KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Andy Reid knew the tall, gangly tight end with the soft hands, deceptive speed and unique ability to get wide open could become a star the moment he first laid eyes on him during a college football game about a decade ago.
Travis Kelce was playing for Cincinnati at the time, and Reid showed up at one of his games to watch his own son, Spencer, who was then a tailback for Temple. Reid already knew a bit about the Kelce family having just drafted Travis's big brother, Jason, to play center for his Philadelphia Eagles, but what he saw on the field that day was something else.
The Bearcats only completed 13 passes in the 34-10 whipping, but Kelce hauled in four of them with such incredible ease.
“I thought watching him,” Reid recalled this week, “this kid has a chance to be really something special.”
Not even Reid, though, could have known just how good Kelce would become.
Already with three All-Pro nods and seven trips to the Pro Bowl on his resume, the 33-year-old Kelce moved into the most rarified of places in the pantheon of NFL tight ends last week. With four catches for 71 yards on Sunday in Denver, Kelce not only surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for a franchise-record seventh consecutive season but eclipsed 10,000 yards for his career, becoming only the fifth player at his position to do it.
Tony Gonzalez, whose club records Kelce keeps breaking, and Shannon Sharpe already are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Jason Witten and Antonio Gates are poised to join them in the coming years.
The numbers are even more impressive given that Kelce came into the league with off-the-field red flags that landed him a season-long suspension at Cincinnati, and ultimately saw his draft stock plummet into the third round. And that nearly his entire rookie season was missed because of microfracture surgery on his knee.
“Obviously all those guys are unbelievable company,” Kelce said after the Broncos game Sunday, “and I'm very fortunate that I've had the coaches and players around me to be able to have this much success in the NFL as I have.”
Such a self-forgetful statement speaks to the growth that Kelce has experienced during his time in Kansas City.
He admittedly came into the league with a chip on his shoulder — pieces of it are still there. He had an ego that almost matched his outsized personality. And he had a penchant for ripping officials, once saying that one wasn't fit to work in Foot Locker and another time throwing his towel at a referee who did not throw his own flag.
Kelce can still be a hothead. But he's mostly learned to rein it in, particularly when doing otherwise would hurt his team.
“Just watching his growth process, and just thinking about all the years that he's been here and how he's just evolved, not only as a player but more as a young man — and how he's developed as a captain and a leader — those are the things that I enjoy watching,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “I love the energy that he brings and I love the positive impact that he has with our team on the sidelines. It's been fun to watch.”
Not so fun for opposing defenses, who have tried everything within the rules — and a few things outside of them — in their failed efforts to slow Kelce down. Man coverage? He has the athleticism to beat you. Zone coverage? An intuitive ability to get open. Want to rough him up? He's more than willing to fight back.
“He has great instincts of coverage, leverage, in man and in zone,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “He is extremely athletic and very competitive. He has a huge catch radius. He is always a challenge.”
The result has been a period of nearly unmatched consistency: Kelce has at least 80 catches in seven straight seasons, one behind Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt for the most by any player in NFL history, and that trio along with Mike Evans, Cris Carter and Tim Brown are the only ones with more consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
“That tight end position is hard. You take a beating,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “You're blocking, you're catching over the middle, taking hits. And he just prepares himself the right way that he can be out there and available for us every week. Truly great player and a great teammate, for sure.”
Mahomes and Kelce have become close friends the past six years together in Kansas City, and they often sit together on plane rides home after games. And this past week, Mahomes knew that Kelce had broken through the 10,000-yard barrier, so he turned to him on the flight back from Denver and brought up the career milestone.
“He was like, ‘Oh yeah, man. It’s cool,'” Mahomes said. “All he's worried about is winning. That's what all the great players are worried about, and his stats kind of come, but at the same time, he's just trying to win a lot of football games.”
Kelce has done that: He's helped the Chiefs reach the past four AFC championship games, winning two of them to reach the Super Bowl, and beating the San Francisco 49ers a few years ago to end their 50-year championship drought.
They're in the thick of it again, too. The Chiefs (10-3) are tied with the Bills for the AFC's best record heading into Week 15, where a win would clinch their record seventh consecutive AFC West title.
“It's the type of guy he is,” Mahomes said. “Obviously he's talented, to be that big and run routes like that and have that speed. He could have had a ton of success really anywhere, but I think the type of guy he is, how he works and how he's just a teammate — a great teammate — I think that's why he's kind of taken it to the next level. It's because everybody on that field, they enjoy watching him succeed, because of the type of guy that he is every day.”
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