Two-and-a-half months later, and it all moved Jason Kelce again, this time to silence. This time, it took everything a big man had to keep everything from gushing out. He was talking Tuesday, here at the NovaCare Complex, about the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory and the remarkable speech he delivered days later at the celebratory parade, about the inspiration for what has become the quintessential address delivered by a Philadelphia athlete. And so he told a story.
This was the story: After the Eagles beat the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, Kelce went home and took a shower. There, he began to contemplate all it had taken for him to reach that point, that precipice. He had been a walk-on at the University of Cincinnati, out of Cleveland Heights High School. And he had been a running back in high school and now had to gain enough weight to change positions, to play center in college. And he had been a sixth-round draft pick of the Eagles in 2011. And he had never been on an Eagles team that had won a playoff game, let alone a Super Bowl. And he had played poorly throughout the 2016 season, and he had known deep down that he had played poorly, and he had recognized that his future with the team was tenuous. And now here he was, with a chance to call himself a champion.
“You start thinking,” he said, “about everybody and everything along the way that’s helped get you where you’re at.”
He paused for two seconds.
He cleared his throat.
He paused for four more seconds.
“You’re pretty emotional. You’re crying. … That’s all the speech was. It was a culminating of all these stories.”
His stories, and others’. That’s where that roll call of comebacks during his speech, from Howie Roseman to Jay Ajayi to the whole team, came from. That’s why, after his awful 2016 season, he felt so comfortable including himself among the underdogs.
“I was at a point in my career that was a very unnerving point,” Kelce said. “You start questioning your own ability. You start asking yourself, ‘Am I good enough? Why am I struggling?’ And it really forces you self-analyze what is going on. [Offensive line coach] Jeff Stoutland is a tremendous coach, and he got my technique back in order. The coaches had a lot of confidence and the front office had a lot of confidence in me and let me really go out there and prove that I was the right guy.
“All the criticisms and everything, they weren’t unwarranted. I did play bad, especially at the start of the 2016 season. I had a really bad stretch. All of those criticisms from everybody, questioning if I was the right guy, forced me to reevaluate some things I was doing. It forced me to have a real conversation with myself about how I could get better and get back to playing at that level. I think it made me a much better player this year, having gone through that.”
His life has changed because of the Super Bowl and the speech. It would have been impossible for it not to. People ask him if he will speak at their weddings. He spoke to the Phillies during spring training, has popped up on the video board at the Wells Fargo Center, exhorting Flyers fans to make noise. Longtime Eagles fans empty their hearts to him, telling him stories about how long they had waited to watch the Eagles win just one Super Bowl, how their fathers and grandfathers were near death but held on just long enough to see that 41-33 victory over the Patriots. During the parade, Kelce said, a teammate approached him, his palms covered in what appeared to be dust. A fan had poured his grandfather’s ashes into the Eagles player’s hands. “I don’t know what to do,” the player said, as if Kelce would, as if anyone would.
He spoke with an angry empathy that day, an understanding of what the season and its marvelous ending meant to the city, and the whole thing – the purple-and-green Mummers costume, the speech, the explosive eff-bomb as an exclamation point – has made him a talismanic figure. He dressed and acted like he was putting on a show, but no pro athlete here has ever been more authentic.
He saw, and still sees, himself as a thread that blends seamlessly into Philadelphia’s sports tapestry, a native son who just happened to be born in the Midwest, a guy who had triumphed over self-doubt and brought his career back from the brink, who let everything out on Feb. 8 and did his best to hold everything in on Tuesday.
A guy just like anybody else. A guy just like us.