Travis Kelce is an all-pro tight end now, with the stature his older brother, Jason, envisioned for Travis back when they were playing football together at Cleveland Heights High and then at the University of Cincinnati.
But there was a time when Travis Kelce’s future hung in the balance, when the reality dating show and the splashy feature in the current issue of GQ and the red Kansas City Chiefs No. 87 jerseys dotting the Arrowhead Stadium stands for this Sunday’s meeting with the Eagles were not necessarily going to be his destination.
It was 2010, and Travis had been dismissed from the Cincinnati team after testing positive for marijuana. He’d been a Bearcat since 2008 but hadn’t done much – redshirting as a freshman, catching one pass in 2009 and running some quarterback plays from the Wildcat.
Then Travis spent 2010 not ever playing a down, his scholarship revoked. He paid his own tuition that year, partly with money he earned conducting phone surveys to determine how people felt about the Affordable Care Act.
That fall, Jason, who is 23 months older, suggested Travis move in with him and a few teammates. “So I could keep an eye on him,” Jason, the Eagles’ seventh-year starting center, recalled Wednesday.
“He was right there when I got suspended, to say, ‘You know what, you’re living with me, I’m going to show you how to do things the right way.’ Not that he wasn’t [previously], I just wasn’t following the lead,” Travis said, in a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters.
Jason remembers talking to their father, Ed, a salesman in the steel industry, about how high the stakes were. Ed Kelce said he didn’t want Travis looking back someday with regret. Jason agreed.
“I told him, ‘You know, if Travis grows up to be 50 years old, and still regrets some decisions from college, we haven’t done a great job,’ ” Jason said. “ ‘When he’s 50 he’ll hopefully have a wife and kids, people relying on him, and if he’s still looking back at some stupid decision he made involved with college athletics, that’s not right.’ ”
Jason recalled telling his brother: “All of that is over. It’s happened. Learn from it and move forward, it ain’t the end of the world.”
And it wasn’t. By the end of his senior season, Travis was all-conference. He was the fifth tight end taken in the 2013 NFL draft, going in the third round (63rd overall), behind Eagles selection Zach Ertz (second round, 35th overall), among others.
It’s hard to say if teams were still put off by the marijuana test, or by the emotional penalties he took, the out-of-control vibe he still sometimes gave off. It’s notable that the Eagles were then coached by Chip Kelly, who did not favor colorful, sometimes undisciplined players.
In the GQ story, published last week, Travis relates an anecdote from an NFL Scouting Combine interview with the Ravens, when he wanted to tell general manager Ozzie Newsome how much he’d idolized him as a Hall of Fame tight end in Cleveland, and all Newsome wanted from him was an answer to the question, “Son, are you a [bleeping] a–hole?”
Doug Pederson, then the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, now the Eagles’ head coach, recalls draft process “red flags,” but says that K.C. trusted its evaluators, who said Kelce would prosper with the right structure.
“Just perfect,” Pederson said, when asked how Kelce behaved during the two years they spent together. “Every player is going to have their moments; he had his, obviously. But he’s matured now, he’s really grown up as an athlete and a professional. He’s really embraced his role.”
Pederson and his mentor, Andy Reid, have coached both Kelce brothers.
“Travis is a little more flamboyant, charismatic, probably fly by the seat of his pants, but, tremendous athlete,” Pederson said. “[Jason] is a little bit more the cerebral, deeper thinker, little more calculated in his approach.”
“They’re completely different,” Reid said in a conference call. “[Travis is] a live wire. His brother is very stoic, not that he doesn’t have a sense of humor, but just completely different guys. But both big hearts, love to play the game, both are tremendous players.”
And loyal to one another. Travis was asked a question Wednesday about Jason’s play with the Eagles the last few years, the question reflecting widespread sentiment that Jason has struggled, particularly with bigger, stronger opponents.
“I think he’s the best center in the league … I feel like he works his tail off,” Travis said. “He’s one of the most athletic guys I’ve ever seen at 290 pounds. He’s strong, he’s smart, and sure enough, when he gets out there in the screen game and the run game, in the open field, he’s deadly.”
Jason said of Travis: “Trav has always been an incredible athlete, not just because of his physical abilities, but he always had great feel for sports. He understands space and movement and patterns extremely well.”
Jason said there was “a friendly back-and-forth” following Kansas City’s stunning 42-17 season-opening victory at New England. They grew up following that pattern.
“Whoever got to the remote first got to pick which channels we were watching,” Travis said. “Whoever got to the X-Box first when we got home got to pick which game we were playing. Little competitions like that, with everything that you do.”
Whatever Travis does against the Eagles on Sunday, Jason figures he’ll be too busy on the sideline going over blocking adjustments to notice. And even in this, he manages a fraternal jab.
“Unless he has like a huge play – which he’s probably not going to have, let’s face it – I probably won’t be able to see too much of it,” Jason said.