At a team meeting early in the week leading up to the playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs tight end
“Coach [Andy] Reid started rambling off the captains and said, ‘On the offensive side, Alex and Travis.’”
Reid called his name.
“My eyes kind of opened up and I was like, ‘Whoa. I didn’t even know I was in the discussion.’ I can think of three or four guys on the offensive side of the ball that I know I respect and that I would have put up there,” Kelce recalled of that moment.
At this point, Kelce was a two-time Pro Bowler that just days earlier had been named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career. He was coming off a regular season in which he caught 85 passes for 1,125 yards, which actually ranks as the 16th best season for a tight end in NFL history.
It was a great year by all accounts, but for Kelce or anyone else who has ever been in an NFL locker room, huge numbers and impressive stats don’t necessarily earn what players seek most from their teammates and peers—respect, and that morning meeting validated something for Kelce.
The playoff captains are voted upon by the players.
“What took me by surprise, and this is the truest thing that I can tell anybody, is that I didn’t know where I stood in terms of leadership with this team,” Kelce admitted of what learned in that moment. “I know that every single day that I walk into that locker room, I see everyone, I say hello to everyone, but it’s just me being me. I want to play next to guys that want to play next to me.
“I didn’t see that as clear, so when I got elected as a captain in the playoffs, that really opened my eyes. That really was the moment that turned the switch from how I view myself—I have to do these things.
“These young guys are going to see me and learn from me knowing I’ve had success in this profession. With that comes the responsibility of doing things the right way. The team needs me to do that and I need to be that for the team.
“That’s the area of focus moving forward – not only being a consistent player on the field, but also in the locker room just being that consistent friend, teammate and captain.”
That said, Kelce knows he had other moments last year that nobody will soon forget.
He once threw a flag at a ref, was called for a 15-yard penalty in the playoffs for losing his cool and was outspoken in the locker room at times, and it all manifests from a passion for the game that needs to be tempered, controlled and unleashed in the proper way at the proper time.
It’s the edge that makes him the player he is, and despite some box score stats showing impressive numbers and the accolades that go along with it—like a Pro Bowl offensive MVP award—that’s not what drives him.
For example, in the postgame locker room after the win at home over the Denver Broncos, Kelce, who had one of the most devastating blocks of the season to help
The expectation level he puts on himself far outweighs what anyone else could put on him.
“People are going to take this as a surprise, but I don’t think I played very well at all,” Kelce explained of his season. “Even though my yardage may have gone up and my number of catches may have gone up, and that’s all good stuff, my number of drops went up, which I was not happy about.
“And my number of missed blocks was something that I’m not proud of.”
Nobody has to tell Kelce about the plays he didn’t make or the ones he’s come to expect himself to make. He’s his own worst critic.
It’s a large part of the reason he’s in this position, and while things around him change and outside influences pull him in many directions, the desire to dominate in this profession hasn’t wavered at all.
It was around this time last year that Kelce was sitting on a beach in Hawaii at the Pro Bowl having just signed a lucrative long-term contract with the Chiefs, and he said at the time, “I’m more motivated than ever.”
Last season, Kelce proved those words weren’t just headline material, as he put up numbers that have been achieved less than 20 times in more than 1,380 opportunities in NFL history—a tight end finishing with at least 1,125 yards receiving in a season.
While motivation has never been an issue for Kelce, the realization of what is expected of him hit home during that meeting—when to him, his place on the team was validated in a very real way.
“I can see this thing going somewhere that hasn’t been reached yet,” Kelce said of the future. “I see what guys have done before me and what guys are doing right now and I still feel like I’m the one that’s going to be the last one standing.
“That’s just the confidence that I have in who I want to be and who I think I need to be for the Chiefs.”
The expectations for Kelce have always there from Reid, who made it clear from their very first conversation what he was looking for from the playmaking tight end.
“It was an 816 number, and at the time I didn’t know what that area code was,” Kelce explained of the call he got on draft night in 2013. “All it said was Missouri on it, so I thought I was going to the freaking Rams and I thought life was about to get bad. Life is about to get worse.
“When he said, ‘It was coach Reid from the Chiefs,’ I was just thinking, ‘Man, life just got way better.’ I didn’t know much about Kansas City other than barbeque, but I did know that coach Reid is one heck of a coach. My brother (Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce) loved him in Philly.
“And you know what, it wasn’t a welcoming conversation like, ‘Congratulations, we’re going to select you.’ It was more so saying, ‘This is our livelihood. If you want to be a part of this, I need to know right now that you’re not going to screw this up.’ He said it in a little bit different tone with some different words thrown in there, but he got the point across that it wasn’t anything to play around with.
“That’s something that everybody sees in me – that I love to have fun – and from him doing that, I immediately realized this wasn’t a game. I’ve been fortunate for coach Reid ever since – his mentoring and his teaching of the game itself, but he’s also helped me grow and see how awesome this life can really be.”
The best coaches find ways to motivate their best and most talented players, and for a coach who has been widely praised for the way in which he treats his players and the mutual respect they share with one another, the success Kelce has had in Kansas City shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Moving forward, Kelce still isn’t over the playoff loss to the Steelers, but he won’t let that keep him from seeing the bigger picture of what this team was able to accomplish last season either.
“Obviously, the game hurt,” Kelce explained. “It’s still a burden on me, but you have to look at it from the bigger perspective and to see how the season went along, how we progressed as a team, how we handled adversity with the injuries early with
“It was frustrating, but at the same time, we battled through it. We had a successful season in terms of the division – we finally won the AFC West. Those are the fun things to kind of hang your hat on right now, but next year, all those things don’t matter and it’s about going out there and getting the ring.”
It’s all about a progression for the Chiefs, both as a team and also for the players individually, and for Kelce, the next step in that development may have come at that morning meeting, when he got the validation he needed to take the next step for this team, which can only be seen as a good thing.