CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio – If Jason Kelce is looking for ways to spend the extra money that, win or lose, he’ll earn in Sunday’s Super Bowl LII, the hockey team at his old high school has a suggestion:
“The kids want him to buy them another Foosball table,” Eddie Babcox, Cleveland Heights High’s longtime hockey coach, said Tuesday morning during a conversation in his equipment cluttered office adjacent to Cleveland Heights Community Center rink.
The Tigers haven’t had one since 2006 when Kelce, the biggest and most frightening forward in the Greater Cleveland High School Hockey League, turned theirs into kindling.
“He got into it with the ref that game and got ejected,” recalled Babcox. “So afterward I’m walking through the hallway here and I see these little Foosball men all over the floor. I open the locker-room door and the Foosball table was just trashed. I saw him and said, `Are you OK?’ He was nonchalant, like nothing had happened. He said, `I’m fine. Boy, that was a bad call.’ That’s Jason.”
Just as splintered pieces of the table-game he destroyed were strewn around the facility that day, memories of the Eagle center’s varied accomplishments remain scattered around this eclectic, sports-mad community where more than a century ago John D. Rockefeller and other Cleveland elites built their mansions.
Kelce was an outstanding running back and linebacker for Cleveland Heights, which is also where Eagles wideout Shelton Gibson played a few years later. He starred on the lacrosse team. A saxophonist, he became the first freshman ever to earn a spot on the school’s prestigious Jazz Ensemble.
But there was no sport he liked better, his father said, than hockey.
“It was his favorite, by far,” said Ed Kelce. “Hockey is good in so many ways. First of all, kids learn hand-eye coordination. They learn to excel at a very awkward, unnatural thing — skating. And because they come home worn out, they sleep like you wouldn’t believe.”
Ed Kelce worked as a steel-company manufacturer’s rep when his two children, Jason and brother Travis, were growing up in this suburb that abuts Cleveland. A big, gregarious man with an unruly shock of white hair, he said he weighs the same as his oldest son.
“It’s just proportioned a little differently.”
Jason Kelce, who played for more than a decade in an area youth league and with the Tigers, was an all-Cleveland Area High School Hockey League forward as a senior. In four seasons, he collected 57 goals and 38 assists.
“He was a top-level talent,” said Cleveland Heights AD Joe D’Amato.
And, in what should be no surprise to anyone who’s seen the eagerness with which he hones in on opposing linebackers on screens, Kelce also was adept at picking up penalties, garnering 190 minutes, an unusually high total at a level where fighting is forbidden.
“It was violence, scary stuff,” said Babcox. “He had some big, rocking hits, some that today would be penalties. But a lot of them were because of his size. He was the biggest kid I ever coached. He was 6-3, but on skates even bigger.
“You figured he’d be clumsy, but he wasn’t. He was a good athlete and so strong that we wanted him in front of the net. He got a lot of rebounds, a lot of points. And he was a playmaker, too. He would go into the corners and get the puck.”
But if hockey were Kelce’s go-to sport, it might not have been his primary passion. His mother got him a saxophone in third grade and somehow, amid all the all other activities, he devoted himself to it.
“Jason was a really good baritone saxophone player,” recalled Cleveland Heights band director Brett Baker. “Our school has a great history in music. One of our graduates is playing trumpet in the Cleveland Orchestra. Another led the Stanford Band. Jason was not only the first freshman to make the Jazz Ensemble, but we have three levels of concert bands here and he was in the top one.”
About the only thing Kelce didn’t excel at in high school was academics. Asked if his two NFL-bound sons were good students, Ed Kelce said, “Hell, no. They were terrible.”
“It was a constant battle, though Jason wasn’t as bad as Travis. I say `terrible’, but they were actually middle-of-the-road. Jason took several AP classes and failed them. But to give you an idea of level of instruction here, when later he took the AP exams, he came out with something like 18 college credits.”
When there weren’t teams to play, Jason and Travis, who also excelled at hockey before opting for basketball, competed against each other, in everything.
Sometimes that rivalry turned physical. One of the brothers’ tussles destroyed both the Kelces’ oven and the casserole cooking inside it.
“I didn’t allow that,” said their father. “I always worried about heads getting cracked on dining room tables. But when one did happen, Jason [two years older] would put an end to it real quick. He had some issues with temper when he was young and that’s all I’ll say about that.”
That temper, Babcox said, grew out of a red-hot desire to shine at everything. The coach got a glimpse of that at the end of Kelce’s hockey career.
“It was his last game and we’d just lost in the state tournament,” Babcox said. “He was crying while he was talking to the team. We had several seniors but he was the only one crying. He told the kids, `It goes by fast. Embrace every moment of it.’ That just showed me how much passion he had, how much he cared. It made sense for him to be crying.
“That’s how he was, from practice to games. He was 110 percent. Always.”
Even when the opponent was a defenseless Foosball game.
“The kids want me to contact him about getting a new one,” said Babcox. I told them they’re going to have to reach out. There’s no way I’m asking him.”