Updated: Thursday, February 8, 2018, 5:32 PM
Jason Kelce is exactly the sort of athlete Philadelphia deserves, and not just because he gave the greatest victory speech since “Rocky” while wearing Elton John’s pajamas.
Kelce’s instant classic, his Art Museum Address, resonated with Philadelphians because it was just like them. And just like him. Passionate. Genuine.
In these, his best of times, and a year ago, in his worst.
Kelce is an Eagle, but his words and his emotion epitomized what every Chase Utley fan felt when he dived for a ground ball, what every Allen Iverson fan felt when he drove to the basket, and what every Bobby Clarke fan felt when the Bullies played dirty and hard.
Kelce, who strutted up Broad Street, chanting and drinking with the masses, took the stage and connected with their rage at being so inconsequential so often. Kelce channeled their frustrations into his fiery sermon on the mount. They relished his recriminations. They rejoiced in his revenge. It was raw, and a bit profane, but it was real.
It was 100 percent Philly.
Eagles fans connect with Kelce because he was never supposed to be the best, either. They’d watched the Lombardi Trophy hoisted 51 times, always outside of this region, despite their desire and their loyalty. For Kelce, just making it in the NFL was something of a championship; a sixth-round center out of Cincinnati, a high school player nobody wanted, always The Bachelor’s big brother and never The Bachelor himself (this is literally true; his little brother, Travis, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, had his own dating show).
They connect with Kelce because he accepts his flaws and he moves onward. He’s accountable. There is no veneer.
He is the ultimate underdog, the lead ’dog in Pederson’s pack. That made him the perfect orator for outrage at the Eagles’ perceived deficiencies: That he’s too small, that Lane Johnson “can’t stay off the juice,” Nick Foles is washed up, that general manager Howie Roseman doesn’t deserve his job, and, of course, Doug Pederson isn’t qualified to coach Pop Warner.
Kelce was resplendent and ridiculous in his lime green jacket, magenta waistcoat and feathered genie turban, a mummer for the ages. He roared and spat and carpeted the crowd with F-bombs, to their giddy delight. He led them in spirit, and he led them in song, and he meant every word.
He always has – even in the worst of times. Last season came his worst of times. It happened – where else? – at Dallas.
The Eagles were 4-2. They held a 10-point lead over the Cowboys early in the fourth quarter, and they had scored on their two previous possessions, and they had forced a three-and-out. They had the ball at their 41-yard line.
On the first play, Kelce was assigned to block defensive tackle Terrell McClain, and expected McClain to slant, but McClain charged straight ahead. Kelce whiffed.
McLain hit rookie running back Wendell Smallwood as soon as Smallwood took the handoff. Smallwood fumbled. The Cowboys recovered, scored 10 unanswered points and won in overtime, the first loss of a 1-7 slide that cost the Eagles their season.
For 10 days, Smallwood took a tremendous amount of criticism. So did Pederson, for putting his rookie in that situation.
The next week, Kelce stumbled on a block and blew up another play against the Giants. This led to questions about his health, and his fitness, and his future. Which led to Kelce discovering that people weren’t blaming him for Smallwood’s fumble, too.
Kelce had to make sure everyone knew: The fumble was his fault. All his fault.
It didn’t matter that he was playing with an injured foot and an injured calf. He anticipated incorrectly. Smallwood got crushed. It led to a loss. Then, another misplay the next week led to another loss.
The Eagles were suddenly 4-4. Kelce, in the middle of a $37.5 million contract, insisted that he bear his share of the blame.
“I think people expect me to play at a higher level now. I expect myself to play at a higher level. I didn’t play up to my standard,” Kelce said then. “This year, so far, I’d say I’ve played below that standard as well.”
Kelce is not alone in his brutal self-recrimination.
Johnson, probably the best player on the team, blamed himself for the Eagles’ 2016 slump as he served a 10-game second suspension for a second positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. Right guard Brandon Brooks was forthcoming with his anxiety issues, a taboo subject in a testosterone-filled locker room. Wide receiver Nelson Agholor, his mind a complete mess, accepted a benching in 2016 that saved his career. And, of course, Foles used his Super Bowl MVP press conference to address failure, with a chilling sincerity.
Kelce is not alone, but he is unique. In an industry eager to shift the blame, he seeks to spread the truth.
It is that sort of accountability that has made Kelce a locker room leader for his seven seasons as an Eagle. It is that sort of honesty that makes a hero of a bearded, burly man dressed like a jester in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
Honesty, and beating Tom Brady.
Kelce finished the 2016 season strongly enough to make the Pro Bowl, and he’s been even better since. Pro Bowl voters somehow snubbed him this year, but he’s a first-team All-Pro and Pro Football Focus named him the NFL’s best run-blocker.
And, clearly, the best world bleepin’ championship speech maker in the history of all sports.
All apologies, Chase.
Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman’s newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.