All season, I’ve been trying to put my finger on it — what it is that makes Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes so incredibly special. We all see his talent on the field — and now that it seems likely he’ll be named the NFL MVP for 2018, we see that his talent is being recognized across the country, too.
But still... there’s been something else — something I couldn’t quite put into words. And then, listening to Mahomes speak to the press on Tuesday and reflecting on what he said, it finally hit me:
Gannon came to the Chiefs in 1995 during my third year covering the team. It was a typical Carl Peterson move — to not only have an experienced veteran as your quarterback, but also as your backup quarterback. At the time, I thought it was a genius move because Gannon had come at zero cost.
He had been signed off the street.
Gannon had been drafted by the New England Patriots in the fourth round of the 1987 NFL draft. Their intent was to convert Gannon into a running back, but they ultimately traded him to the Minnesota Vikings, where he spent six seasons. Gannon eventually became the starting quarterback, but by the end of the 1992 season, Gannon was displaced by Sean Salisbury and ended up as a backup for the Washington Redskins in 1993. He spent 1994 on his sofa and came to the Chiefs as a 30-year-old quarterback with 35 starts under his belt.
Once I learned his story, I made a point to get to know him. It was never very difficult — backup quarterbacks don’t attract a lot of media attention — and I was immediately struck by how real he was. He knew how to deal with the media, but it didn’t stop him from being honest in his answers. I clearly remember asking him New Backup Quarterback Standard Question No. 26 about the difficulty of adjusting to a new offensive scheme — a question that typically elicits a response about the time it takes to learn a new offense.
“It’s no big deal,” Gannon said. “These offenses are all pretty much the same.”
He was refreshing in that answer — and many others that followed — and quickly became one of my favorite Chiefs players. I was thrilled when he started getting more playing time behind the former San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks who then started for the Chiefs — and like so many others, was disappointed when he went back to the bench for the 1997 playoffs after playing so brilliantly at the end of the season.
And I wasn’t a bit surprised when he led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl after the 2002 season.
Rich Gannon was the real deal. He knew how to prepare — to be ready for any eventuality. Nothing fazed him. He was a leader. He was humble and honest — the kind of person to which other people naturally gravitate.
And that is Patrick Mahomes — except that he also has a howitzer strapped to his right shoulder, and is just 23 years old.
On Tuesday, the media really wanted him to talk about the Chiefs’ failure to collect a playoff win against the Indianapolis Colts in four consecutive tries over almost a quarter of a century. One reporter asked if he understood what getting a playoff win — especially at home against the Colts — would mean to the city.
”Every playoff game is big,” Mahomes said — clearly the beginning of Playoff Quarterback Standard Answer #31. “We’re excited...”
The reporter cut him off. No... not just any playoff game. This. Particular. One.
”For me, it’s my first playoff game,” Mahomes answered. “I’m excited just to be here, and at the same time, get the opportunity to go out there and win games like this. When you [are growing] up, you want to play games like this. You get older and you want to be a professional athlete, you want to win on the biggest stage. So for me, it’s about going out there to be myself, lean on my teammates, and win a big football game.”
That wasn’t the answer reporters wanted, either. Even at his young age, Mahomes — probably from the years he spent following his father from one Major League Baseball clubhouse to another — knows how to answer a reporter’s question. So the reporter tried another tactic. Did Mahomes know that the Colts have as many playoff wins at Arrowhead Stadium as the Chiefs do?
”That’s... in the past,” Mahomes finally said. “All of us... we’re here now. We’re focused on the present day. We feel like we have a different team — that we can go out there and win a big football game.”
And that is the essence of Patrick Mahomes. He’s not just an incredible athlete with the intelligence — and the laser-focus — to play the most difficult position in the most complex sport. He also has the maturity to recognize how important it is to tread lightly with the news media — but still has enough inner child to give a candid, honest answer.
The reporters wanted to know if his leadership ability was something he had learned, or something he just... did. Mahomes didn’t really answer the question, but nonetheless gave a very revealing answer.
”You have to love the game,” he said. “We’re so fortunate that we’re able to be in this position. We’re fortunate that we’re able to play a sport that we love for a living — to go out there and have fun. You want to keep on an even keel. You want to make sure you’re never too high and never too low, but at the same time, you have to love this game, and love everything about it.”
The reporters asked about the support the communities have given to the teams for which he has played since high school and then asked Mahomes if it was difficult to be involved in the community — on top of the team’s demands for his time and the “emotional toll” of the season. Mahomes seemed astounded by the question.
”I don’t think [there has been] any emotional toll. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. You have your plan. You get in your hours where you have to be here and prepare yourself for the week, but at the same time, when you get those opportunities -- when you can go out and just be part of the community -- you enjoy those. That’s it for me. I enjoy being a part of this community, knowing that I’ve prepared myself well, and I can go out there, execute the game plan and win football games.”
And that’s when it happened — when I saw the connection between the 23-year-old Mahomes playing in his first season as a starter, and the 30-year-old veteran of four teams that I first knew so long ago.
Gannon — after being away from the game for a year — had reconnected with it. It was fun again. Not just the games, but the practices, the meetings, the film study, the outreach with the community... everything. It’s all fun when you love what you do. And when you have done all you can to be prepared to do it at a high level, there is even room for joy in your heart — so much so that you can focus on the most essential part of the game when the reporters ask how you prepare for the biggest contest of your young life.
”I think just relying on your teammates is the biggest thing,” Mahomes said. “I have a big advantage here — that I have a lot of great teammates that can make a lot of plays. I don’t have to try to do too much. I don’t have to try and make a huge play every single time. Just get the ball out of my hands and get to Tyreek... get it to Kelce... get it to all these guys that can make plays, and let them do what they’ve been doing all season.”
Chiefs fans... this is your quarterback. Whatever happens on Saturday, you can stand proudly.