A long row of fans leaned over the fence, holding footballs and helmets and pictures and all kinds of memorabilia. And long after every other Pro Bowler had departed, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce stood in front of them, obliging as many as he could with autographs, smiles and small talk.
This was 11:09 a.m. on Friday, roughly an hour after the AFC squad ended practice at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex for Sunday’s Pro Bowl. And while only a few of the people waiting were Chiefs fans, it was clear that for many, Kelce was becoming one of their favorite players.
Together, they belted into chants of “Kelce! Kelce! Kelce!,” cracked jokes and shouted their appreciation over the course of an hour.
“Thanks for staying and signing!” one man yelled.
“I’m going to throw you my football — be a tight end and catch it!” yelled another man a few rows back.
Kelce, ever the showman, loved every minute of it.
“It’s surreal,” Kelce said, while taking a break from the optional signing. “This life … I’m still a little kid in the candy store, I’ll tell you that. Nobody in Hawaii knew who I was at this point (last year).”
When Kelce, who turns 28 in October, made his first Pro Bowl appearance a year ago, he’d just signed a lucrative five-year, $46 million deal that made him one of the game’s highest-paid tight ends. Yet, he was still a tight end, one who — other than for his penchant for dancing and catching lots of passes — didn’t exactly have a sky-high “Q” rating.
However, it appears his reality dating show on E! — “Catching Kelce, which aired this season — played a role in changing all that. Suddenly, more people started to recognize him, and that — combined with his increasing on-field histrionics and loud-but-harmless postgame rants — put his name in the people’s mouths more than ever.
“People are starting to understand who I am because of the show, because of my incidents in the media and that crazy stuff,” Kelce said. “But other than that, I feel like people see how much fun I have on the field and how much love I have for the game, and they want to see more of it.”
Kelce’s work on the field speaks for itself. In many ways, it’s never been better. He set career highs in 2016 for catches (85) and receiving yards (1,125) with four touchdowns, and — aside from the occasional focus drop — emerged as the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiving threat, one teams prioritized stopping.
But Kelce also had his share of colorful incidents that didn’t involve anything he did between the whistle. For instance:
▪ In a 19-14 win over Jacksonville, he was ejected for throwing a towel in the direction of a referee after a missed call, drawing a tame public rebuke from coach Andy Reid after the game.
This is the one he most regrets the most, by the way.
“Because I got ejected and I put the team in a bad position,” Kelce said.
▪ After a 19-17 loss to Tennessee, he gently criticized the Chiefs’ playcalling, saying it got too conservative. That, of course, is Reid’s baby, and Reid said Kelce later apologized to him for the comment.
▪ Kelce sat out the first quarter of the Chiefs’ 37-27 win over San Diego in the regular-season finale, after which Kelce and Reid declined to elaborate on.
▪ After the 18-16 divisional-round loss to Pittsburgh, Kelce criticized game referee Carl Cheffers for his fourth-quarter holding call on left tackle Eric Fisher, which negated a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. Kelce said the referee who called the penalty “shouldn’t even be able to work in a (darned) Foot Locker,” which drew a $12,500 fine. He was also fined $9,115 for shoving Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell, which drew an unnecessary roughness penalty.
In retrospect, Kelce said the increased numbers of incidents were simply a product of him settling into his own skin.
“You just get more comfortable (overall), you get more comfortable around the media,” Kelce said. “You kind of bite your tongue at first, just because you don’t know how everyone is going to look at you. But at the end of the day, it’s a game I put everything into. So if people can’t respect that ...”
Kelce’s voice trailed off, though when asked directly if it is time for him to mature some, he nodded his head and agreed.
“I think it’s fair, I think it’s fair,” Kelce said. “In terms of maturity, I am who I am. I feel like I do need to understand when to shut the hell up and when to just be me.”
And when asked if Reid has worked with him on that, Kelce chuckled in a way befitting a man who wanted to communicate a message of “if you only knew.”
“We talk about every incident,” Kelce said. “He’s helping me grow through it, that’s for sure.”
Kelce added that he couldn’t be happier under Reid — “There’s no place I’d rather be,” he said — and his coach believes he will only continue to mature.
“You don’t want to take away the spirit — I don’t like doing that with players,” Reid said. “You just have to have some guidelines.
“Like we all have to stop at red lights — there’s certain things you can do and can’t do.”
Especially if said player is going to be looked at as a leader, which Kelce apparently is. One of the most overlooked aspects of the Chiefs’ loss to Pittsburgh is that before the game, Kelce was voted one of two offensive captains by his teammates (along with quarterback Alex Smith).
“It’s a positive sign,” Reid said. “It says the players like him, respect him.”
Kelce wasn’t surprised by being selected captain, but he admits he didn’t necessarily expect it.
“I thought there were guys that were looked at in that role more so than I was,” Kelce said. “Maybe that was just a bias, and I was kind of looking at other guys around me as the veterans and leaders.
“But as the season goes on, and as we go from here, I know where I stand. And for that, I think it’s going to be fun taking the leadership role and running with it.”
In a way, Kelce’s rant against the official after the Pittsburgh game was coming out of that spirit.
He and Fisher were drafted the same year, 2013, and it was important to Kelce to have his buddy’s back after the loss, even at a personal cost, because he didn’t want the holding call to become a narrative that plagued Fisher the entire offseason.
“I couldn’t let him feel like that, it ain’t a good feeling,” Kelce said. “I’m going to defend him.”
It was, in many ways, classic Kelce: a little defiant, very passionate and also endearing. It’s a personality mix that gives him juice on a day-to-day basis, but also gets him into trouble. Kelce knows this, and Reid does, too.
The key for Kelce going forward will be to continue to harness his personality for good ... a process that promises to be interesting for coaches, fans and Kelce, alike.
“Where does it go from here? I couldn’t even tell you man,” Kelce said with a grin. “I know there won’t be a season two of Catching Kelce. That’s about all I can tell you.”