Wearing a black and gold letterman’s jacket with a giant block “H” on the lapel, Travis Kelce stepped to the podium at Cleveland Heights High School.
It was May, and Kelce was being inducted into his alma mater’s hall of fame along with his brother Jason and eight other distinguished alumni of the school.
Before he even started talking, the tears starting forming in his eyes and a sob of appreciation for his hometown caught in his throat.
Thumping his chest and apologizing for his passion, Kelce hunched over the podium’s microphone, positioned much lower than his hulking 6-foot-6 frame, and started out by explaining how much the jacket — and his hometown — meant to him.
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He was worlds away from the larger-than-life persona he embodies as a Pro Bowl tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs. A character with undeniable talent and behavior that’s sometimes frustratingly immature.
In this moment, he was home, and he was just Travis Kelce, the kid who was friends with everyone — from classmates to teachers to administrators to security guards to cafeteria workers. His guest list reflected that diversity as dozens of those people filled the school’s auditorium to watch his induction.
His voice cracked as he told the crowd why he states his hometown in his Sunday Night Football introduction instead of his college program like most other players.
As he paused, trying to collect himself, he made jokes, anything to diffuse the emotion of the moment.
But as quickly as he regained that composure, he lost it again.
“Everybody always asks me why don’t I say University of Cincinnati,” he said, pausing as his voice got thready again.
Jason walked over from his seat on the stage to hug his brother, thumping him on the chest to calm him down. His dad tossed a handkerchief up from the crowd for his son to dry his eyes. And then, Kelce continued.
“I say, ‘My name is Travis Kelce,’” he said, “‘and I’m from Cleveland Heights, Ohio.’”
The crowd hooted and hollered as Kelce wiped his eyes again and went on.
“It’s not because I don’t appreciate the time I had at the University of Cincinnati, because I do, I cherish it dearly,” he said. “But there was a time when I was at Cincinnati that it wasn’t easy for me. It was tough. I got my scholarship taken from me. I did a lot of dumb things. I’m sure a lot of people in this room know someone from Heights that’s done a lot of dumb things.
“To all my friends, I was that guy. I got my scholarship revoked and I was at my lowest point I’ve ever been in my life. ... When I left Heights, I realized how awesome it was to have that ‘H’ on a jacket. ...
“Because of how special Heights is to me, because of how special Heights is to every single person up here. How diverse this place is. It builds something in me. Every single thing I do is for this city. It sounds cliche, but I promise you, every single thing i do out there — when you see me dancing in the end zone, that’s Cleveland Heights, for you, right there.”
It took a village to raise Kelce, a rambunctious kid with a magnetic personality and limitless talent.
To truly understand the guy behind the magazine covers and reputation for outlandish on-field antics, you’ve got to go to Cleveland Heights to meet those who shaped him.
Drive too fast down South Taylor Road in Cleveland Heights and you might miss Quintana’s Barber and Dream Salon.
On this particular Thursday afternoon, the single-family home was obscured by a white box truck, a tree filled with lush green leaves and a thick veil of fog and rain.
But in some ways, that’s just how Alex Quintana wants it.
Tucked a floor away from the barber chairs is Quintana’s secret: a speakeasy hidden behind a bookshelf at the top of a creaky flight of stairs.
The small room filled with plush chairs, prohibition-era photographs and a bar stocked with rows of bourbon is filled with a blend of people: men, women, black, white, Hispanic, old and young.
This is where Travis Kelce grew up.
Not in this exact room, but in a barber chair a floor below it and in the school right around the corner.
The diversity of the crowd in this speakeasy is a hallmark of Kelce’s community and part of what makes him able to fit in so many social circles.
“This is a special city, Cleveland Heights, itself,” Quintana said. “It’s very multicultural, very ethnically diverse, very religiously tolerant. It has its issues as well, but it really prepares you for the outside world. Some people grow up in very secluded areas that are very homogenous. That’s not what this place is.
“It makes you proud of where it is you got to grow up. Not prideful as in the Seven Deadly Sins, but prideful like there should be more of this out there. That characteristic is shared by a lot of people that get to grow up here.”
Quintana, a native of Chile, first opened his shop 16 years ago with the mission to be a cornerstone in the community. The three-story colonial had already been used as a commercial space when Quintana took over, and he transformed it into a multilevel barbershop and spa.
Back then, Quintana’s brother was the Kelces’ middle school lacrosse coach. So when he opened his shop, the Kelce brothers went to support their coach and his family.
Kelce grew up in Quintana’s, forming a lifelong bond with the barber and the community around him.
Once a week, Kelce would charm Cleveland Heights security guards and slip out of the high school for a quick cut. Once, Kelce showed up a couple hours before his after school-scheduled cut. Curious, Quintana asked him how he managed to get there so early. Kelce told his barber that football players were allowed to take half days on game days. But when Quintana replied that his football coach would be over soon for his own appointment, Kelce jumped up and went back to school.
The Kelce brothers had a running tab at Quintana’s, and every eight weeks or so, their dad Ed would swing by to pay it off.
From his vantage point behind the barber’s chair, Quintana watched Kelce grow up. He watched as he experimented with trendy clothes, honing in on a fashion sense that would grow more outlandish with age. And he saw how Kelce wove himself into the fabric of the diverse community, befriending kids from all backgrounds at his high school while still maintaining a core group of loyal confidants that are a part of Kelce’s inner circle to this day.
“He’s doing Old Spice commercials now, for Pete’s Sake,” Quintana said, laughing. “I knew him when he only had three-chinners. But we trimmed them, though.”
When Jason, Kelce’s older brother, was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Kelce and Quintana made the drive to the East Coast for a game along with another family friend. And when the Chiefs hosted Jason’s Eagles last year, the Kelces flew Quintana to the game. And when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, Quintana was right there, spending the week split between time with other Cleveland friends and the Kelce family.
Quintana’s gone all over the country to support the Kelce family, and when Kelce made his hometown professional debut in Cleveland a month ago, Quintana hosted a tailgate for his friends and family.
“You never know who your client is going to become,” Quintana said. “Never in a million years would we have been able to say that’s what the Kelces were going to do.
“I’ve been allowed to be engaged with what they’re doing. It’s been fun. It’s been quite a ride.”
Jeff Rotsky’s office at Euclid High School is a work in progress.
The school just moved him into a white cinder-block room, and with his team in the playoffs, he hasn’t had much time to unpack.
Boxes of memorabilia from his previous stops are overflowing under the table scattered with photos of former players, but he has made time to hang framed jerseys of former players who’ve made it big.
Travis Kelce’s jersey, though, isn’t among them.
“He’s gotta get me a doggone jersey,” the coach said with a laugh.
Rotsky coached Kelce for just one season at Cleveland Heights, but his impact on Kelce’s life lasted long after Kelce left home.
“Coach Rotsky, he really ingrained the understanding of football in me,” Kelce said. “He challenged me like Coach (Andy) Reid does every single day. Being the leader and being somebody that this team can count on.”
He’s a Morgan Stanley senior vice president and financial adviser by day, but Rotsky’s true calling in life is working with urban youth in Cleveland. In addition to coaching football at lower-income high schools in the area, he started a foundation with his wife to give hundreds of inner-city kids mentors in the community.
For so many young people in the area, Rotsky is as much a father figure as he is a coach and a mentor.
Coming from a stable, two-parent household, Kelce didn’t need a father figure. He needed a hard-line coach to keep him in line and help him realize his full potential.
“A lot of people were used to telling him what he wanted to hear,” Rotsky said. “He needed to be (cursed) upside down at times. He needed to be put to his place. He needed to be told that as good as he was, that dammit, he could be so much better. I think that’s what I hopefully helped him — not letting him get content with just being the best around here ... because I saw so much more in him.”
Before Rotsky arrived at Cleveland Heights for Kelce’s senior year, Kelce already had a big-man-on-campus reputation. He was so talented as a freshman that he was quickly elevated to junior varsity. He showed his natural knack for connecting with everyone, earning enough respect from the older kids that he was voted team captain.
As the little brother of Jason Kelce and a prodigious athlete, everyone knew who Travis Kelce was. And it wasn’t long before he got caught up being one of the popular kids. His grades slipped so much that he was ineligible to play football during his sophomore year. He missed out on a chance to be on the same team as his older brother.
That was the first shock to his system. Realizing that his behavior had serious consequences, Kelce dedicated himself to being a better student and a better teammate.
“It’s an early lesson to be learned,” said Mike Jones, Kelce’s varsity football coach his sophomore and junior year. “A little slice of humble pie there. There are things you have to take care of in order to be able to do these things. You have to take care of these things.”
By the time Rotsky took over for Jones before Kelce’s senior year, Kelce needed another jolt.
Coming off a 3-7 season, Kelce often grew frustrated with his football team. He was prone to sideline outbursts, slamming his helmet into the ground in an explosive demonstration.
Rotsky didn’t tolerate that kind of behavior, so midway through the season, he hauled Kelce into his office along with his dad.
“I want that fire,” Rotsky told him. “I want that tenacity, but you’ve got to learn to use that to uplift some of the guys who don’t get it yet.”
That tough love, it seemed, finally got through to him — at least through the rest of the season. Under Rotsky, Kelce flourished. He graduated from Cleveland Heights and joined his brother Jason on Cincinnati’s football team.
But it wasn’t long before Travis ran into more trouble and needed to lean on his community back home. A positive marijuana test cost him his scholarship for an entire season.
It was a bleak time for Kelce. He conducted phone surveys to help pay for his tuition and lived with his brother. Quintana sent him videos of a motivational speaker, and there were late-night phone calls with Rotsky where the coach put aside his tough love.
“Son, God doesn’t give you anything that you can’t handle,” Rotsky told him during one of those 1 a.m. calls. “But this is going to be the greatest test of your will and character ever.
“You’re going to come out on the right side of it, because I know you’re not going to quit. I know you’ve identified the issues, and I’m not going to let you quit and your family’s not going to let you quit. So make the decision now to do everything you can in the classroom, everything that the coach had asked you to do. Do it times 10. Leave no doubt that you understand the mistakes you made. You’re humbled by those mistakes, and it’ll never happen again.”
Kelce was hardly perfect after that incident, but the support from Rotsky, Kelce’s family and and his home base pulled him back from the brink of self-destruction. With his course corrected, he finished his career at Cincinnati as a tight end and was selected by the Chiefs in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
In Rotsky, Kelce found a mentor who was going to hold him accountable, who was there to give him a reality check when he needed to be brought back down to earth and nurture him when he was broken.
Kelce still makes mistakes. His first five years in the league were marred by emotional outbursts and costly personal-foul flags. But as he’s gotten older, he has matured and adhered more closely to lessons he learned from Rotsky.
And he hasn’t been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct since Week 2 of 2017.
“He needed that foot in the ass,” Rotsky said. “I hope I was that foot in the ass for him.”
Next to Mark Sack’s stack of student permission slips for an upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. is a folded-up piece of paper.
On it is an email he received in May, forwarded from Joy Henderson, who was helping organize Kelce’s induction at Cleveland Heights.
It contains words Sack never thought he’d read, certainly not from Travis Kelce.
“I was inspired at Heights High by a teacher named Mark Sack,” it begins.
Most of the time, the email stays in Sack’s in-box, but he needed to print it out and bring the hard copy — as if there needed to be physical evidence that this really, truly happened. Because the Travis Kelce that Sack recalled never seemed like he cared much for what Sack tried to teach him.
Sack’s memories of Kelce in his social psychology class aren’t exactly fond. Sack is a no-nonsense teacher who expects the best from his students from the moment they step into his classroom. And, well, Kelce didn’t always give it to him.
“Academics was on Travis’ top-five list of priorities,” Sack said wryly. “I’ll let you decide whether it was one, two, three, four or five.”
Even if Kelce didn’t care much for the social psychology curriculum, Sack had plenty to teach Kelce. After his own graduation from Cleveland Heights, Sack went overseas to play professional basketball in Israel. Then he came back to his hometown to start giving back.
Sack can’t remember talking to Kelce specifically about his journey from Cleveland Heights to professional athletics, but he certainly brought up his path in class. He didn’t know it then, but Kelce was listening and absorbing.
Once Kelce left Sack’s class, the teacher didn’t make it a point to follow his career. As apathetic as Kelce seemed to be about Sack’s class, that’s how Sack viewed Kelce’s success.
Then Kelce was named to the high school’s 2018 Hall of Fame along with his brother. To help the student presenters write their introductions for that year’s group of inductees, each member of the class had to answer a couple questions about their Cleveland Heights experience. One of those questions asked which teacher had inspired them.
Kelce sent his responses to Henderson, who promptly forwarded them to Sack.
As Sack read past the first line, his eyes grew bigger and bigger.
“He was great at his job, a very relatable person, and accepted everyone for who they were,” Kelce continued in his response. “I appreciated how he pushed me past what I thought my limit was in the classroom. He was actually a Cleveland Heights product himself. I was excited to find out he was a former professional basketball player because it gave me hope that I, too, could make it in sports. He was undoubtedly someone I looked up to.”
Sack was floored.
“I swear to God, if I wasn’t sitting, I would have dropped,” he said. “I never would have thought that in a million years.”
Sack wasn’t planning on going to the hall of fame ceremony, but after reading Kelce’s response, he decided to attend.
Kelce’s mid-speech apology that day caught him completely off-guard.
“Mr. Sack,” Kelce said, “I see you out there and I want to apologize. I finally get it.”
Sack was struck by just how much Kelce carried with him from his class. It showed him that maybe, just maybe, his efforts weren’t in vain.
“Out of all the people that he chose for this and chose to apologize in public to, because I’m sure he was a butthead to more than me,” Sack said. “He knew he was a great athlete. I saw my job in my classroom to treat him like a student and to keep him grounded a little bit.”
Sack gave Kelce a path out of Cleveland Heights, a path that let him know his dreams could be achieved. And now that Sack knows that Kelce paid him a little more attention that he thought, he keeps a closer eye on his former student.
“Before this email, I could hear it, read it,” Sack said. “It was nice, good for the Heights. But I took very little personal interest. But this gives me, what he wrote and what he apologized to me, it gives me a sense that I played a teeny, teeny, teeny, teeny tiny role in where he’s at today.”
With seven touchdowns and 914 yards midway through the 2018 season, Kelce is in the middle of what could end up being the best year of his career.
Once a lightning rod for controversy, he’s become a leader in a juggernaut offense that has serious Super Bowl aspirations.
If the season continues the way it’s gone so far, there’s a good chance he’ll have the opportunity to introduce himself before a few more prime-time games.
And when he does, he’ll still honor the people who raised him by shouting out his hometown. Because behind the flashy clothes, the reality television stint and the touchdown dances, Travis Kelce is still just a kid from Cleveland Heights, Ohio.