All season, the Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end expertly managed touchdowns and tabloids, love and locker rooms, comfortably combining his star turn off the field with his increasing legacy on it.
A third championship was Kelce’s to lose, but the lasting image from Sunday’s 25-22 overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII was nearly this: a raging Kelce, limited to a single catch for a single yard in a stagnant first half, nearly knocking 65-year-old coach Andy Reid off his feet on the sideline after the Chiefs took Kelce off the field for a running play that resulted in an Isiah Pacheco fumble.
Kelce told his coach to “put it on me” when the game was tight. “[Reid’s] helped me a lot with that, channeling my emotion,” he remarked. “I owe my entire career to that guy and being able to control how emotional I get.”
All was forgiven in the aftermath of a thrilling victory, to which Kelce contributed a game-high nine receptions for 93 yards.
“He wants to help his team win — it’s not a selfish thing,” he remarked. “I understand that. As much as he bumps into me, I get after him. He just caught me off balance.”
And so it was that Kelce, the most scrutinized figure of the 2023 NFL season, kept the public’s attention until the very end, scream-singing “Viva Las Vegas” atop the Chiefs’ victory podium at Allegiant Stadium as pop icon Taylor Swift, Kelce’s mother, Donna, and brother, Jason, looked on below.
The Swift tale may have overshadowed the fact that Kelce played some of his best football in pursuit of his third Super Bowl win. In what appears to be one of his final seasons, the 34-year-old staked a real claim to becoming the best tight end in the game’s history.
And when the confetti fell, Kelce made it apparent that he wasn’t done.
“Hell yeah,” Kelce told ESPN when asked if he’d return in 2024. “I want that three-peat.”
Kelce was in high demand even before the world’s most recognized music artist entered his orbit. There were appearances at Paris Fashion Week and “Saturday Night Live” hosting duties, as well as a slew of national ads and the wildly successful podcast he co-hosts with Jason. This was a player who NFL fans could recognize even without his helmet.
But with each television camera swing to Swift in the family suite, the spotlight on Kelce shifted from fierce to possibly blinding, a climax that epitomized “New Heights.”
Paparazzi became a regular outside Kelce’s Kansas City house. He found himself in heavy rotation on Us Weekly. His two-guard fade haircut was the subject of stories in the New York Times and Esquire.
Clearing an interview with anyone from Kelce’s camp, a group known for its accessibility and affability, became equivalent to national security clearance.
Those who know Kelce will say he has the ideal disposition to handle all of this, a relatively stress-free man who doesn’t live unless he’s involved in the action. Privately, however, numerous Chiefs insiders acknowledged Kelce’s challenges: a high-demand schedule, including those endorsements, podcast appearances, and a midseason trip to Argentina to see Swift in concert, all while recovering from a Week 1 ankle injury.
“There were times when it got really big, but it never came up in meetings,” offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. “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 fought tirelessly to establish a routine that kept him sane. He was still crushing Gushers candy in the tight end room with teammates and position coach Tom Melvin. He continued to deliver jokes with his famous “baby” phrase.
He also maintained a strong desire to dispel any notion that he was superior to the team. Kelce could have played against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 18 to secure a 1,000-yard season, but he chose to sit, allowing him to recuperate, according to teammates and coaches.
“I have a lot of desire to be accountable for the ones next to me,” he remarked. “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 banished to a secondary, auxiliary table inside the Hilton Lake Las Vegas, where he answered media questions from the corner of a busy corridor.
Patrick Mahomes would not be the headliner of the Thursday media session preceding Super Bowl LVIII; that accolade would go to Kelce, who manned the headlining podium in an adjacent news conference room while dressed in all black sweatpants and a cap. The media questioned the nine-time Pro Bowler about the Super Bowl and how to complete Swift’s song lyrics.
“Karma is a guy on the…” — lengthy pause — “Chiefs,” Kelce hesitantly replied, before graciously encouraging the next question. When asked about his acting intentions, Kelce said that he “definitely [has] Hollywood talks out there,” and that he’d like to dabble in comedy.
Two rooms away, a fellow Chiefs tight end was pleased because he knew what Kelce would strive to represent on that stage: football first.
“With everything going on, he wants to make sure everyone knows he’s there for football, to win, and to win another Super Bowl,” said Blake Bell, who shared a tight end room with Kelce in Kansas City for four years. “I admire that.”
Kelce’s dedication to football was obvious a little more than 48 hours later, when he delivered a Super Bowl Eve message to his teammates that rang true all the way until kickoff.
According to safety Justin Reid, Kelce “touched everyone who was in the room” with his fire message about bringing passion, enthusiasm, and juice to the big stage. He warned teammates not to exaggerate the situation and to seek support if they became overwhelmed.
“I just wanted to let them know how much passion I have for this team, how I view things,” he said. “And that we had the formula — a formula for success and formula to fight until the end.”
Even though Kelce was sluggish to get going against the 49ers, he eventually showed up in a big way.
Mahomes found Kelce early in the third quarter for two catches. Over the next several drives, I received a few more receptions. Then came the momentum swinger: Kelce beating his guy on a crossing route for a 22-yard gain before racing out of bounds with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter to set up the game-tying field goal in regulation.
However, some of his most memorable performances were away from the ball. He split two defenders, allowing Marquez Valdes-Scantling to streak open for a third-quarter touchdown, and his route helped clear a lane for Mecole Hardman’s OT winner.
Kelce maintained he didn’t care about his catches; he simply wanted a different score as the Chiefs went into halftime trailing 10-3.
“It’s an electric feeling, knowing all eyes are on me and someone else is open,” he told me.
The performance extended Kelce’s postseason resurgence following a disappointing season for the formerly nuclear Chiefs offense during the 2023 regular season. Kelce, the archetypal gamer in high-stakes situations, switches from his famous ear-to-ear smile to a frown and amps up the volume in the postseason. Kelce’s first non-1,000-yard regular season since 2015 ended in the name of performance art when it counted the most.
Kelce put up 262 yards and three touchdowns in three chilly playoff games en route to Super Bowl LVIII, two of which were on the road, despite appearing closer to 24 than 34. His 13-game postseason totals are staggering: 113 receptions, 1,271 yards, and 13 touchdowns. The receiving total is the greatest in NFL postseason history.
The production was on time. Late in the regular season, the Chiefs offense appeared to be little more than a plodding, middle-of-the-road effort. Finding solid passing equivalents for Kelce proved difficult, but youngster Rashee Rice was gradually emerging. Kelce had 88 receiving yards in his final three games of the season, as Kansas City relied on defense and the rushing game more than normal.
According to one coaching source, the Chiefs understood they could target Kelce 12 times per game and be quite successful, but they needed to find other ways to improve the offense. It was critical that the Chiefs find help for Kelce in order to weather a 17-game regular season and playoffs.
People close to Kelce could see the process wasn’t easy for the tight end, who began to hear more queries about whether he was slowing down
“At one point in the season, he was like, ‘I’m not having a good season,'” recalled 49ers tight end George Kittle, Kelce’s close buddy and fellow elite position player. “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.”
That business heightened following the Chiefs’ unsightly 20-14 defeat to the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Day, when Kelce told teammates it was “now or never.” Kelce and Mahomes worked extra hard with Reid and Nagy to clean up penalties and execution.
The Chiefs offense spent more practice time perfecting the passing game, with Kelce spending a lot of time with Rice, who had three 100-yard games this season and was the team’s closest pass-catching complement.
Kelce has to set the tone off the field, and he just did so on the greatest stage, despite the 49ers’ attempts to be tough and limit him Sunday.
“I haven’t seen a tight end play with the level of savvy he does,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said last week. “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 is well-preserved for a player who takes a battering in a tough position while remaining a focal point for a generally pass-first offense. He has never missed more than one game due to injury in any season since 2014, despite what Alex Skacel, Kelce’s physical therapist for the last seven years, describes as “countless” injuries.
A weekly, detailed reimagining of Kelce’s physical health assisted him in overcoming the challenges of the 2023 season. Skacel, who met Kelce early in his career while assisting him with rehab after surgery, lives on the East Coast but travels frequently to Kansas City, sometimes on short notice depending on the ailment.
Skacel finished Kelce’s treatment early in Week 1, only to return home and learn Kelce had sustained a knee injury, bone bruise, and hyperextension during Tuesday’s practice. Skacel was soon back in Kansas City, working around the clock to improve Kelce’s stability and range of motion ahead of Thursday night’s opening against Detroit.
Kelce missed the game by barely. Skacel was confident he would have played if kickoff had been on a Sunday.
“He may not be 100% every week, but he’s still going to play,” he added. “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 gifted athlete also helps. Kelce possesses uncommon characteristics. Mike Bajakian, Kelce’s offensive coordinator at Cincinnati, recalls him winning a team 3-point shootout competition — with his left hand, for fun. “He could have played collegiate baseball, basketball and football — and gone far with any of them,” Bajakian told the news outlet.
However, Kelce has made it a point not to let his physical abilities, or other responsibilities of life and profession, detract from his routine. He and Skacel discuss how he is feeling before and after therapy.
They watch tape together to see how he sets his knees in his stance or why he prioritized one body part over another during an open-field cut. Recovery, including dry needling, is ongoing early in the week.
If Kelce returns next season as projected, this offseason will be primarily about functional training, including range of motion and joint stability techniques, as well as learning from previous ailments.
“A lot of the things we do address are the things that you would see break down on an athlete as they age,” he said. “His schedule has always been crazy, but he makes sure wherever he goes, he’s going to get his work in.”
If such a practice allows him to play well into his 30s, Kelce has a shot to rewrite the record books. Tony Gonzalez is the gold standard among tight ends, with 1,325 receptions and 15,127 yards. Antonio Gates leads all tight ends in touchdowns with 116, while Rob Gronkowski has 92.
Catching any of those players will be difficult for Kelce, who has 907 catches for 11,328 yards and 74 touchdowns, but it is not impossible if he continues to perform at his present level for four more seasons.
Gronkowski spent all 11 of his NFL seasons alongside Tom Brady. Kelce is seven seasons into his career with Mahomes, securely in peak form and making a convincing early case to be the best player of all time.
“We think along the same wavelength on kind of a lot of things,” Mahomes said in a statement. “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 continue getting reps with his quarterback and team. While he is aware of his growing reputation in the tight end pantheon, he insists he is not in it for that.
“I do love the legacy of wanting to be as great as I possibly can be,” he remarked. “”But at this point in my career, I simply like entering this place. I’m closer to not playing than I am to the opposite side. I enjoy every moment with these guys.”
Smoke permeated the Chiefs’ locker room in Allegiant Stadium, as dozens of players danced around the Lombardi Trophy with cigars between their fingers and ski goggles atop their heads after the traditional champagne. Mahomes and general manager Brett Veach took a picture holding up three fingers to represent the dynasty.
Standing off to the side, team officials all acknowledged the same theme: this one was sweeter because of the season’s challenges, which included the bleakness of that Christmas Day loss to the Raiders, the struggles in the passing game, the injuries, and the difficulty of going back-to-back, with the outside noise deafening and opponents eager to send the Chiefs home early.
Kelce’s postgame demeanor, which is virtually his setting, a mix of affirmation and nicknames, suggested there was never a doubt. As much as Kelce’s life had altered since the Chiefs won the championship one season ago, nothing had actually changed.
“Love you, dog,” Kelce exclaimed to Mahomes as the quarterback conducted interviews. “Championship football, baby.”
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