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Travis Kelce has made his own path to superstardom

Kansas City’s tight end did not always look poised to become one of the faces of the NFL.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

On Oct. 12, 2013, the Kansas City Chiefs placed rookie tight end Travis Kelce on injured reserve, ending his season. The 63rd selection in that year’s draft underwent surgery for a bone bruise to his knee suffered in the preseason. After collecting a single special teams snap in only one game played, the promising talent from the University of Cincinnati appeared headed for draft-bust status.

A decade later, Kelce’s 11th October in the NFL could not have gone more differently. He missed the Chiefs’ Week 1 game, coincidentally due to a bone bruise to his knee suffered in practice. After not topping 70 yards receiving in his first four contests after returning for Week 2, Kelce amassed a combined 21 catches for 303 yards in Kansas City’s Week 6 and 7 games.

Assuming continued health, Kelce will likely overcome his slow start to reach his eighth consecutive season with 1,000 receiving yards. The now 34-year-old tight end is a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame after his career ends — putting his rookie season that wasn’t deep into distant memory.

Perhaps more impressive than what Kelce has done on the field — including eight Pro Bowl selections, four times being named First-Team All-Pro, and a pair of Super Bowl wins — is the name recognition he has attained off of it.

Making it in the league

After essentially an injury redshirt rookie season, Kelce racked up 862 receiving yards in 2014 and scored five touchdowns. Paired with quarterback Alex Smith, Kelce quickly became one of the league’s best tight ends. His second season in 2015 saw Kelce haul in 103 catches and earn his first of eight Pro Bowl selections.

Although the Chiefs have had a winning record each season since drafting Kelce, postseason frustration marked the early part of his career. With a Smith and Kelce pairing, the Chiefs stumbled to a 1-3 playoff record. In Smith’s final game as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback — a 2017 Divisional Round matchup with the Tennessee Titans — Kelce was forced from the game with a concussion and missed the second half.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Kelce quickly established himself as one of the league’s best pass catchers. Minimal success on the sport’s biggest stage, unfortunately, limited his recognition outside of Kansas City. For the 2018 season, a major change in Kansas City would catapult Kelce to superstar status.

The Mahomes-Kelce connection

After playing only in one game his rookie season, Patrick Mahomes — whom the Chiefs traded up to draft 10th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft — took over as the Chiefs quarterback following the playoff loss to Tennessee. Kelce initially seemed apprehensive about an untested player taking over for a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Mahomes quickly put Kelce’s concerns to rest. With his new quarterback, the tight end catapulted to his then-career-best 1,336 receiving yards as the Chiefs advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Although their first season together ended in a close overtime loss to the New England Patriots, a year later, Mahomes and Kelce celebrated as the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV.

As the confetti fell in Miami, NFL Films caught a celebratory moment between Kelce and his father Ed. The elder Kelce’s message that his son had never been fully appreciated would prove prophetic as his career unfolded.

Although the Chiefs came up short of repeating as Super Bowl champions in a blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, Mahomes and Kelce continued to put up monster numbers in the following seasons.

Transitioning from star athlete to A-list celebrity

For the 2022 season, Kelce and his brother — Philadelphia Eagles center Jason — greatly elevated their national profile via their hit weekly podcast “New Heights.” The sports world was then shocked when, after months of unprecedented weekly insight into the brothers’ football life, the Chiefs and Eagles advanced to Super Bowl LVII, pitting them against each other. The storyline of brothers competing for a championship would amplify their celebrity status and introduce their parents to the NFL audience.

The Chiefs won 38-35 with Travis Kelce delivering 81 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Super Bowl LVII Opening Night presented by Fast Twitch Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After Kelce’s first Super Bowl win, the world almost immediately shut down amidst the COVID pandemic. Kelce’s national exposure since the Chiefs’ second Super Bowl win in four years has been unprecedented and made him arguably the league’s most recognizable non-quarterback. Weeks after taking the field in Arizona, he hosted NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with a well received comedic performance. The inaugural “Kelce Jam” music festival coincided with Kansas City hosting the 2023 NFL Draft. As his national profile raised, his podcast continued carving out a bigger space in sports media.

Watching football on a Saturday or Sunday in 2023, it appears Kelce is everywhere, between his commercials for Pfizer, State Farm, Experion, and DirecTV. The tight end’s every movement is also currently tracked by celebrity watchers as his romance with pop superstar Taylor Swift has been the biggest story of this NFL season.

Kelce has also used his success to bring more recognition overall to the tight end position. In 2021, he founded “Tight End University” with George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers, aimed at helping his peers leaguewide find more success.

Kelce’s future

The longest-tenured Chief is entering the twilight of his career in spite of his continued outstanding play. When his career does end, Kelce’s media presence guarantees a variety of new opportunities. He will continue to be one of the most influential voices in the NFL, and he almost certainly will continue dabbling in the wider entertainment world no matter how his romance with Swift eventually plays out.

Kelce clearly has his sights set on the sports world outside of the NFL. In 2020, he was named as an investor in an ownership group attempting to purchase the New York Mets. In October, Kelce and Mahomes joined golfer Rory McIlroy in acquiring a stake of BWT Alpine, a Formula 1 racing team.

The player who persevered through an early injury to dominate his sport finally has the recognition his father knew he deserved.

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