The Kansas City Chiefs tight end did a great job all season of balancing touchdowns, tabloids, love, and locker rooms. He was a star off the field and his reputation was growing on it.
Kelce had a chance to win a third championship, but the image that will stick with people from Sunday’s 25-22 overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII was almost this: a furious Kelce, who had only one catch for one yard in a dull first half and almost knocked 65-year-old coach Andy Reid off his feet on the sidelines after the Chiefs took Kelce off the field for a running play that led to an Isiah Pacheco fumble.
It was in that moment that Kelce told his boss to “put it on me” when the game gets close. “[Reid’s] helped me a lot with that, channeling my emotion,” said Kelce. “I owe my entire career to that guy and being able to control how emotional I get.”
Everyone forgot about the mistakes after an exciting win, which Kelce helped with by catching nine passes for 93 yards.
“He wants to help his team win — it’s not a selfish thing,” he said. “I understand that. As much as he bumps into me, I get after him. He just caught me off balance.”
As a result, Kelce was the most talked-about player in the 2023 NFL season. He kept people’s attention until the very end by screaming and singing “Viva Las Vegas” from the top of the Chiefs’ victory podium at Allegiant Stadium while Taylor Swift, Kelce’s mother Donna, and brother Jason watched below.
The Swift biography may have made it harder to see that Kelce played some of his best football ever as he tried to win his third Super Bowl. The 34-year-old made a strong case for being the best tight end the game has ever seen in what is likely to be one of his last seasons.
As the streamers fell, Kelce made it clear that he’s not done.
“Hell yeah,” Kelce yelled to ESPN when they asked him if he would come back in 2024. “I want that three-peat.”
Kelce was in high demand long before he became friends with the world’s most famous pop star. In addition to hosting “Saturday Night Live” and going to Paris Fashion Week, he was in a lot of national commercials and hosts a very famous podcast with Jason. If NFL fans saw this man without his helmet, they would already know who he was.
But every time the TV camera moved to Swift in the family room, the spotlight on Kelce went from being intense to possibly blinding, a peak that changed what “New Heights” meant.
The paparazzi started to show up outside of Kelce’s Kansas City home. He got a lot of attention from Us Weekly. The New York Times and Esquire both wrote about his haircut, the two-guard fade.
It became like getting a national security pass to talk to anyone from Kelce’s camp. This is a group that was praised for being easy to talk to and friendly.
People who know Kelce well say that he is the right person to handle all of this. He is generally a calm person who can’t live without being involved in the action. But behind closed doors, several Chiefs sources admitted that Kelce had a tough time with his busy schedule, which included endorsements, show appearances, and a trip to Argentina in the middle of the season to see Swift perform, all while still trying to fully recover from an ankle injury he suffered in Week 1.
And it never came up in meetings, offensive coach Matt Nagy said. “There were times when it got really big.” “But I know internally it had to be hard. Because for him to be a leader and help run this offense, especially when we were going through what we were going through and struggling a little bit, as successful as we’ve been, he did a great job of rallying through it.”
Kelce worked extra hours to keep up a routine that kept him from going crazy. He still smashed Gushers in the tight end room with his friends and Tom Melvin, the position coach. The “baby” line was still a big part of many of his jokes.
It was very important to him that no one thought he was better than the team. Kelce could have played against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 18 to make sure he had a 1,000-yard season, but he chose to sit instead, getting the rest that his friends and coaches say he needed so badly.
“I have a lot of desire to be accountable for the ones next to me,” said Kelce. “Everybody has distractions or things in their lives that can take away from focus. You’ve just got to be able to compartmentalize that. … It might be on a national scale so it seems like it’s a lot harder, but the reality is when I step in those doors or on the field, I’m focused on championship football and being a Kansas City Chief.”
The NFL’s best player of the decade was demoted to a secondary table in the Hilton Lake Las Vegas. He answered questions from the press from the middle of a busy hallway.
It wasn’t Patrick Mahomes who was the star at the Thursday press meeting before Super Bowl LVIII. It was Kelce, who was wearing all black sweats and a hat and was in charge of the main podium in a nearby news conference room. Press asked the nine-time Pro Bowler about both the Super Bowl and how to finish Taylor Swift’s song words.
“Karma is a guy on the…” (long pause) “Chiefs,” Kelce said sheepishly, then nicely asked what the next question was. Then someone asked Kelce about his plans to become an actor. He said that he “definitely [has] Hollywood talks out there,” and he added that he’d like to try his hand at comedy.
A fellow Chiefs tight end who was two rooms away was proud because he knew what Kelce would do his best to show on that stage: football first.
Blake Bell, who has shared a tight end room with Kelce for four seasons in Kansas City, said, “With everything going on, he wants to make sure everyone knows he’s there for football, there to win, and there to win another Super Bowl.” “I admire that.”
A little more than 48 hours later, Kelce let his friends know how much he cared about football with a speech that stuck with them all the way to kickoff.
Justin Reid, a safety, said that Kelce’s fiery speech about bringing emotion, energy, and juice to the biggest stage “touched everyone who was in the room.” He told his friends not to make the situation worse than it is and to ask for help if they were feeling down.
“I just wanted to let them know how much passion I have for this team, how I view things,” Kelce said. “And that we had the formula — a formula for success and formula to fight until the end.”
Even though Kelce took a while to get going against the 49ers, he did make a big impact in the end.
Mahomes had two good catches for Kelce early in the third quarter. A few more receptions came over the next few plays. The game’s direction changed when Kelce beat his defender on a crossing route and ran out of bounds for 22 yards with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter. This set up the game-tying field goal.
But he may have made his best plays when he didn’t have the ball. He split up two defenders so Marquez Valdes-Scantling could run free for a touchdown in the third quarter. On Mecole Hardman’s game-winning touchdown in OT, his route helped clear a path for the ball.
The Chiefs were down 10-3 at halftime, and Kelce said he didn’t care about his catches—he just wanted the score to be different.
“It’s an electric feeling, knowing all eyes are on me and someone else is open,” he stated.
According to all reports, the 2023 regular season was a down year for the once-powerful Chiefs offense. This performance continued Kelce’s comeback in the playoffs. When the stakes are high, Kelce changes his signature ear-to-ear smile into a scowl and turns up the noise in the playoffs. It was Kelce’s first regular season without a 1,000-yard game since 2015, but when it meant most, performance art destroyed it.
On the way to Super Bowl LVIII, Kelce played in three cold playoff games, two of which were on the road. He threw for 262 yards and three scores while looking younger than 34. His stats in the playoffs are crazy: 113 catches, 1,271 yards, and 13 scores. The number of grabs is the most in NFL playoff history.
The work happened on time. It looked like the Chiefs’ offense was just a rambling, average one near the end of the regular season. It was hard to find solid receivers to go with Kelce in the passing game, but rookie Rashee Rice was slowly making a name for himself. Kelce only got 88 receiving yards in the last three games of the season, when Kansas City relied more on defense and the run game than usual.
One coaching source said the Chiefs knew they could go after Kelce 12 times a game and have some success, but they needed to come up with other ways to help the offense. The Chiefs had to find help for Kelce in order to make it through the 17-game regular season and playoffs. On the tight end, Kelce was getting more questions about whether he was slowing down, which was clear to people close to him.
“At one point in the season, he was like, ‘I’m not having a good season,'” said 49ers tight end George Kittle, who is close with Kelce and is also a great player at the position. “Go watch the tape. He’s having a good season. While it might seem to us like [Kelce’s outside interests would be] a distraction, it might not be to him. Travis is a mature man, he knows how to handle his business and he puts football above anything.”
The Chiefs’ ugly 20-14 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Day made this matter more important. Kelce told his friends, “It’s now or never.” He and Mahomes spent extra time with Reid and Nagy working on penalties and execution. The Chiefs’ offense spent more practice time working on their passing game. During those sessions, Kelce spent a lot of time helping Rice, who had three 100-yard games this season and was the team’s best option for catching passes.
Kelce had to set the tone off the field by doing the same thing on it. He did it on Sunday, even though the 49ers tried to be rough with him and stop him.
Last week, 49ers defender Fred Warner said, “I haven’t seen a tight end play with as much smarts as he does.” “He knows exactly where the open spaces are on the field. He’s not just like a burner in terms of speed. He has a good shimmy about it. Not overly quick. He has strength but not overly strong. But the savvy is something I haven’t seen at the position from anybody. The guy is amazing. That’s why he’s a future Hall of Famer.”
Kelce has been remarkably weel-kept for a player who plays a tough position and is a key part of an attack that usually relies on passes. Even though Kelce’s physical trainer for the last seven or eight seasons, Alex Skacel, says he’s had “countless” injuries, he has never missed more than one game in a season since 2014.
Every week, Kelce thought about his health in a new, all-encompassing way, which helped him get through the tough 2023 season. Skacel met Kelce early in his career while helping him recover from surgery. He now lives on the East Coast but spends a lot of time in Kansas City, sometimes abruptly based on the injury.
Skacel finished Kelce’s treatment early in Week 1, but when he got home, he found that Kelce had hurt his knee at practice on Tuesday, getting a bone bruise and hyperextension. Soon, Skacel was back in Kansas City, where he worked with Kelce around the clock to improve his stability and range of motion before the first game on Thursday night against Detroit.
Kelce almost made it to the game but didn’t. Skacel was sure that he would have played if the game had been on a Sunday.
“He may not be 100% every week, but he’s still going to play,” said Skacel. “That’s such an important aspect of him as a competitor. If you’re not 100%, you have to be in it to win it to even get out there, having a desire to compete with teammates no matter how you’re feeling. He has that.”
Being a great athlete also helps. Kelce has some unusual traits. His offensive assistant at Cincinnati, Mike Bajakian, remembers that Kelce won a fun team 3-point shootout contest with his left hand. “He could have played collegiate baseball, basketball and football — and gone far with any of them,” he said.
But Kelce has made sure that his physical gifts and the other stresses of his life and work don’t get in the way of his routine. He talks to Skacel about how he feels before and after treatments. To figure out how he stands or why he favors one body part too much on an open-field cut, they watch film together. Early in the week, recovery is steady and includes dry needling.
If Kelce comes back next season as planned, this summer will be mostly about getting back to normal, including learning techniques for joint stability and range of motion.
“A lot of the things we do address are the things that you would see break down on an athlete as they age,” said Skacel. “His schedule has always been crazy, but he makes sure wherever he goes, he’s going to get his work in.”
That way of life could help Kelce play well into his 30s, giving him a chance to break records again. With 1,325 catches and 15,127 yards, Tony Gonzalez is the most famous tight end in the world. With 116 scores, Antonio Gates is the tight end with the most.
Rob Gronkowski is in second place with 92. Kelce has 907 catches for 11,328 yards and 74 touchdowns, so it will be hard for him to catch any of those guys. But it’s not impossible if he keeps playing at this level for four more years.
Tom Brady was Gronkowski’s quarterback for all 11 years in the NFL. After seven seasons with Mahomes, Kelce is clearly at the top of his game and making a strong early case to become the best player of all time.
“We think along the same wavelength on kind of a lot of things,” said Mahomes. “We have a lot of similar hobbies, similar interests, and it translates to the football field. A lot of times, there might be something we haven’t talked about that he kind of does and I just know he’s going to do it — and so, it comes with a lot of reps.”
Kelce wants to keep taking reps with his QB and team. He is aware of how big of a name he has become as a tight end, but he says he’s not in it for that.
“I do love the legacy of wanting to be as great as I possibly can be,” said Kelce. “”But I just like coming into this building at this point in my work. The other side is farther away than I am from not playing. I love every second I spend with these guys.”
Smoke filled the Chiefs’ locker room at Allegiant Stadium as dozens of players danced around the Lombardi Trophy with ski goggles on top of their heads and cigars between their fingers. This happened after the traditional champagne toast. Mahomes and general manager Brett Veach took a picture with three fingers up to represent the dynasty.
Officials from the other teams all agreed on one thing: this win was sweeter because of the challenges the season had brought. There were many: the disappointing loss to the Raiders on Christmas Day; the problems with the passing game; the injuries; and the difficulty of going back-to-back games when opponents were eager to send the Chiefs home early.
Kelce’s usual mood after a game, which is a mix of affirmation and nicknames, made it seem like there was never any question. His life had changed a lot since the Chiefs won the title last year, but nothing really had changed.
“Love you, dog,” Kelce told Mahomes out loud while the quarterback was doing interviews. “Championship football, baby.”
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