(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear as a special section in the Sunday, Aug. 27 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
The Ford F-250 rumbled down the Texas highway, bound for Carrrollton. Inside, a very serious conversation was taking place.
It was Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, and Patrick Mahomes sat on the passenger side, trying to decide whether he should turn pro. The day before, the 21-year-old quarterback lit up Baylor for six touchdown passes, leading Texas Tech to a season-ending 54-35 victory at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
The performance capped a junior season in which Mahomes raised his draft stock with prodigious arm strength, creativity and eye-popping stats. The promise of immediate fame and money would have made the decision to turn pro easy for some, but LaTroy Hawkins, the man in the driver’s seat, knew better.
Hawkins, 44, carved out a 21-year career in Major League Baseball by being a consummate professional on and off the field. That’s part of the reason Mahomes’ father, Patrick Mahomes Sr. — an 11-year big-league veteran and former teammate of Hawkins’ — named Hawkins Patrick’s godfather. Both Mahomeses trust his counsel.
So when Hawkins made it clear the decision of whether to go pro should come down to one specific question, Mahomes listened intently.
“Are you really ready to lead men?” Hawkins asked. “If Alshon Jeffery is coming into the huddle, talking about ‘Get me the damn ball,’ how are you going to defuse that situation?’ He’s got a family to feed.
“How are you going to get him to understand you’re going to do your best to get him the damn ball?”
Patrick thought about it for a second and replied that he was sure he could handle it; he’d find a way to get Jeffery the ball without compromising the integrity of the team’s upcoming plays. Hawkins noticed that Patrick said this in the same confident drawl he used a few years earlier, when he became the starter at Texas Tech and promised he would thrive.
“He just had that confidence like, ‘Godfather and Pops, you know that when I put my mind to it, there’s nothing I can’t do,’” Hawkins recalled.
Hawkins was satisfied with the response. But before Patrick could win an NFL starting job and achieve his dreams, Hawkins cautioned, he would first have to win the trust of the organization he landed with. Doing so would require humility (to win over the coaching staff), confidence and authenticity (to win over the locker room) and results on the field (to win over both).
Eight months later, Mahomes’ new coaches and teammates in Kansas City are saying he’s doing all those things and more during his apprenticeship behind starter Alex Smith.
“He’s got a good way about him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He’s respectful, but he’s not in awe. And in that position, that’s pretty important. You’ll be representing a billion-dollar organization in the community and the locker room, and how you handle that is pretty important.”
Brad Childress has been around the NFL enough — 19 years now — to know what he likes in a rookie quarterback.
“I want to see them be seen and not heard,” said Childress, the Chiefs’ assistant head coach and Reid’s right-hand man. “I want them to be sponges ... and not know-it-alls, and not trying to finish your sentence for you in (meetings).”
Mahomes quickly impressed Childress with his studious habits in those team meetings.
“He’s a big note-taker,” Childress said. “If you say something, he writes it down. He’s not sitting there with the (notebook) shut.”
In those meetings, Reid or offensive coordinator Matt Nagy might ask Mahomes where his eyes are at on a given play, and why. They expect honest, detailed answers, and Mahomes obliges with no complaints, even when they’re correcting his footwork, delivery or decision-making.
“There’s some guys that bow up,” Childress said. “And I don’t see any of that in him.”
This has allowed Mahomes to improve in many areas quickly, from large (like his ability to process concepts and spit out Reid’s wordy playcalls) to small (such as his ability to receive the snap cleanly under center, something he rarely did in college).
But winning over the coaches with his humility and hard work is one thing. Winning over his teammates? That requires an authenticity rookies don’t always show.
“You better respect the guys that are already there,” Mahomes Sr. recalled telling his son. “Don’t come in thinking you’re a hotshot, thinking you’re better than somebody else or that you’ve earned something when you’re just starting.
“Once you start doing stuff the right way, that’s how you gain respect.”
During a recent Chiefs team meeting, center Mitch Morse and right tackle Mitch Schwartz heard a long, cracking sound nearby.
Schwartz turned his head and saw Mahomes crushing gobs of sunflower seeds at a time and making lot of noise doing it.
“Hey,” Schwartz said to Morse, “have you noticed how loud Mahomes is?”
The next day, the two busted Mahomes’ chops about it. Mahomes laughed and told them he’d stop eating the seeds until they were out of the room next time.
Thanks to his father and godfather, Mahomes had been in enough pro-sports locker rooms to know how to handle a little razzing.
“Don’t take anything too personal,” Mahomes said. “Just be one of the guys and have fun.”
Morse looks back on the moment now and chuckles.
“He’s a loud eater — he’s always making noises, and we give hell for that,” Morse said with a smile. “But he fits in real well. He’s not timid and he’s easy to talk to, and that goes a long way. He’s not sensitive at all.”
Mahomes’ easy-going personality has also made an impression on Smith, who knows how hard it can be for a rookie quarterback to fit in.
When Smith was a newly minted No. 1 overall pick in 2005, he was thrust into a starting position at age 21: the same age Mahomes is now. Too often, Smith found himself playing a part, trying to be what he thought his teammates wanted him to be, instead of who he is.
“Then I had coaches telling me, ‘You’ve got to be this type of leader, and you’ve got to be a vocal guy,’” Smith said. “But I think it’s better to just be natural and let him be who he is.
“I think he’s done that, and he’s handled it the right way ... he seems to be comfortable with who he is.”
But for all his intangible strengths, ultimately there will come a time when Mahomes’ performance on the playing field will determine whether he truly holds the trust of those around him.
Good thing for Mahomes that one of his strongest traits — creativity — will have a direct impact on that.
Chiefs receivers coach Greg Lewis has been retired as a player for seven years now. But he still marvels at some of the plays made by his former quarterback in Philadelphia, Donovan McNabb.
One time, back in 2004, McNabb scrambled around against Dallas and threw it a mile downfield to Freddie Mitchell for a 60-yard gain that lasted 14 seconds from beginning to end and was born completely out of McNabb’s creativity.
“Wasn’t even close to the play-call,” Lewis said.
Plays like that can suck the life from a defense. Mahomes, teammate and coaches say, has already made a number of cross-body throws on the move in practice that have deflated the defense in a similar fasion.
“There’s some people that can create those steps and can’t get it where it needs to go,” Childress said. “But he can throw it from a number of different spots, platforms and arm positions, and he has a downfield mentality when he does that.”
Lewis and cornerbacks coach Al Harris agreed.
“I’ve seen his college tape, and he made some miraculous throws,” Lewis said. “We’ve seen some of them out here ... he hasn’t disappointed in that area.”
“You guys have been watching, man,” Harris said of Mahomes. “I think they made the right choice (in drafting Mahomes).”
It should be noted that all three assistant coaches — Childress, Harris and Lewis — credited Smith for making some similar throws in camp. The 33-year old has been decisive and aggressive, and his command of the offense is unquestioned — as is his current hold on the starting job.
For all his desirable attributes and on-field creativity — Mahomes still has much to learn about running Reid’s offense. For now, as he explained to Hawkins over a recent dinner, he’s honored to be taking an advanced course from Smith.
Mahomes loved Texas Tech, but he has zero regrets about his decision to leave early and turn pro.
“I knew I loved this game,” Mahomes explained, “and I knew the guys would respect me for how hard I worked and how much I bought in.”