Physicality of pads looms for impressive young Chiefs tight end Ross Travis

Chiefs tight end Ross Travis converted from playing basketball at Penn State to playing football. The Chiefs signed him last year, but Harris has yet to take a hit in the NFL.
Chiefs tight end Ross Travis converted from playing basketball at Penn State to playing football. The Chiefs signed him last year, but Harris has yet to take a hit in the NFL.

Demetrius Harris nodded his head and grinned. He’d just been asked about the first hit he’d taken at the NFL level, and he knew a similar fate would soon await teammate and fellow hooper-turned-tight end Ross Travis.

That said, Harris has some simple advice for Travis ahead of the Chiefs’ third full-squad practice — which is historically the Chiefs’ first in pads — on Monday.

“Just expect the contact,” Harris said with a chuckle. “I mean, coming from basketball, you just really didn’t have this kind of impact on the court. So just embrace it, and don’t think about it too much. Just go out there and play. He’ll be fine.”

Travis, 23, would be wise to listen to his 24-year-old counterpart. Both are similar-sized athletes (Travis is listed at 6 feet 7, 235 pounds while Harris is 6 feet 7, 230 pounds) who are former college basketball players, as Harris played college hoops at Wisconsin-Milwaukee while Travis played at Penn State.

The biggest difference between them, however, is that Harris has been playing football for two more years than Travis has, and after some initial bumps in the road, signed a three-year, $6.3 million extension to stay with the Chiefs in January.

Harris says in retrospect, he knew he could make it in the NFL after he took his first hit in training camp back in 2013. He remembers his first hit came courtesy of star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who flattened him after he caught a short pass by taking his legs out.

“It was a welcome; a welcome to football,” Harris recalled. “When I first got hit, I was like, ‘Aw yeah, it’s not that bad as people would think it is on the outside.’ I got used to it.”

And Travis, who has impressed with his size, athleticism and natural ball skills during organized team activities, is confident he can do the same.

“I heard so much about that,” Travis said. “That’s all they ever talk about — ‘Can you take a hit?’

“I’m going to get up, get ready for the next play, get ready to go, pop up and it’s part of the game. It’s what I signed up for.”

Travis — who the Chiefs have been developing since he signed as an undrafted free agent last September — says football was actually his first love.

“I was a die-hard Miami Hurricane fan — as a kid, my whole bedroom was decked out in the U,” said Travis, who last played football in his freshman year of high school. “And then my whole family played basketball, so in high school I just stuck with basketball.”

Travis was good enough to earn a basketball scholarship to Penn State, but even then, the whispers about a potential future in football remained.

“It’s funny, my freshman year ever since I got to Penn State, all the boosters and everybody at Penn State thought I’d be a good tight end,” Travis said. “When it came to the decision, a lot of people backed me.”

After a senior year in which he averaged 5.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, Travis decided to follow his first love. He figured his knack for rebounding — he led the team in the category for three straight seasons — might translate to the gridiron, just like it did for other forwards-turned-tight ends like Antonio Gates (who averaged 7.7 per game as a senior at Kent State), Jimmy Graham (5.9 as a senior at Miami) and Julius Thomas (5.9 as a senior at Portland State in 2009-2010).

Former Chiefs star tight end Tony Gonzalez, who averaged 4.5 rebounds per game his last season at Cal in 1996-1997, also made the jump from the hardwood. Travis has been issued Gonzalez’s number with the Chiefs, No. 88, which is still in circulation and was last worn by Junior Hemingway.

“It’s one of the reasons I thought I could switch sports — I was a big rebounder at Penn State, just going up and getting the ball, being aggressive towards the ball,” Travis said. “I think that’s what the coaches see, go up and get the ball. But a lot of the footwork stuff carried over from basketball.”

Travis went through a pro day at Penn State, and fared well enough to catch the eye of the Chiefs, who signed him shortly before the regular season.

After spending most of 2015 on the practice squad, he showed plus athleticism, burst and leaping ability during the Chiefs’ 13 offseason practices in May and June. Travis has done the same during training camp, often working as the third tight end ahead of 2015 fifth-round draft pick James O’Shaughnessy — who is working his way back from a foot injury he suffered last year — and Brian Parker, a strong blocker who was claimed off waivers from the San Diego Chargers before the season opener last year.

“(Travis) picked up the offense and his retention has been phenomenal,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You can do a lot of things with him. You don’t have to keep inside as a tight, tight end. You can split him out. He’s able to do that. Every rep he gets a little bit better and that’s the exciting part.”

But Travis has still never taken a hit at the NFL level. He’s been with the Chiefs for the better part of the year without experiencing the most important part of the game, but Travis has armed himself well for the moment. He says he’s currently around 250 pounds — up from about 227 pounds when he started out in football.

While you can never truly prepare yourself for your first violent NFL collision, at least one man who has made a similar transition — Harris — is confident Travis will be up to the task.

“Yeah, he’s been talking about it — he’s ready for it,” Harris said. “It’s going to be nice to see him come out here and do his thing.”

But did he at least have to remind Travis to watch out for the same man who gave him his introduction to football — Derrick Johnson — three years ago this week?

“I’m pretty sure he knows,” Harris said with a chuckle.