentenced to five years’ probation. The 6-foot-3 Holmes had several minor acting roles after his career ended. He appeared in an episode of the 1980s TV show “The A-Team” and dabbled in professional wrestling.
Holmes tried to live a calmer life in later years, settling on a ranch on the southeast border of Texas, where he had a church and was an ordained minister. He told the Steelers he was a more “spiritual being.”
Holmes was driving alone Thursday night when his car left the road and rolled several times near Lumberton, Texas about 80 miles from Houston, a Texas Department of Public Safety dispatcher said Friday.
He was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the car, and pronounced dead at the scene, the department said. He lived on a ranch in Wiergate.
NOTE: The Associated Press and Steelers.com contributed to this story.