How Travis Kelce embraced stardom and cemented his football legacy (2024)

  • How Travis Kelce embraced stardom and cemented his football legacy (1)

    Jeremy Fowler, senior NFL national reporterFeb 12, 2024, 06:00 AM ET


    • ESPN staff writer
    • Previously a college football reporter for
    • University of Florida graduate

LAS VEGAS -- Travis Kelce went off script.

All season, the Kansas City Chiefs tight end brilliantly balanced touchdowns and tabloids, love and locker rooms, happily juggling his star turn off the field with his growing legacy on it.

A third championship was Kelce's for the taking, but the enduring 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 solitary yard in a stagnant first half, almost knocking 65-year-old coach Andy Reid from 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 in the moment to "put it on me" when the game gets tight. "[Reid's] helped me a lot with that, channeling my emotion," Kelce said. "I owe my entire career to that guy and being able to control how emotional I get."

In the afterglow of a thrilling victory, to which Kelce would ultimately contribute a game-high nine catches for 93 yards, all was forgiven.

"He wants to help his team win -- it's not a selfish thing," Reid said. "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, held the public's attention until the very end, after his outburst and redemptive performance by scream-singing "Viva Las Vegas" atop the Chiefs' victory podium at Allegiant Stadium as pop icon Taylor Swift and Kelce's mother, Donna, and brother, Jason, looked on below.

What might have been obscured by the Swift chronicle is that Kelce played some of the best football of his career in pursuit of his third Super Bowl title. In what figures to stand as one of his twilight seasons, the 34-year-old made a legitimate claim as the best tight end the game has ever seen.

And Kelce made it clear as the confetti fell that he's not done.

"Hell yeah," Kelce bellowed to ESPN when asked whether he would return in 2024. "I want that three-peat."

KELCE WAS IN high demand well before the most famous pop star on the planet entered his orbit. There were Paris Fashion Week appearances and "Saturday Night Live" hosting duties, a spate of national commercials and the ultra-popular podcast he hosts with Jason. This was a player NFL fans already recognized without his helmet.

But with every television camera pan to Swift in the family suite, the spotlight on Kelce went from merely intense to potentially blinding, a zenith that redefined "New Heights."

Paparazzi became fixtures outside of Kelce's Kansas City home. He found himself in heavy Us Weekly rotation. His haircut, the 2-guard fade, became the subject of New York Times and Esquire stories.

Clearing an interview with anyone from Kelce's camp, a group heralded for its accessibility and affability, began requiring something akin to national security clearance.

Those who know Kelce will say he has the perfect demeanor to manage all of this, a largely stress-free man who isn't living if he's not immersed in the action. Privately, though, several Chiefs sources acknowledged Kelce's challenges: a high-demand schedule, including those endorsem*nts, podcast appearances and a midseason trip to Argentina to see Swift in concert, all undertaken while trying to get all the way back from a Week 1 ankle injury.

"There were certain times there where it got really big. It was never brought 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 worked overtime to maintain a routine that preserved his sanity. He still crushed Gushers candy in the tight end room with teammates and position coach Tom Melvin. He still cracked jokes often with his signature "baby" line. And he held firm to a deep desire to deflect any perception he was above the team. In Week 18, with the playoffs clinched, Kelce could have played against the Los Angeles Chargers to ensure a 1,000-yard season but decided to sit, getting rest teammates and coaches say he absolutely needed.

"I have a lot of desire to be accountable for the ones next to me," Kelce said. "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 relegated to a secondary, auxiliary table inside the Hilton Lake Las Vegas, where he fielded media questions from the corner of a crowded hallway.

Patrick Mahomes would not be the star in this setting, the Thursday media session preceding Super Bowl LVIII. That honor would belong to Kelce, who manned the marquee podium in a nearby news conference room, wearing black sweats and a hat. The media asked the nine-time Pro Bowler how to finish Swift's song lyrics as well as Super Bowl questions.

"Karma is a guy on the ..." -- long pause -- "Chiefs," Kelce obliged sheepishly, before politely inviting the next question. Then came a query about his acting plans, to which Kelce confirmed he "definitely [has] Hollywood talks out there," and where he acknowledged he'd like to dabble in comedy.

Two rooms away, a fellow Chiefs tight end was proud because he knew exactly what Kelce would try his best to project on that stage: Football first.

"With all the stuff going on, he wants to make sure everyone knows he's there for football, there to win and there to win another Super Bowl," said Blake Bell, who has shared a tight end room with Kelce for four seasons in Kansas City. "I admire that."

Kelce's focus on football was made clear a little more than 48 hours later, when he delivered a Super Bowl eve speech to his teammates that resonated all the way through to kickoff.

As safety Justin Reid put it, Kelce "touched everyone who was in the room" with his fiery message about bringing passion, energy and juice on the biggest stage. He urged teammates not to make the moment bigger than it is and to lean on teammates if they got overwhelmed.

"I just wanted to let them know how much passion I have for this team, how I view things," Kelce recalled. "And that we had the formula -- a formula for success and formula to fight until the end."

And although Kelce himself was slow to get going against the 49ers, he eventually showed up in a major way.

Mahomes found Kelce early in the third quarter for a pair of catches. Over the next few drives came a few more receptions. And then the momentum swinger: Kelce beating his man on a crossing route for a 22-yard gain, streaking out of bounds with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter to set up the tying field goal in regulation.

How Travis Kelce embraced stardom and cemented his football legacy (2)play

Kelce, Mahomes address Kelce's heated moment on sideline with Andy Reid

Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes discuss a heated moment Kelce had with coach Andy Reid on the sideline during the Super Bowl.

But perhaps his biggest plays were made without the ball. He drew two defenders for Marquez Valdes-Scantling to streak open on a third-quarter touchdown, and his route helped clear a lane on Mecole Hardman's winning score in overtime.

Kelce insisted he didn't care about his catches -- he just wanted a different score as the Chiefs entered halftime down 10-3.

"It's an electric feeling, knowing all eyes are on me and someone else is open," he said.

The performance continued Kelce's playoff resurgence after what was by all accounts a down season for the formerly nuclear Chiefs offense during the 2023 regular season. The proverbial gamer in high-stakes scenarios, Kelce turns his signature ear-to-ear smile to a scowl and turns up the volume in the postseason. Kelce's first non-1,000-yard regular season since 2015 vaporized in the name of performance art when it really mattered.

In three frigid playoff games along the path to Super Bowl LVIII -- including two on the road -- Kelce piled up 262 yards and three touchdowns while looking closer to age 24 than 34. His 13-game playoff totals are staggering: 113 catches, 1,271 yards, 13 touchdowns. The receptions total is the highest in NFL postseason history.

The production was timely. Late in the regular season, the Chiefs offense looked no better than a meandering, middle-of-the-road attack. Finding reliable counterparts for Kelce in the passing game was a challenge, although rookie Rashee Rice was slowly emerging. Kelce managed 88 receiving yards over his final three games of the year, with Kansas City relying on defense and the running game more than usual.

As one coaching source said, the Chiefs knew they could target Kelce 12 times per game and be fairly successful, but had to develop other options to help the offense. It was essential that the Chiefs find support for Kelce to withstand a 17-game regular season plus playoffs. People close to Kelce could tell that process wasn't easy on the tight end, who began facing louder questions about whether he was slowing down.

"At one point in the season, he was like, 'I'm not having a good season,'" said 49ers tight end George Kittle, a close friend of Kelce's and a fellow elite 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."

That business intensified after the Chiefs' ugly 20-14 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Day, when Kelce stressed to teammates it's "now or never." Kelce and Mahomes spent extra time with Reid and Nagy on cleaning up penalties and execution. The Kansas City offense devoted additional practice time to refining the passing game, with Kelce spending significant time during those sessions helping Rice, who produced three 100-yard games this season and was the closest thing to a pass-catching complement the team had.

To set the tone off the field, Kelce had to do the same on it -- which he just did on the biggest stage, even as the 49ers tried to be physical and limit him Sunday.

"I haven't been able to see a tight end to play with the kind of savvy he plays with," 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 REMARKABLY well-preserved for a player who takes a beating at a rough position and remains a focal point for a traditionally pass-first offense. He has never missed more than one game to injury in any season since 2014 despite what Alex Skacel, Kelce's physical therapist for the past seven-plus seasons, describes as "countless" injuries.

A weekly, comprehensive reimagination of Kelce's physical state helped him overcome the rigors of the 2023 season. Skacel, who met Kelce early in his career while helping him rehab after a surgery, lives on the East Coast but spends extensive time in Kansas City, sometimes on short notice, depending on the injury.

Skacel finished Kelce's treatment early in Week 1, only to return home and discover Kelce had suffered a knee injury in Tuesday's practice, a bone bruise and hyperextension. Skacel was soon back in Kansas City, working around the clock on Kelce's stability and range of motion leading up to Thursday night's opener vs. Detroit.

Kelce missed the game, but barely. Skacel was convinced he would have played had kickoff been on a Sunday.

"He may not be 100% every week, but he's still going to play," Skacel said. "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 helps too. Kelce has rare traits. His offensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Mike Bajakian, recalls Kelce winning a team 3-point shootout competition -- using his left hand, for fun. "He could have played collegiate baseball, basketball and football -- and gone far with any of them," Bajakian said.

But Kelce has taken care not to allow those physical gifts, or other pressures of life and career, diminish his regimen. He and Skacel talk about how he's feeling before and after treatments. They watch film together to see how he positions his knees in his stance or why he favored a body part too much on an open-field cut. Recovery, including dry needling, is constant early in the week.

Should Kelce return next season as expected, this offseason will largely be about functionality -- including range of motion and joint stability techniques -- while learning from past injuries.

"A lot of the things we do address are the things that you would see break down on an athlete as they age," Skacel 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 routine can help him play well into his 30s, Kelce has a chance to reprint the record books. In the tight end pantheon, Tony Gonzalez represents the gold standard with 1,325 receptions and 15,127 yards. Antonio Gates leads all tight ends in touchdowns with 116, with Rob Gronkowski at 92. Catching any of those players will be tough for Kelce, who has 907 catches for 11,328 yards and 74 touchdowns, but not impossible if he plays four more seasons at his current clip.

Gronkowski played all 11 of his NFL seasons with Tom Brady. Kelce is seven seasons in with Mahomes, firmly in the prime of his career and making a compelling early case to become the greatest player of all time.

"We think along the same wavelength on kind of a lot of things," Mahomes said. "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."

Reps that Kelce wants to continue taking with his quarterback and team. Although he's mindful of his mushrooming legacy in the tight end pantheon, 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," Kelce said. "But at this point in my career, I just enjoy coming into this building. I'm closer to not playing than I am [the other side]. I just cherish every single 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 customary champagne. Mahomes and general manager Brett Veach took a picture holding up three fingers to signify the dynasty.

Team officials standing off to the side all acknowledged the same theme: This one was sweeter because of the season's challenges. And there were several: the bleak nature of that Christmas Day loss to the Raiders; the struggles in the passing game; the injuries; the difficulty of going back-to-back, with the outside noise deafening and opponents eager to send the Chiefs home early.

Kelce's postgame disposition -- which is basically his preset, a mix of affirmation and nicknames -- suggested there was never a doubt. As much as Kelce's life had changed since the Chiefs won the title one season ago, nothing really had changed.

"Love you, dog," Kelce blurted out to Mahomes as the quarterback conducted interviews. "Championship football, baby."

How Travis Kelce embraced stardom and cemented his football legacy (2024)
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