Chiefs’ Travis Kelce was clearly frustrated in the first half, at one point yelling at Andy Reid on the sideline. But his second half was a whole different story.
LAS VEGAS – If the main character of the NFL this year was Travis Kelce, then the script writers saved his most dramatic episode for the 2023 season finale.
Kelce’s Super Bowl story arc was dramatic enough to be an appropriate coda of the 21-game soap opera that was the Kansas City Chiefs’ season. He entered with high expectations. Faced adversity. There was redemption and triumph. It was punctuated by an Elvis Presley impersonation, fitting for the first Super Bowl in Las Vegas.
“Vivaaaaaaaaaaaa, Vivaaaaaaaa, Las Vegasssssssssssssss!!” a hoarse Kelce, Lombardi Trophy in hand, scream-sang into the microphone as CBS’ Jim Nantz interviewed him on stage.
The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 58 in overtime Sunday, 25-22, claiming their third title in five years and second in a row. As is the wont of a leading man, Kelce played a pivotal role. But his first half was meager – almost a blank space.
He had one catch for one yard. He finished with nine catches for 93 yards and led all receivers in both categories.
“I didn’t care about my catches,” Kelce said of the game’s first 30 minutes. “I just wanted the score to be different.”
Kansas City trailed 10-3 entering halftime. As for what changed for Kelce between the two halves, the tight end flexed his comedic chops, saying he stopped “playing like a jabroni, man.”
The drama came when Kelce bumped into Chiefs head coach Andy Reid on the sideline in the second quarter and nearly knocked over “Big Red.” Teammates pulled him away. A couple of plays earlier, Kelce appeared frustrated that quarterback Patrick Mahomes did not throw him the ball when he was wide open (the pass was completed for a 52-yard gain to Mecole Hardman, regardless). By night’s end, they were hugging as confetti fell on their shoulders.
“I was just telling him how much I love him,” Kelce, not wanting to go there, said of the dust-up.
“He caught me off-balance. He cheap-shotted me,” said Reid, leaning on his dry humor to address the awkward situation. “But that’s all right; he did good.”
All Kelce wanted to get across to his coach, Reid said, was that if he was in the game, he’d score. And Kelce credited Reid for being the type of mentor who has taught him how to channel his emotions.
“He’s one of the best leaders of men I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Kelce, who added that Reid is “the greatest coach this game has ever seen … I owe my entire career to that guy.”
Reid actually asked Kelce – along with Mahomes and defensive tackle Chris Jones – to address the Chiefs on Saturday night at the team’s final pre-Super Bowl meeting. According to those in the room, the message Kelce relayed was “powerful.”
“You just felt the energy, the passion,” Kansas City safety Justin Reid said. “He just talked about just us being us, man. It didn’t matter what anyone else said. It didn’t matter what the commentators or analysts or professionals or anyone else said, positive or negative. It’s about us. It’s not about making excuses; it’s about going out there and playing dominant. And you felt that.”
The message, Kelce said, was to show how much he cared about his teammates and coaches and that they had the “formula” to be champions.
“They’re leaders and they stick together,” offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said in the locker room about Andy Reid and Kelce. “I don’t think many people thought we were going to be standing here (as) Super Bowl champions on Christmas Day, and we are because we have good people that care.”
On the Chiefs’ first drive of the game, Kelce caught a short pass to the left that went for a yard. He did not record another catch until the 12:26 mark of the third quarter. That left him fired up at halftime, and Kelce once again brought the heat for his teammates.
“Just being accountable for the guys around me, being accountable for Coach Reid,” Kelce said.
Mahomes, who threw an interception on the third play of the second half, looked Kelce’s way to open the Chiefs’ next drive for an 11-yard gain.
Kelce was involved on each of the Chiefs’ final six drives. But the biggest play came with 16 seconds left in regulation and Kansas City trailing 16-13. Facing a third-and-7 from the San Francisco 33-yard line, Kelce cut across the middle, Mahomes hit him in stride, and Kelce nearly turned the corner for a game-winning touchdown but was pushed out of bounds at the Niners’ 11-yard line with 10 seconds left.
Kelce said he asked Reid to “put it on” his shoulders with the game in the balance.
“I live for moments like that and I love Big Red for giving me those opportunities,” the 34-year-old said. “It’s a beautiful thing, man, when everything comes together.”
In the Chiefs’ locker room, not long after he embraced Taylor Swift on the field, it was Kelce who gathered the majority of his teammates as music blared from speakers and cigar smoke wafted.
Kelce called out for tight ends coach Tom Melvin. A bottle of champagne was walked to the center of the room, where a circle formed around Kelce. Still feeling lyrical, Kelce began belting out Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” His teammates sang, too. The champagne sprayed toward the ceiling and down onto the Lombardi.
“Unreal,” said Chiefs passing game coordinator Joe Bleymaier, “just unreal.”
The Chiefs, as defending champions, had targets on their backs all season. There was a brutal 2-4 stretch in November and December. Kelce missed the first game of the season against the Detroit Lions due to a knee injury he suffered at the end of training camp. Since September, his romance with Swift has sparked vitriol in some corners of society, mostly online.
“To have the doubters, to have the road that we went through, man, it meant everything to even get to this point,” Kelce said. “But to find a way through adversity, yet again, for four quarters, five quarters, man, I couldn’t be more proud of the guys, and it’s such an honor to be on this team and in this organization.”
Kelce wasn’t talking about his off-field life when he referenced “doubters” and plowing through “adversity” Sunday. But he might as well have been.
While leaving his postgame news conference, Kelce was asked whether he will return for another season.
“Hell yeah,” he said, “I want that three-peat.”
In a conversation with the Wall Street Journal Magazine earlier this season, Kelce told the outlet he does think about retirement. Hard not to when a second act of entertaining and acting or anything, really, awaits. But as Kelce’s career winds down, his case in the “greatest tight end of all time” conversation will be heard.
Winning will always matter more to Kelce than individual statistics, but “I do love the legacy of wanting to be as great as I possibly can.”
Kelce knows he has played more football than he will play in the future.
“I just cherish every single moment,” he said.