Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and his older brother — Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce — have a podcast called “New Heights.” The title is an homage to the Cleveland Heights, Ohio neighborhood in which they grew up. New episodes drop each Wednesday.
This week — instead of their normal episode — the Kelce brothers offered a somber and thoughtful look at the events that occurred this past Monday night, when the game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals was suspended after Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after tackling Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins.
This episode of “New Heights” was unlike any other. Gone were the jump cuts from joke to joke. The normal jovial intro was not used.
“I’m not even sure if we want to call this an episode,” said Jason at one point. “This is kind of a reaction video.”
It was a conversation between two brothers who happen to be NFL players. Like many others, they were grappling with Monday’s tragic event — and what it means for themselves and the game they love. Travis was often at a loss for words. It’s clear that both men were shaken.
“It definitely does not feel right to comment on anything else that happened this week or anything that is going to happen next week,” said a subdued Travis, trying to choose his words carefully. “Our energy is devoted to Damar and the Buffalo Bills — and everything the NFL is going through.”
Travis recounted that he was watching Monday night’s game with his father, who was visiting him.
“[We] decided we were going to go to a restaurant,” recalled Travis, “and watch the remainder of it. So we were on the way to the restaurant when we found out about the incident.
“You see all of the videos of the reactions of guys on the field — and immediately think of putting yourself in their shoes — in Damar’s family's shoes — and what they are going through emotionally. It was demoralizing. It’s scary. It’s scary to see anybody go through that.”
Jason drew a parallel to a normal football injury like a concussion — noting that typically, there is a sense of closure; there is knowledge that the player is conscious and is going to be okay. But Jason said that when you see someone perform CPR on a teammate, there is no knowledge the player will be OK; a whole new level of worry sets in.
While acknowledging the situations are different, Jason compared Hamlin’s collapse to the neck injury of his teammate Josh Sweat. Jason recalled how he took a knee on the sideline and watched, waiting and hoping to see Sweat’s legs move — for any sign that he was going to be OK. Eventually, Jason got that reassurance: Sweat was going to be all right.
But for the Bills’ players, Jason admitted that it’s different.
“To still not really have the clarity of what’s going to be the future for Damar?” he asked. “I can’t imagine what it feels like for these guys.”
“Immediate thoughts go to his family and what his family is going through,” said Travis. “I’m terrified to ever lay on the field and have you — or Mom or Dad — [wondering about] everything that is going on. That’s probably the sickest feeling you can have as a player.
“That’s why I always — even if I’m banged up — if I can get up and off that field and show anything...”
“As a family member,” he said, “there is absolutely nothing crazier than witnessing somebody you love [get hurt] — and not knowing if they are going to be OK.”
Woven into their entire conversation was the idea that football is supposed to be an escape from all the world’s troubles — but that when Hamlin collapsed, everything changed.
“We play this game to give those people — [loved ones] specifically — happiness,” noted Travis. “[So] to strike fear in their minds, to strike worry? That ain’t it, man. It’s a scary feeling to even try — and put yourself in his shoes.”
The brothers spoke about how the NFL community has banded together to support Hamlin and his family — frequently speaking of the league as a brotherhood — and how uplifting it is to see the outpouring of love from around the league.
“I thought Mike Tomlin’s video, in particular, was amazing,” said Jason, referring to the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach’s comments on Wednesday.
#Steelers HC Mike Tomlin spoke about his relationship with Damar Hamlin before answering any questions today. Tomlin has known Hamlin since he was about 12 years old:— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) January 3, 2023
“It’s a really personal thing for me being a Pittsburgher.”
Travis’ voice gained a new level of passion as he began speaking of the leadership displayed by the Bengals’ and Bills’ head coaches.
“Hats off to Zac Taylor and Sean McDermott to be the first to realize the entirety of the situation,” said the Kansas City tight end. “And even though this game means a lot to whatever happens in the AFC, they realized that this game is exactly that — and that it doesn’t hold any place at this time. Taking their teams off the field — saying, ‘Until we find out that he’s okay, this game doesn’t mean a damn thing.’
“I couldn’t imagine going out there and having to play. I couldn’t — I don’t think I could.”
And then Jason asked the question that everyone in the league has been asking since Monday night.
“How do you get ready to play Week 18?”
“I’m not gonna lie,” responded Travis. “I don’t even see — I don’t even want to get into it. Today was a very — I don’t want to say [an] ‘awkward’ day. Nut it definitely started like that.
“It wasn’t your typical base install day. There were, unfortunately, a lot of sad emotions going around. It really sobered everybody up to how serious of a game we play.”
But Travis said that when the moment comes to step back out on the field, he will do it — not for himself, but to honor Hamlin.
“As scary as an incident that it is, [it’s an] honor that you can go back out there and play for him. And play for the people that are dealing with what they're dealing with, to try and give them excitement, to try and give them something [so they can] get away from what’s going on in their daily lives.
“The honor I get from that? It’s priceless, man. You can’t put a dollar amount on that. You can’t put a ticket on it.
“I’ll be willing go out there and honor [Hamlin]— just like I honored Ryan Shazier, just like I honored Alex Smith. [These are] guys who I have a ton of respect for.”
Football is just a game. But it’s also a vehicle for a community of people who have banded together to support one another — and the Hamlin family.
It’s times like these when our humanity takes center stage above all else. We don’t know how the NFL will proceed from here. But like Travis said: when the time comes, we will play the games — and together, we’ll find a way forward.