Nate Holmes was not the first African American on the University of Tennessee at Martin football team in the fall of 1969, but he was one of seven in the first group of African Americans to play for the Vols.
In the fall of 1970 Holmes, from Decatur, Ala., was the only African American on the team. About the same time as the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded eight at a Kent State University student rally, Holmes and the Vols were playing in the Orange-and-White game.
Holmes rushed for 2,004 yards during his four-year career. He still ranks among UT Martin’s career rushing leaders.
Holmes, the principal at Martin Middle School since 1991, said he never experienced any trouble as the lone African American on the UT Martin football team.
As Holmes and the UT Martin Vols endured the rigors of the Gulf South Conference season, Holmes said he had whiskey thrown on him, and he was called a name or two. “That was normal and all part of playing in the GSC,” Holmes said.
Assistant coach Grover Page recruited the highly sought after running back. Page’s task was simplified because of Phillip Pisani, a close friend who played nose guard and guard on the same high school team.
“I was set to go somewhere else and Phillip (Pisani) persuaded me to come to UT Martin,” Holmes said. “He wanted me to go to the Army with him, but I decided against that.”
Holmes made the right decision. He signed a free-agent contract with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins after the 1972 season. “They waived me and Coach (Don) Shula helped me get a chance to play for a team in Baltimore, but I was disappointed. “I wanted to play in the NFL.”
Holmes only tried out for two teams, the Houston Oilers and Miami Dolphins, and was released by both clubs.
“It didn’t bother me. Both teams had great players in front of me,” Holmes said. “It was great. I got to come home and be a teacher and a coach, and stay around the game that I love.”