First Watch doesn’t seem like Travis Kelce’s kind of place. His branch of the Florida-based breakfast chain sits on Westport Road in Kansas City, Missouri, just 10 minutes from his downtown apartment. “I don’t know, man, it’s like the older spot,” he whispers, a bit ashamed. “That’s how the younger crowd sees it, at least.” He doesn’t want to talk too loud. In the offseason, he came here every Sunday, and by now, he knows most of the staff. “They knew me before I was even scoring touchdowns,” he says.
Little about Kelce — or his second season with the Chiefs — has been quiet. It’s early November, and the temperature has just started to drop in Kansas City. Along with his cream-colored Gucci beanie, he’s wearing a white, long-sleeve Lululemon shirt and a shiny gold Rolex with a face the size of a child’s palm. Since the preseason, each of Kelce’s trips to the end zone has come with a memorable celebration — from handing the ball to Mike McGlynn for a lineman-size spike to a menagerie of meme-friendly dances. Suddenly, Kelce is one of the most exciting young players on one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
“You don’t really see tight ends out here doing dances in the end zone,” Kelce says. “But if you see me at night out on the town, I’m having a good time — I’m always dancing. It started in the backyard, not to necessarily showboat — but to be a showman. It’s part of how we grew up, how we played the game, and now that I’m in the NFL, why not break it out?”
The Nae Nae
Just before halftime of the Chiefs’ preseason opener against Cincinnati, Jamaal Charles approached Kelce on the sideline. If Kelce got into the end zone, Charles told him, he wanted one of the dances he’d seen during training camp. “I said, ‘All right, I’ll hit the nae nae,’” Kelce says. “And [Charles] just said, ‘Aww, yeah? We’ll see, we’ll see.’”
The game was Kelce’s first in more than 10 months. He came to Kansas City as a 2013 third-round pick and instantly lit up practices. But Kelce missed most of training camp with a bone bruise in his knee; the pain and discomfort lingered, and in October of last year, after playing in just a single game, microfracture surgery put him on the shelf for the season. When he returned this preseason, it took just one series to fulfill his orders from Charles, when Kelce took a Chase Daniel slant 69 yards for his first NFL touchdown.
“Microfracture” wasn’t a new term for him. As Kelce, who played basketball in high school and was recruited to play in college, rattled off the names of previous patients, late-career Tracy McGrady limped into his mind. “You look at all the people who declined as athletes,” Kelce says. “It was frustrating seeing all those guys and how it affected them, because you’re sitting there thinking, I haven’t even gotten my foot in the door.” In the low moments of his rehab, Kelce went back to an old text message from his father. He doesn’t have to look at it anymore. He knows the words by heart. He knows the date, too: April 13, 2010.
He remembers because it’s the day he was kicked off the team at the University of Cincinnati.
When the 12-1 Bearcats went to the Sugar Bowl in early 2010, Kelce was a 20-year-old redshirt freshman quarterback. Nearly all of his snaps that season — and there weren’t many — came as a Wildcat QB. Days before playing Florida, Kelce smoked pot while out in New Orleans. Players are often told that they’ll be drug tested before bowl games. Kelce did it anyway. “It was something I thought I could get away with for a weekend down in New Orleans,” he says. “I was down there celebrating, thinking I was invincible.” He wasn’t.
About three weeks before the Sugar Bowl loss, Cincinnati’s head coach, Brian Kelly, accepted the same job at Notre Dame. Less than a week later, Central Michigan coach Butch Jones was tapped as his replacement. Part of Jones’s effort to put his stamp on the program was purging the team of its rotten characters. “When you’re a new coach, that’s the time when you want to break ties with the bad guys,” says Kerry Coombs, who served as the Bearcats’ special teams coach under Kelly and Jones. Kelce was among the casualties, kicked out of the program for violating team rules.
“It could have been very depressing,” Ed Kelce, Travis’s father, says. “You feel stupid. You screwed up. The first day, when he found out, that was a long phone call, keeping him calm.” Jones not only wanted Kelce out of the program, but off campus. He relented when he learned that Travis was moving in with his older brother Jason, the Bearcats’ starting center and a fast favorite of Jones and his staff. With his scholarship gone, Kelce and his parents footed the bill for his tuition. He didn’t just share Jason’s apartment — he shared his room. Kelce took a telemarketing job. He spent hours wearing a headset, asking the people of Cincinnati how they felt about President Obama’s health insurance legislation. Most of the calls didn’t last long. Neither did the job.
Eventually, Kelce’s advocates started to lay the groundwork for his return. Other than his brother, no one lobbied harder than Coombs. “Travis, to me, was a guy who was not only going to be a great player,” Coombs says, “he was going to make the team better. He was going to make the locker room better. He was going to be a force on your team.” In conversations about Travis Kelce, one sentiment comes up again and again. People like him. Jones, the man who kicked Kelce off his team, calls the relationship he has with Kelce “something I’ll always treasure.” Some mammoth personalities stampede anyone in their path — others are big enough to throw you on their back and take you for a ride. That’s Kelce.
“Travis was one of those guys that had a unique way about him,” Coombs says. “Kids like him; they respect him. While they were angry with him for what he did, they were also forgiving of him because he was one of those personalities.” Endorsements from Coombs and his brother aided Kelce’s return, but it was ultimately what Jones saw from Travis that convinced the coach. “I really saw something good in him,” Jones says. “I could just feel this spirit. He was a good kid who’d made a poor choice.”
Even during his lost year at Cincinnati, Kelce knew his football career wasn’t over. He could always start over at a smaller school. That’s what made last season even more difficult. Coming to Kansas City was supposed to be its own new start. “You get drafted, you go to a city you’ve never been to, and right before you start, you get a season-ending injury,” Kelce says. “That was the toughest part, thinking I might not be able to get back on the field and do what I love to do.” His father’s words from four years earlier returned to him: Either you grow up and realize you’re not invincible, or you let this ruin you, and let your dreams slip away. One day, you’ll realize you’re a Kelce boy, and a Kelce boy can’t be stopped.
The Shmoney Dance
All of Kelce’s touchdown dances have been collaborative. During the team warm-up against Miami, a few Chiefs defenders told Kelce that if he scored, he had to break out the shmoney dance. “I was like, ‘Man, I don’t even know if I can do that dance,’” Kelce says. It took a few pregame run-throughs, but Kelce ultimately busted out the move after a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
When Jason Kelce first saw the clip of the nae nae, he called his brother with a simple message. “He gave me a call and told me to stop doing that shit,” Kelce says, laughing. After the shmoney, Jason went a step further — a text message to Chiefs assistant offensive line coach Eugene Chung, who’d coached Jason on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia.
All you need to know about how the Kelce brothers are different you can tell by looking at them. Travis, two years Jason’s junior, is tall and lean, with a perfectly manicured beard. “Jason,” his father, says, “is a Neanderthal.” A squirrel could be living in the elder Kelce’s facial hair. No one would know.
To describe his sons, Ed Kelce thinks back to carrying them as babies. Jason felt like a coiled spring: compact, heavy, rigid. “You pick up Travis,” he says, “and it was like picking up Jell-O. Just flopping all over.” The dynamic is highly concentrated big brother–little brother: one part critical, two parts protective. “Jason will bitch and moan about Travis because Travis doesn’t do everything his way,” Ed Kelce says. “They’d criticize and complain about each other … but don’t you [do it].”
Sports appeared to come easier to Travis — in part, his father says, because his talent was forged in competitions with his older brother. Jason’s gifts were subtler. He was quick and powerful, and a maniacal worker. His only collegiate offers were partial scholarships from Division II teams, but by the end of his first camp as a Cincinnati walk-on, he’d already been redshirted. He still entered the NFL as a too-small center taken in the sixth round. This offseason, the Eagles made him the sixth-highest-paid center in football.
During one practice late in his Bearcats career, Jason fired his helmet out of frustration “43 rows into the stands,” as Kerry Coombs puts it. “You would never see that from Travis.”
Jason Kelce was a rock at Cincinnati. By the end of his time there, Travis became the same. But as with everything else, the Kelces took very different paths to get there.
The Bow and Arrow
The bow-and-arrow celebration that Kelce uses on first downs has become a trademark. “Just that showmanship, man,” Kelce says. “People take notice of stuff like that.” Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin certainly did. After a touchdown on Sunday, Baldwin fired an imaginary arrow into the crowd. When Kelce registered a first-down catch, he returned the favor, shooting both an arrow and a look to the Seattle sideline.
Kelce has done plenty of imaginary archery this year, but his most memorable display was in Kansas City’s Week 4 romp over the Patriots, when he took a short route 33 yards inside the New England 10-yard line. Kelce finished the Chiefs’ 41-14 win with eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. “It was an absolute blast for me,” he says. “I was catching the ball, catching first downs. I was in the game plan. Right now, it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had playing in the NFL.”
The best game of Kelce’s young career came with the best tight end in football standing on the other sideline. Comparisons to Rob Gronkowski started before the draft. Both stand about 6-foot-6 and weigh north of 260 pounds, and like Gronkowski, Kelce has a reputation as a willing and bad-intentioned blocker. On kick returns, Coombs would build in chances for Kelce to throw devastating blocks as a way to ignite the Bearcats sideline. That penchant for open-field domination was on display as the Chiefs tight end exploded Earl Thomas a few days ago. But blocking hasn’t always been a part of his game.
A move from quarterback to tight end was part of Kelce’s negotiated return with Butch Jones at Cincinnati. He has the air of a quarterback — “I feel like I could still play,” he says, only half-joking, “but [even if all our QBs got hurt] I’m still not sure Reid would put me in” — but what has always defined Kelce as an athlete is his spongelike ability to soak up knowledge. He started playing basketball seriously only in high school and still got offers to play in college. During his season away from football at Cincinnati, he did a five-week baseball camp filled mostly with pro prospects. He didn’t look out of place. “You kind of look around and look at all the tight ends,” Kelce says. “I’m sort of the prototypical size, and I hadn’t even gotten into the weight room yet. I hadn’t even played the position one time, but I was confident I’d be all right.”
Adding bulk and fine-tuning his blocking were the major barriers in that first season back, when he had only 13 catches while playing just a handful of snaps. “It took me over a year to finally get comfortable in the position,” Kelce says. “It was probably Week 3 or 4 in my senior year that I was finally like, ‘This is kind of how it’s done.’” He finished the season with 45 catches for 722 yards, including 123 and the game-winning touchdown in Cincinnati’s bowl win over Duke.
By the tape measure, Kelce and Gronkowski match up. But Kelce is his own breed of tight end. Gronkowski is a seam-splitting backbreaker — Kelce does much of his damage after the catch. Among non–running backs, only DeSean Jackson is averaging more yards after the catch than Kelce’s 7.84. If sharp, violent movements characterize Gronk’s brand of tight end play, Kelce is a study in fluidity. Kelce’s game is smooth. Gronkowski pulverizes. The Chiefs get Kelce the ball in ways reserved for smaller, shiftier receivers. “I think I might be the only tight end, since [Aaron] Hernandez got out of the league, to catch bubble screens,” Kelce says.
By the law of the depth chart, Kelce is actually Kansas City’s no. 2 tight end. Ninth-year pro Anthony Fasano gets a majority of the Chiefs’ snaps, but in a way, his steadying presence allows Kelce to step outside the role tight ends typically fill. Even with Fasano in the lineup, Kelce’s playing time has increased every game. But he has a lot more to accomplish before the Gronkowski comparisons can go any further. “Even to be in the same sentence as him at this point, where I haven’t really done anything, is a plus to me,” Kelce says. “I’ve still got a lot, a lot — a lot — to show to be on his level.”
The Ric Flair
On the morning of his 25th birthday, Kelce texted with some friends. They told him that when he scored that day, they wanted a little Ric Flair strut. Kelce grew up watching wrestling, though Flair’s peak was a bit before his time. Still, Kelce always respected him as a showman. “People like to say it’s fake,” Kelce says. “I’d like to go see someone try to act and be that exciting when a camera’s in [your] face. That’s tough stuff to do. That guy is entertaining, period.” After a 2-yard plunge in a game that the Chiefs eventually lost to the 49ers, Kelce paid homage to the Nature Boy.
Kelce sees some similarities between himself and Flair. Winning is paramount, but football is also an entertainment business. He wants fame, and he wants it in ways he may be afraid to admit. “I really want to be one of the greats,” Kelce says. “I want to be able to walk somewhere and have people say, ‘Oh, that’s Travis.’
“I enjoy being the one on TV. I enjoy being the show. I enjoy making people laugh. If I can put a smile on someone’s face if I do a dance in the end zone, why not?” There are teams around the NFL where the mere mention of attention would be immediately stifled. “That,” Kelce says, “is why I love playing for Andy Reid.” Kelce says that Reid encourages every player to let his personality show, that the coach believes expression is necessary to play your best version of the game.
That willingness to foster creativity is one place to start the search for whatever has allowed Kansas City’s offense to conjure points this season. The Chiefs don’t have an explosive passing attack — far from it. They rank 26th in yards per pass attempt. The running game has churned on, despite three new starters on the offensive line.
Kansas City survives — and occasionally thrives — on a combination of an ever-changing array of formations, a handful of open-field playmakers, and a head coach and quarterback with a complete grasp of the offense. “What makes it fun is every single day, you get to come in and enjoy their personalities,” Kelce says. “Alex [Smith] and Andy Reid know how to get it done, and they know how to get everyone around them to have fun while doing it. This offense is a blast to play in. At any given moment, you could have the ball.”
During the flight home from San Francisco after Kansas City’s Week 5 matchup against the Niners, Kelce started considering his birthday plans. He needed to get out, needed a distraction from the Chiefs’ first loss in three weeks. When the plane landed, Kelce shot a text message to his friend at McFadden’s, a bar in Kansas City’s famed Power & Light District. He told Kelce to swing by, that some Royals were in the house and that the entire city was rocking. Kansas City had just won its first playoff series in 28 years.
That night, Kelce met Eric Hosmer, the 25-year-old Royals star who scorched the AL playoffs. A few teammates had told him that he and Hosmer would get along. They were right. At one point in the night, Hosmer’s own personalized celebration came up. “I asked him what it was,” Kelce says, “and he said, ‘It’s just throwing your boys in the backpack, tossing it on, and going to work.’” When Kelce asked if he could mix it into his post-touchdown repertoire, Hosmer insisted. Hours after Kelce threw on the backpack in a 24-10 win against the Jets in Week 9, a congratulatory text from Hosmer popped up on his phone.
The win over New York was the third in what’s become a five-game Chiefs winning streak. After an 0-2 start, Kansas City has won seven of its last eight. And after Denver’s loss to the Rams, the Chiefs are now even with the Broncos in the AFC West. The feeling born during the Royals’ run has carried over to the Chiefs. “From that Monday night, all the way through that Game 7, this city was out of control,” Kelce says. “Every single night, everybody was out cheering for the Chiefs or the Royals or just out having a good time. When you have stuff like that going on, you don’t want it to stop.”
By now, Kelce has finally finished his waffle at First Watch. The server sent the first one back. “It was a bit too dark,” she says. That’s where Kelce is these days. Touchdowns and dances have earned him perfect waffles. He’s enjoying it, “but it’s a lot more fun when you’re winning than when you’re losing.”
It’s been two games since Kelce has found the end zone, but Kansas City continues to win. He says he’s been thinking about his next score, but has no concrete plan. “I try not to let the cat out of the bag,” Kelce says. “I’ve got a couple of them, but I feel like the more I’ve thought about doing a dance, the less I get in the end zone. So when I do get there, the first thing I think of is what I’ll do.”