Ernie Holmes played next to Joe Greene as the two defensive tackles in the famed Steel Curtain defense, and some believe he was his equal.
"Ernie was a tremendous football player," said Dwight White, who played right defensive end, next to Mr. Holmes. "Not taking anything away from Joe -- we know where he is -- Ernie was as good, and, in some cases, even better."
Mr. Holmes, who died at age 59 Thursday night in a one-vehicle wreck in his native Texas, made only two Pro Bowls and never was a serious candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But those who played with him for the Steelers of the 1970s knew how good he was.
"Joe Greene got a lot of attention and rightfully so,'' said Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham, "but Ernie was a great football player. We all knew it on the team. Our teammates knew how important he was to the team and maybe didn't get the recognition he deserved."
Mr. Holmes, known affectionately as "Fats" because of his tremendous size for the times, was driving alone Thursday night when his SUV left the road and rolled several times near Lumberton, about 80 miles from Houston, a Texas Department of Public Safety dispatcher said. He was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the car and pronounced dead at the scene, the department said. Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said yesterday he was told Mr. Holmes fell asleep at the wheel.
Mr. Holmes, an ordained minister, lived on a ranch in Wiergate in Southeast Texas.
Mr. Greene, selected as the best player in franchise history as part of the Steelers' 75th anniversary season celebration last year, remained friends with Mr. Holmes and talked to him often, as did other teammates. Mr. Holmes last appeared publicly in Pittsburgh when he served as an honorary co-captain for the team's Nov. 11 game against Cleveland at Heinz Field.
"We're going to miss ol' Ernie," said a somber Mr. Greene, now a scout for the Steelers who lives in the Dallas area. "We'll miss him a lot."
Mr. Holmes was an eighth-round draft choice from Texas Southern in 1971 as part of what many consider the Steelers' second-best draft in their history, one that included Mr. Ham, Mr. White, Larry Brown, Frank Lewis, Mike Wagner and Gerry Mullins.
He helped form the most famous front four in pro football history -- L.C. Greenwood at left end, Mr. Greene at left tackle, Mr. Holmes at right tackle and Mr. White at right end.
That group dominated Oakland in the 1974 AFC championship, holding the Raiders to 29 yards rushing. In Super Bowl IX two weeks later, they limited the Minnesota Vikings to 17 yards rushing.
"That run we had in '74 and through the playoffs and our first Super Bowl, he just had a dominating performance, especially against Gene Upshaw and the Raiders in Oakland in the AFC championship game," Mr. Ham said. "I think they rushed for 29 yards in that game. It was the most dominating performance against a great offensive line. He's a big reason why we ended up winning that game.
"And what they did against Minnesota, the entire front four!"
The Raiders, with two Hall of Fame offensive linemen in Mr. Upshaw, a guard, and tackle Art Shell, were heavy favorites to beat the Steelers in Oakland in that title game of '74.
How good was Mr. Holmes that day?
"Ask Gene Upshaw, and Gene was good,'' said Mr. White, also a Texas native. "I had Shell, he had Upshaw and he made a long afternoon for Gene and that made it a much easier afternoon for me."
Mr. Holmes was listed at 6-3, 260 pounds, but really weighed much more. He constantly was trying to lose weight in training camps at a time in which there was little organized offseason training in pro football.
"He was really a good guy, played extremely well for us," said Dan Rooney. "He was one of those guys who really was important to the team and the Steel Curtain. He played in the middle and was really tough to get out of there, which gave Joe a chance and the other guys to get to the quarterback."
Mr. Holmes played through the 1977 season with the Steelers, earning two Super Bowl rings, but was released when his play fell off because of weight and other physical problems. He played for New England in 1978.
During his time with the Steelers, he developed a reputation for being "stone crazy," he told Time magazine in 1975. That came partly 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 in nearby Ohio. He was sentenced to five years' probation.
He later was declared not guilty of possessing cocaine in a trial in Texas. During the 1974 season, he shaved his head in the form of an arrow before the Steelers played a game at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. He kept it that way and told people it was to remind everyone to go forward toward the Super Bowl.
Mr. Rooney said yesterday that Mr. Holmes was out of sorts during the incident in Ohio because he took high doses of caffeine.
"He was hallucinating,'' Mr. Rooney said. "He was taking those No Doze pills and didn't even know where he was. He was released in my custody. I got him into a hospital, and he spent a number of weeks there. He came out OK."
Mr. Rooney and Mr. Holmes' teammates say that's precisely how his life turned out as well. They say he stopped drinking years ago, lost weight and was devoted to his ministry in a Baptist church.
"Ernie came through a lot of struggles, and it looked like he was out ahead of it and living the way he wanted to live his life," Mr. Greene said.
"Ever since I've known him, Ernie always was a guy who read the Bible and wanted to be close to God. In lieu of all of his actions that we've experienced with him, Ernie was always a good man.
"He overcame a lot of those life struggles. Just last year he had a knee replacement and was coming along good with that. He lost a lot of weight and looking good and feeling good about it."
Opponents and sometimes his own teammates feared him.
"Oh, Ernie was definitely an enforcer,'' Mr. Greene said. "I suspect that a lot of guys were kind of afraid of him, not so much what he did on the field but what they read about him off the field. He'd probably do anything to win."
Mr. Holmes, though, was mostly mild-mannered and thoughtful off the field.
"I just wish he could have gotten more recognition for the job he did,'' Mr. White said. "The positives far outweigh the negatives of Ernie Holmes. For all the things and stories and antics that went on 30 years ago, Ernie ended up being a very, very inspiring person, one you could respect and admire."
Mr. Greene remembers one Steelers Christmas party in which, on his own, Mr. Holmes bought presents for the kids, dressed up like Santa Claus and handed out the gifts while the kids sat on his lap.
"Everybody has an Ernie Holmes story,'' Mr. White said. "Obviously, Ernie was a very colorful person back in the day. He did have what I call distractions. But there's an old Texas saying, it's all about where you end up. I can honestly say over the last few years, Ernie made major changes in his life."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . The Associated Press contributed to this story. First Published January 19, 2008 5:00 AM