Travis Kelce does not consider himself the best tight end in the game.
Nowhere close, actually. In his mind, he’s “a scrub,” someone who has to work and work and work, and then work some more.
“That’s all I know how to do, is attack the day. Find a weakness or find something I can get better at when I’m in the building, when I’m out on the practice field,” Kelce said after the Kansas City Chiefs won their second AFC title to advance to Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That relentless pursuit of improvement is what’s turned Kelce into something special – on and off the field.
Kelce set the NFL’s single-season receiving record for a tight end this year, with 1,416 yards. His 105 catches made him the first tight end in NFL history with multiple, 100-catch seasons, and ranked fifth of any player in the NFL.
He’s the first tight end in NFL history with five 100-yard games in the postseason, and only Rob Gronkowski has more receptions, yards receiving and touchdowns in the playoffs.
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce celebrates toward fans in the AFC championship game against the Bills (Photo: Denny Medley, USA TODAY Sports)
Not bad for a guy Andy Reid worried was going to “screw it up” after the Chiefs took him in the third round of the 2013 draft. Told him so in a post-draft phone call, too.
“That was more about how we roll with things,” Reid said Thursday. “I would tell you he’s matched and exceeded (what we hoped).”
A little backstory on that phone call. Reid had coached Kelce’s older brother, Jason, with the Philadelphia Eagles. He also knew that Travis Kelce had been suspended for his sophomore season at Cincinnati after failing a test for marijuana, and that it was Jason Kelce who helped get his brother back on track.
So Reid’s question wasn’t completely off-base. But Kelce has proved – repeatedly – that any concerns he had were unfounded.
The player whose maturity was once questioned has blossomed into a leader, in words and deeds, for the Chiefs and the Kansas City community. The former quarterback is now a cornerstone of one of the NFL’s most dynamic, and prolific, offenses.
“This team has helped me in life in so many different ways, just because of how we handle adversity and how we win football games and how we just keep getting better,” Kelce said after the AFC championship.
Asked this week what that meant, Kelce said it’s his teammates’ commitment to one another, and how that has allowed them to overcome adversity. Like in last year’s Super Bowl, when the Chiefs scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-20.
“I think you can take a lot from football and relate it to life,” Kelce said Monday. “When things aren’t going your way, how do you get through it? You take it step by step with the people around you that you know have the best intentions.
“We’ve got great people in this locker room, and if you surround yourself with great people, you can achieve greatness,” he added. “Whatever we have to do to achieve the goal, we’re willing to do it together. And I think that’s something everybody can take into reality.”
Kelce’s size – he is 6-foot-5, 260 pounds – makes him an ideal tight end. But it is his time playing quarterback – he was converted to tight end his junior year in college – that makes him so dangerous.
He still thinks like a quarterback, reading the defenses at the line of scrimmage. He understands what Patrick Mahomes wants to do, and will tailor his speed and spacing accordingly.
Watch any Chiefs game, and there will be at least one play where Kelce looks completely removed from the action only to end up in the exact spot where Mahomes is delivering the ball.
“The way he’s able to read coverages on the move, and have an understanding for what the defense is doing and what we want as an offense and how to get himself and others open, is what makes him so special,” Mahomes said.
While Kelce hasn’t lost his youthful enthusiasm – he’s often spotted dancing before games, and he’s front and center for any Chiefs touchdown celebration – no one questions his maturity any longer. He was the Chiefs’ nominee this year for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year, which recognizes excellence on and off the field.
If I leave Kansas City and all I’m known for is what I’ve done on the field then I haven’t really done anything. It’s that simple. #ChiefsKingdompic.twitter.com/MHonquWwSq
He has worked for the last several years with Operation Breakthrough, a group that serves children who have witnessed trauma and violence, and his $500,000 donation last year will be used to open a STEM lab. This is not to be confused with an earlier, $45,000 donation that was used to create a robotics lab.
When COVID increased the demand for Operation Breakthrough’s services, Kelce’s foundation helped plug the resulting holes in the group’s budget, ensuring it could stay open.
“I could care less what else everyone else says — whether I’m the best tight end, whether I’m a tight end or a wideout, or whatever the conversation is," Kelce said Thursday. "As long as my family, the people I grew up with, everyone back home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, as long as all of them are proud of me, what else can I ask for?”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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