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Travis Kelce values playing for the Chiefs more than making what he’s worth

Kansas City’s superstar tight end was interviewed in a new profile published by Vanity Fair.

2023 NFL Draft - Round 1 Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, contributing editor Tom Kludt published a 5000-word article about the Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce, covering everything from his recent appearance on NBC-TV’s “Saturday Night Live” (“He killed it,” Kludt quotes SNL producer Lorne Michaels as saying) to what he will do when his football career finally ends. (“I don’t know if what I want to do has really been done yet,” Kelce tells him).

Kelce spoke about his suspension from the University of Cincinnati football team. Reminded by Kludt that his then-Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones thinks of him as “one of his sons,” Kelce was reduced to tears.

“He caught me at a moment in my life where I was down in the dumps. I didn’t really think much of myself,” he says. He had a turbulent career at Cincinnati, where he arrived as a quarterback, left a tight end, and endured a yearlong suspension for smoking pot in between. “When I got hit with what I was going through,” he said of this seminal moment, “I found out how many people were in my corner.”

After an undefeated regular season in 2009, Cincinnati was invited to play in the Sugar Bowl, and Kelce hit Bourbon Street hard. “I was down in New Orleans, listening to Lil Wayne, and I wanted to smoke what he was smoking,” he recalls. But on New Year’s Eve, the night before the game and after days of cutting loose, he and his teammates were summoned for a drug test by the NCAA. “I’m just sitting there, dead in the water,” he recalled. Under NCAA rules at the time, Kelce was dealt a one-year suspension. “I just wanted to get out of there,” he says. “I was so embarrassed, I didn’t want to look at anybody.”

The incident led to long phone calls with his parents Donna and Ed Kelce. His father spoke to Kludt of their conversation.

“I told him it’s a great learning opportunity. Live with it. Grow from it. Learn from it. It is what it is, and you just have to deal with it now. All the while, I’m biting my tongue about how stupid it is that they’re going to suspend a college kid for smoking pot. Give me a f—ing break.”

Now it’s all the more ironic — because according to Kelce, he’s now in a league where players routinely smoke marijuana.

Under the NFL’s marijuana policy, which was adjusted in 2021, players are only tested during a two-week window at the start of training camp in the summer, which he says has made it a cinch to pass. “If you just stop in the middle of July, you’re fine,” he says. “A lot of guys stop a week before and they still pass because everybody’s working out in the heat and sweating their tail off. Nobody’s really getting hit for it anymore.” (He estimates that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of players in the NFL use cannabis.)

Of course, one of the outcomes of the incident was that the Chiefs were able to select Kelce in the third round (63rd overall) of the 2013 NFL Draft — a selection that ESPN has now characterized as the greatest draft steal of the last 10 years. There he joined head coach Andy Reid, who passed on the tight end’s selection based on the recommendation of his brother: Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce, whom Reid had drafted in 2011.

Kelce talks about his place on the Chiefs like someone who won the lottery, and no doubt, he has good reason to be grateful. He plays for Reid, an offensive savant and one of the winningest coaches ever, and he seems to have a telepathic connection to [Patrick] Mahomes, a virtuoso quarterback—even his incompletions look like works of art. “I’m so fortunate to get tossed in this organization at this time,” he says. “I’m just reaping the benefits.”

As he always does when discussing his teammates, Mahomes shifted the credit to his tight end.

“Travis is definitely the best player I’ve thrown to,” Mahomes tells me, adding, “With how big he is and the way he is able to run routes and make plays happen, is a really rare thing.” Even more, Mahomes says, “Travis is definitely my closest teammate. I would say our friendship is more like a brotherhood—we’re brothers now and our families get along together. I’m part of his family and he’s part of mine.”

The superstar tight end — who might already be the best to ever play the game — earns a relatively small salary. He reveals to Kludt that playing for the Chiefs makes it a fair trade.

“My managers and agents love to tell me how underpaid I am,” Kelce says. “Any time I talk about wanting more money, they’re just like, ‘Why don’t you go to the Chiefs and ask them?’” The Chiefs, constrained by the NFL’s salary cap, have parted with other key players who have gone on to make more money elsewhere. Last year, the team traded All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who played in Kansas City for six seasons and won a Super Bowl with Kelce in 2020, to the Miami Dolphins, who promptly handed Hill a four-year contract extension worth $120 million.

“When I saw Tyreek go and get $30 [million] a year, in the back of my head, I was like, man, that’s two to three times what I’m making right now,” he says. “I’m like, the free market looks like fun until you go somewhere and you don’t win. I love winning. I love the situation I’m in.”

But it does cross his mind. “You see how much more money you could be making and, yeah, it hits you in the gut a little bit. It makes you think you’re being taken advantage of,” Kelce says. “I don’t know if I really pressed the gas if I would get what I’m quote-unquote worth,” he adds. “But I know I enjoy coming to that building every single day.”

The complete Vanity Fair article is well worth your time. Read it by clicking here.

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