LAS VEGAS — Near tears, Travis Kelce was still wearing his shoulder pads when he tried to describe his overwhelming emotions. A gray commemorative T-shirt — one emblazoned with the Kansas City Chiefs as Super Bowl LVII champions — was over his jersey and shoulder pads, too.
That day, almost a year ago, ended with the Chiefs producing the most remarkable comeback victory in franchise history as they rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to beat the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Chiefs, Kelce said, proved to themselves that day that their ability to focus and play harder for one another was one of their greatest qualities. Kelce knew the game’s outcome also likely cemented his status as one of the best tight ends in NFL history, ensuring his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It’s a whole other feeling to get two (titles),” Kelce said after leading the Chiefs with 81 receiving yards, including an 18-yard touchdown. “I wanted this one more than I ever wanted a game in my life. It solidifies your greatness. You didn’t get lucky once. You can call it a dynasty.”
A few minutes later, with tears again welling in his eyes, Kelce found the words he was searching for.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world, being here with the guys we did it with, and the coaches we did it with, through all the adversity,” he said. “All I know is that we’re coming back next year with the right mindset on trying to get another one.”
A year later, Kelce has helped lead the Chiefs back to the NFL’s biggest stage, Super Bowl LVIII against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. He acknowledged last week that he has followed up the best year of his career with the best year of his 34-year-old life.
Since that night, Kelce has become a household name. He is one of the NFL’s most recognizable players. He hosted “Saturday Night Live,” he continues to co-host one of the country’s most popular podcasts with his brother, Jason, and he has appeared in national commercial after national commercial after national commercial. And he began dating Taylor Swift, the dazzling pop superstar, their relationship generating — and sustaining — plenty of attention.
“It’s been a wild year, man,” Kelce said. “Being famous worldwide is a lot different than being famous in Kansas City.”
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Most Super Bowls end with the winning quarterback earning the game’s MVP award, looking into the camera and shouting: “I’m going to Disneyland!”
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes did indeed say the catchphrase last February and began his offseason at the iconic theme park. Mahomes’ whirlwind tour — including the Met Gala in New York, the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby and the F1 Miami Grand Prix — began in February and ended in late May.
Kelce’s tour, in contrast, really hasn’t ended. In the spring, Kelce threw an ill-fated first pitch at a Cleveland Guardians game, played in a celebrity softball game and took hacks alongside New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. In October, he attended a Philadelphia Phillies playoff game with his brother and then showed up for Game 1 of the World Series.
Everyone in the Chiefs organization knew the most important event of Kelce’s offseason was when he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” the long-running NBC TV show he adored as a child. His monologue featured every part of his gregarious personality — his repetitive shouting while competing on the field, his impression of Mahomes’ distinctive voice, his comedic timing, his willingness to poke fun at himself for his awkward dating show “Catching Kelce,” and his love for his family.
The double-breasted Dior suit that Kelce wore during his monologue is on display in the Chiefs’ Hall of Honor inside Arrowhead Stadium.
“He crushed it, man,” Mahomes said of Kelce. “He knows all the skits from guys that have been on ‘Saturday Night Live’ growing up. He’s always telling me ones from before I was even born and I’m like, ‘Trav, I’m not the same age as you, dude; I don’t know what that is.’”
Travis Kelce’s monologue! pic.twitter.com/ETJfAaELNj
— Saturday Night Live – SNL (@nbcsnl) March 5, 2023
Partners on the field, Kelce and Mahomes continued their bromance in front of the cameras in the offseason. They defeated Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors in “The Match” charity golf event. A few weeks later, they filmed several national commercials for State Farm, featuring Kelce as Mahomes’ wingman.
“It’s been cool to watch for me,” Mahomes said of Kelce. “Obviously, he has all that attention, but he’s just been himself the whole time. He still will walk through the stadium and treat every single person like they’re his best friend.”
When the Chiefs were honored in the Rose Garden of the White House, Kelce and Mahomes presented President Joe Biden with a red No. 46 jersey with his last name stitched on the back. Kelce then playfully approached the lectern ahead of the president, saying just seven words before he was gently pushed back by Mahomes to join his teammates on the stage.
“So, I’ve been waiting for this moment,” a smiling Kelce said, producing one of the ceremony’s loudest laughs.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) June 6, 2023
Kelce has the same answer whenever someone asks how he can be so confident in front of the camera, whether in a Chiefs uniform or not.
“My mom’s home videos, man, just having the camera on me at all times,” he said of his mother, Donna, who became a celebrity in her own right this year. “Honestly, I’ve always been comfortable in the rooms I’ve been in. I’ve been able to look into a camera with ease, just having fun.
“Sports, for me, was where I built my confidence. I was a shy kid growing up until I got on the sports field or the court or the ice rink. Then, I let my personality show more because I was having fun, having success. That kind of propelled me to have confidence in life.”
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Kelce started training camp with one of his newest traditions. Just a few days after arriving at Missouri Western State in St. Joseph, Mo., Kelce shaved off his beard, leaving just a thick, walrus-like mustache to resemble coach Andy Reid.
But the unusual part of Kelce’s experience in camp was that he became combative at times. One repetition, when the play was clearly finished, ended with cornerback Dicaprio Bootle trying to punch the ball out of Kelce’s hands. Kelce responded by shoving Bootle and then punching him. The next day, after catching a short touchdown pass, Kelce felt disrespected when linebacker Jack Cochrane tried to punch the ball out. Cochrane’s fist connected with Kelce’s chest instead. Kelce retaliated by punching Cochrane in the shoulder.
“Gotta be a better teammate,” Kelce wrote on his X account a few hours later. “Gotta be a better leader.”
Meanwhile, during an NFL Network interview, a grinning Kelce jokingly evaded questions about Swift just days after he revealed on his podcast, “New Heights,” that he wanted to meet her and give her a friendship bracelet with his number on it when he attended one of her concerts at Arrowhead in July.
On the podcast, Kelce voiced his disappointment that Swift doesn’t meet people before concerts to save her voice. Just a few weeks later, Kelce began talking to Swift. In early September, while much of the public was unaware, the two began dating.
“He had a great training camp,” tight ends coach Tom Melvin said of Kelce. “He was flying and then something happened.”
In the final practice before the season opener, Kelce hyperextended his right knee, a non-contact injury that forced him to miss a game for the first time since 2014. Without Kelce, the Chiefs lost 21-20 to the Detroit Lions.
Kelce’s life changed two weeks later. Swift, wearing a white T-shirt, a Chiefs jacket and her signature red lipstick, arrived at Arrowhead and cheered for the home team, creating a massive stir. Mahomes’ final pass, in a dominating win over the Chicago Bears, was a 3-yard connection to Kelce in the back of the end zone, leading Swift to celebrate by jumping, applauding and shouting three words: “Let’s f—— go!”
Kelce exited Arrowhead alongside Swift as if they were the homecoming king and queen, the couple driving toward downtown in his burgundy convertible. Their first public date came at Prime Social in Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza area, a night when several of Kelce’s teammates joined the gathering with Swift’s friends.
The immediate impact of that night was swift. Kelce’s social media followers grew by more than 400,000. In less than a week, Kelce’s No. 87 jersey rose to the top five in NFL sales, according to Fanatics. The Chiefs windbreaker that Swift wore sold out in a couple of days. Kelce even returned to “Saturday Night Live,” making a cameo appearance in October in a sketch featuring NFL analysts being more interested in discussing where Swift will attend her next NFL game than football. (Swift also introduced Ice Spice, the episode’s musical guest.)
“Travis is a special guy, how he relates to people,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said. “I end up talking to him more than anybody else on the team. He’s somebody I respect greatly. He’s somebody that gets the offense and the defense excited and ready to play each week. He brings a level of charisma that very few people have.”
Taylor Swift is HERE for the Chiefs game 👀 pic.twitter.com/46SW4gEodz
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 24, 2023
With Swift watching from a suite inside Arrowhead, Kelce had his most impressive performance of the regular season in a win over the Los Angeles Chargers: a game-high 12 receptions for 179 yards and a touchdown.
The performance demonstrated Kelce’s unique connection with Mahomes. At one point in the season, they connected on 28 consecutive targets. The odds of the pair completing all 28 targets, based on the completion probability of each attempt, was 0.03 percent — the equivalent of one in 3,000 — according to Next Gen Stats.
“He wants to take every single rep (in practice),” Mahomes said of Kelce. “He wants to be the one working the hardest. It raises everybody’s standard — the standard of how you practice, the standards of how you prepare because you know that guy that has done it at the top level wants to continue to do it every single day.
“At the same time, he has a great time doing it. It shows you that you can work extremely hard and still have fun coming to work.”
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One of the Chiefs’ biggest games of the regular season came at the midway point, a showdown with the Miami Dolphins in Frankfurt, Germany. Just days before the game, a journalist asked Kelce a very direct question, one that wasn’t about football: Are you in love? Kelce smiled and declined to comment.
A few days after the game, Kelce flew from Kansas City to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to support Swift at one of the stops on her worldwide “Eras Tour.” When the concert ended, Swift sprinted to Kelce and the couple shared what would become one of their first public kisses.
“I haven’t really seen it affect him in any way,” Reid of Kelce’s growing fame. “I haven’t seen anything (different) with his relationship, with his off-the-field stuff, with the commercials and ‘Saturday Night Live.’ He just goes. I think all that plays into what he is. That’s just part of it. He does all that stuff real easy. I don’t think that gets him out of his personality.”
Almost every opponent the Chiefs faced in the second half of the season used the same tactic: They dedicated two defenders — sometimes three — to cover Kelce, denying him the space he often uses to adjust or improvise his route.
Even in their win in Germany, the Dolphins limited Kelce to three receptions for 14 yards. Reid apologized to Kelce after the game. But Kelce responded by stressing he had to be more effective when he’s covered by two defenders. In a prime-time loss to the Eagles, Kelce fumbled inside the red zone, a turnover that led him to punch the turf.
The Chiefs’ bigger issue, however, was the receivers. In the regular season, The Chiefs’ wide receivers — Kadarius Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson, Skyy Moore, Richie James and rookie Rashee Rice — dropped 25 catchable passes, the most by any receiver group since the 2012 Jacksonville Jaguars.
Still, Kelce’s performance declined over the second half of the season, his ability to evade defenders or break tackles decreasing. He was also playing through a lingering injury. In Week 5, he sustained a low-ankle sprain, a non-contact injury in a win against the Vikings in Minnesota.
“You could just see his body,” Mahomes said. “It wasn’t moving in the way that it always moves. There were times throughout the season where we had to take him out. He didn’t want to, but we had to get him out to let his body heal.”
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Kelce, an 11-year veteran, scored only one touchdown in the final nine games of the regular season.
Even one of Kelce’s best moments was ruined. In a loss to the Buffalo Bills, Toney committed an offside penalty that cost the Chiefs a go-ahead touchdown and nullified a viral highlight when Kelce caught an intermediate pass from Mahomes, evaded two defenders, then threw a perfect lateral across the field to a wide-open Toney.
The Chiefs’ most embarrassing result of the season occurred on Christmas Day in a home loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. The Chiefs offense committed back-to-back giveaways that resulted in easy touchdowns for the rival Raiders. Kelce dropped a pass. He later showed his anger by slamming his helmet on the sideline. Reid responded by not allowing Kelce to immediately get his helmet back from equipment director Allen Wright. Kelce returned to the field a few plays later after a quick chat with the coach.
Andy Reid and Travis Kelce talking it out pic.twitter.com/TMD9Vpb8RV
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) December 25, 2023
Kelce’s typical enthusiasm on his podcast was replaced by frustration as the Chiefs lost four games in six weeks. He called his own play “dog s—.”
Of course, Kelce heard the questions — whether from fans, analysts or former players — about his decline in production. Are his injuries too much to overcome? Based on his age, is he no longer capable of being the Chiefs’ top pass catcher? Is growing his relationship with Swift hurting him?
“It’s just outside noise, dealing with everyone else’s perspective of things,” Kelce said. “You hear the media throughout the year if we’re not having success. It’s a challenge to find new ways to have success. That’s what this year has brought for me is that obstacle and figuring out how I can get the best out of myself, figure out how I can get the best out of my teammates.
“I love that challenge. I was talking to my brother the other day on the podcast that there’s just certain things that give you challenges in life that you’ve just got to be appreciative of that you’re getting tested because not everybody gets those opportunities.”
The first step for Kelce was sacrificing an individual achievement.
Having secured their playoff position, the Chiefs’ regular-season finale against the Chargers was meaningless. Many of Kelce’s teammates wanted him to play a few snaps to gain the 16 yards he needed to finish the regular season with 1,000 receiving yards for the eighth consecutive year, the league’s longest such streak for a tight end. But for the first time in his career, Kelce told Reid he didn’t want to be in uniform.
Prioritizing rest for a 12-day stretch before the postseason proved to be a wise move by Kelce. After the Chiefs’ win over the Chargers, Kelce was one of the first players to exit the visitors locker room. He smiled and said six words to a small group of reporters to explain his decision.
“Just trying to not be washed.”
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The Chiefs’ third snap was the first pivotal moment of their postseason run.
On third-and-10 — with the temperature at Arrowhead Stadium minus-4, making the elimination game the fourth-coldest game in the NFL’s 104-year history — Mahomes dropped back and targeted Kelce in the middle of the field against the Dolphins’ secondary. Kelce made the reception for an 11-yard gain, celebrating by screaming and pumping his fist. The Chiefs finished the opening drive with a touchdown and never trailed in a comfortable win.
After the game, Kelce decided to not trim his beard, letting his facial grow longer and longer as long as the Chiefs kept winning.
“We started playing our best ball,” he said.
Mahomes to Kelce. Bread and butter. Chiefs take the lead! #ChiefsKingdom
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2024
Kelce has elevated his statistical production in each round, creating clutch highlight after clutch highlight. He ran pristine routes in the Chiefs’ divisional-round victory over the Bills, catching a 22-yard touchdown on a corner route on which he was wide open, generating 7.5 yards of separation, according to Next Gen Stats. Kelce’s second touchdown of the game was a historic one, his 16th career postseason score on a connection with Mahomes for the most in NFL playoff history.
“We have the best player to ever play this game at that position,” Valdes-Scantling said of Kelce. “He’s still the best tight end in the game.”
Kelce scored the Chiefs’ first touchdown in their win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Running an out-and-up route, Kelce made a contested 19-yard catch in the corner of the end zone against All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton, who had not allowed a touchdown to a tight end all season.
Kelce finished the game with 11 receptions on 11 targets for 116 yards. The odds of Kelce catching all 11 of his targets was 0.6 percent, or 1 in 156, according to Next Gen Stats. He tied New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman for the longest streak of NFL postseason games (13) with at least five receptions and surpassed Hall of Famer Jerry Rice for the most postseason receptions (156).
“The way Travis is playing right now, I hope he never retires,” Hunt said, laughing. “He’s at his best right now during the playoffs. But all NFL careers, at some point, have an end, but he’s going to have a very bright future once he steps away. But I hope it’s several years down the road.”
THESE. TWO. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/5aH98n8rke
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 28, 2024
Kelce’s favorite play against the Ravens started with him making a mistake.
He admitted that he ran the wrong route on a pivotal third-and-5 snap on the Chiefs’ second drive. Once Mahomes noticed Kelce’s error, he started improvising, extending the play to the point that he held the ball for 9.78 seconds and scrambled for 25.9 yards, according to Next Gen Stats. Finally, Mahomes threw the ball as he was getting hit by linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and Kelce made a diving catch for a 10-yard gain. The Chiefs finished the drive with a touchdown.
“The bigger the challenge, the bigger the response you get from him,” Melvin said of Kelce. “That’s what he looks for in life. That’s what you’re seeing now.”
Less than eight minutes after the Chiefs’ victory over Baltimore, clinching their spot in Super Bowl LVIII, Kelce was surrounded on the field at M&T Bank Stadium by the most important people in his life — his mother, father, brother, Reid, Mahomes and Swift, who bear-hugged him before another smooch in front of cameras.
“It’s another memory in the journey that we get to cherish, man,” Kelce said. “I’m fortunate that I’ve got all the support I need off the field. It gives me a reason to play that much harder.”
And Kelce could be part of one more raucous celebration to cap a year like no other.
(Top illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)