Chiefs’ Mahomes was a multi-sport star ... but football was his third-best sport
Everything the Chiefs think they can be is dependent on Patrick Mahomes being everything they believe him to be. He is too important to fail, the Chiefs making the grandest single bet in their tortured history without a safety net.
This is a desperate franchise putting its future on a man who only became a full-time football player three years ago, one of the great offensive minds of the 21st century handpicking him for a potential ride to the Hall of Fame, a region of fans attaching their hopes to a viral, no-look passing, record breaking college football freak show — who nearly quit the sport.
“Crazy to think about now,” Mahomes said. “But it’s true.”
His story has been told in parts, but always just in parts, a series of snacks without the main course. You probably know some of the outline.
Son of a big leaguer. Hung out with A-Rod as a kid. Eventually a potential pro himself, then a prolific quarterback at Texas Tech. Then a draft curiosity, then a draft obsession, then the first quarterback taken by the Chiefs in the first round since 1983.
But when a story is done in bits, the details are always left out, which is a shame because the details make the biggest plot line of Kansas City sports’ next decade so tantalizing.
Like, did you know football was his third-best sport two years into high school? That he chose it over the others largely because he had so much to learn? That he became so good and so daring so quickly that he and his best friend essentially ad-libbed the playbook, without practice and without asking their high school coach for permission?
That he has a photographic memory, and that teams with Hall of Fame quarterbacks wanted to trade up for a kid who only became a full-time football player two years earlier?
Randi Mahomes always had a four-year plan for her first child, and that plan never included any of this. A dream is now reality, but even that might be misleading because it implies Patrick or anyone around him dreamed it before three years ago.
He is now in a delicate place. When he came to Kansas City, he did not know of the pain and angst of a giant institution in a small market that hasn’t won a Super Bowl since before his parents were born.
Those around him deploy mental gymnastics to mesh what they see with the odds. They say the hype is too much, but the general manager calls him the best college player he’s ever evaluated. They talk about his need to improve, but the head coach giggles at some of the throws.
Mahomes did not ask for any of this. He is to be not just a star, but a wildly entertaining one — substance and style. Decision makers inside the organization are convinced this is ground zero for a new chapter in one of pro football’s historic franchises — there was Before Mahomes, and now there is With Mahomes.
It’s an absurd weight. So far, Mahomes’ life has been a string of lucky breaks made good through supernatural talent and confidence and work. That’s been enough to get him here, but he’s never gone against something like this.
“He was meant to do this,” said Pat Mahomes, Patrick’s father. “You’re going to see some stuff this year you’ve never seen before.”
Lucky break No. 1
The first lucky break defined his childhood.
Born to a father who pitched 11 years in the major leagues, dragging him through clubhouses and having him catch fly balls before the World Series at age 5, Patrick’s grade-school years served as something like a Ph.D.-level class in how to be an athlete.
“He learned how it works,” said LaTroy Hawkins, a retired 21-year major leaguer and Patrick’s godfather. “How to gain those guys’ respect, how to deflect credit. Walking the walk. That came at a very young age.”
Raised by a single mother whose job as an event coordinator meant loads of nights and weekends, Patrick had to help raise his younger brother and saw an up-close and real-time model for hard work.
“Stable, always there,” he said of his mother. “Always there for us. Showed us you have to work hard to get what you want.”
Surrounded by a core group of a half-dozen best friends, all sports-obsessed and most eventual college athletes, Mahomes’ childhood was in some ways the perfect blueprint for a future in sports. Even now, those guys talk the same, with the same inflections, the same chuckle that begins many sentences, all on the same text thread making fun of each other and asking about Patrick’s last highlight.
“I knew he’d be a professional athlete when he was 7,” Randi said. “I’m serious. There was never a question to him, and I knew he had the talent.”
Soccer, baseball, karate, basketball, pingpong, golf. Patrick was obsessed with all of it, and better than most of his peers, too. He’d watch, study, listen. By age 8 or so, he’d call pitches in the big-league games he watched, and nailed it more times than not. By 10 or so, he could diagnose a golf swing on TV.
Everything was sports. Sports was everything. Once, when Patrick was 4, a teammate of his dad’s asked Randi how she got him to play catch so much.
“How do I get him to stop?” she replied.
He was competitive, too. Wanted to throw the farthest. Run the fastest. Make the most shots. Spell the most words correctly. He never cared much about the result of winning. Just the process, the feeling. He’d win a tournament, get home, and hear Mom ask about the trophy.
“Oh,” he’d say. “I don’t know.”
Pat and Randi — they separated when Patrick was 6; he and his younger brother lived with Mom — can only remember one time Patrick didn’t want to play a sport. Pop Warner football. Patrick wanted to play quarterback. Coach put him at linebacker.
Patrick wanted to quit.
Mom and Dad made him finish the season. He did, but it wasn’t the last time Patrick wanted to quit football.
Lucky break No. 2
The second lucky break defined Mahomes’ adolescence.
It came just after the second time he nearly quit football. We’ll get to that story in a second, but let’s begin with Mahomes in an incredibly awkward quarterback competition during his junior season at Whitehouse (Texas) High.
The other guy: Patrick’s best friend, Ryan Cheatham.
They were both pitchers, too, and damn good ones. When they played together in the summer, Patrick would pitch the semifinal, and Ryan the championship. Patrick stayed at Ryan’s house so much he was like family. And now, they faced each other for one of life’s great privileges — starting quarterback at an East Texas high school football powerhouse.
“A little awkward,” Ryan admitted.
Big, strong, reliable — Ryan did his drop, made his reads. If the throw was there, he made it. If not, he ran forward for a respectable gain.
Patrick never had a private coach in any sport and didn’t do 7-on-7 camps. His footwork may be a little loose because of it, even now, but the upshot is that his creativity was never coached out of him. He was a lightning bolt.
“Ryan could’ve been a (Division I) quarterback, no doubt in my mind,” said Adam Cook, Whitehouse’s offensive coordinator that year. “He’d do what you needed, and he’d get you those five yards. Well, Pat’s trying to take 95 on every play.”
The coaches were split between the more gifted Patrick and the more dependable Ryan. Cook made the decision at halftime of the second game. The plan was to rotate Patrick and Ryan, but at halftime Cook changed the plan.
Ryan was heartbroken, and the next week coach and player cried together. But Ryan remained happy for his friend and is still proud the stress never touched their bond.
“Once he started making those big plays,” Ryan said, “I was like, ‘Yeah, OK. I don’t know if I can do that.’ ”
Mahomes was a star, and right away. Cook, the offensive coordinator, had walked on at Texas Tech, so Whitehouse ran all the same plays the Red Raiders did. Mahomes’ highlight reel from high school looks a lot like what he eventually did in college — just wilder. Two playoff games in a row, he made the same scramble-right, scramble-left, scramble-right-again, chuck-it-60-yards touchdown pass.
College football recruiters were slow to come around. Some didn’t know about him. He started late, didn’t take part in many camps, wasn’t plugged in with a specialty coach — wasn’t on what some college coaches call “the circuit.”
The coaches who did know worried about wasting their time. Patrick threw baseballs in the mid-90s, with good off-speed stuff. Everyone knew about his dad, too, so do the math. Recruiting classes are often built around quarterbacks.
The risk was real, because even Patrick thought his future was baseball. That’s why he nearly quit football before all this happened. Texas was among the schools recruiting him as a safety, a position Patrick only tolerated, so if football brought an injury that compromised his real professional future, what was he doing?
He thought about this a lot before his junior season. Even told his mom he’d made up his mind. That was it. Quitting. No more football. She would’ve been happier that way. Football always scared her. Still does. But she loves her son, and knows her son, so she told him she didn’t see him happy watching his friends play from the stands.
Maybe that’s why, six years ago this fall, Patrick decided to give football one more season.
Baseball had one more shot at Patrick, in the draft after his senior year. He told teams he wanted $2.5 million to skip his football scholarship, a number he now calls “ridiculous,” something he came up with because he didn’t want to say no.
A sample of scouts who watched Mahomes back then projected his talent would be worth anywhere from a second- to third-round pick. That could’ve been worth up to a $1.6 million bonus, maybe more if Mahomes got the so-called multi-sport bump.
But he was consistent. One scout who talked with him still remembers that Patrick drove the meeting — rare for a high school kid, particularly the son of a big leaguer. The Tigers took him in the 37th round, the scout telling Patrick he just wanted him to be able to say he was drafted, and that he looked forward to talking again in three years.
Patrick wanted to play football, even though at the time he figured he’d go back to baseball. Everyone did. He was a seven-figure baseball talent.
As a football player, he began his college career behind a sophomore starter with an NFL future of his own, third on the depth chart in Lubbock.
Lucky break No. 3
The third lucky break defined Mahomes’ three years at Texas Tech.
Lots of folks back home didn’t understand why Mahomes went to Tech in the first place. Davis Webb was the Red Raiders’ starter, good enough that Baker Mayfield transferred away, and just a sophomore. Classically trained, too — 6-foot-5, strong arm, a graduate of the famed Elite 11 camp. He was thought to be one of the Big 12’s best quarterbacks when Mahomes signed.
“If those other guys are better, then they should play,” Patrick told his father.
Then Webb got hurt. First a shoulder, then an ankle, and once Mahomes played the decision was easy. He threw 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a freshman. Webb transferred to Cal, where he was good enough for the New York Giants to take in the third round of the NFL draft.
The combination of Mahomes’ talent, Tech’s wide-open offense and, um, wide-open defense made for plays and numbers that look made up. There’s the 50-yard, sidearmed flick against his body for a touchdown against Louisiana Tech. The no-look pass in the last 2 minutes of a crucial drive against Oklahoma State. The NCAA-record 819 total yards in a single game against Oklahoma.
It all happened so fast. Mahomes played baseball his freshman year but found himself late to practices and even games because of a football workout, or sometimes just being buried in video.
He’d only been a quarterback for two and a half years, so pro baseball still made the most sense as a future. He was, literally, years behind anyone he was theoretically competing against for an NFL job. Plus, Tech had a lousy track record of producing good pro quarterbacks.
But, dammit. Patrick really loved playing quarterback. When he wanted to quit, it was never about football. It was about playing quarterback. That’s what he wanted.
Baseball began to bore him. He’s unfailingly polite, so he won’t say it that bluntly, but it’s the truth. Baseball is routines. It’s the same basic matchup — pitcher vs. hitter — over and over and over.
Football is different. Football can be anything. Each play is its own, each defense unique, the math of 11 humans on each side creating infinite possibilities. Patrick’s always been a thinker, always been attracted to a challenge.
“Baseball, I felt like I almost already peaked,” he said. “I felt like I knew everything about baseball. In football, I’m still learning something every single day.”
So, as a college freshman, and less than two years before the Chiefs would use two first-round picks to bet their future on him, Mahomes finally became a full-time football player.
Who does that? Who quits the sport they definitely have a seven-figure future in for the one they might be able to make work? You hear the story and it’s easy to see a young man with house money. He can do the unorthodox — in both how he plays quarterback and that he plays quarterback — because he has a million or more from baseball to fall back on.
It’s a theory, anyway.
“I see what you’re saying,” said Coleman Patterson, one of Mahomes’ best friends from Tyler and a teammate at Tech. “But I don’t think he played fear-free because he had baseball. Honestly, I just don’t think he ever thought he’d fail.”
Patrick’s sophomore season changed everything — 4,653 yards, 36 touchdowns and 63.5 percent accuracy. He led the Big 12 in most passing categories. Scouts swarmed. Wasn’t just the obvious, either.
After the Baylor game, Patrick had dinner with his dad. Ran through an interception, everything from what his receivers did to how each defender reacted. It was the linebacker. Patrick lost track of the linebacker.
“But now I’ve seen it so I know what to do,” Pat remembers his son saying.
“I promise you,” Pat said at the memory. “He hasn’t made that mistake again.”
Mahomes left Tech following his junior season, just four months after his 21st birthday. Draft season was bonkers. At first, they projected him for the third round. Then the second. Then late in the first. He went to ESPN and, wearing a shirt and tie, threw a ball over a walkway and into the lap of a dummy on a bench on the other side. Jon Gruden called Patrick his favorite quarterback in the class.
Seventeen teams met with him in person. Leigh Steinberg, Mahomes’ agent, cited the Chargers, Giants, Saints, Steelers and Cardinals among those with the heaviest interest.
Which brings us to Patrick’s fourth and final lucky break — when the Chiefs traded three picks, including two in the first round, to select him 10th overall so that Patrick could define their future.
Lucky break No. 4
Quarterbacks fail all the time. Some of them simply can’t hack it. But good ones fail, too. They fail because they were in the wrong place, with the wrong coach, surrounded by the wrong people. Or, maybe the right coach was fired, and the new coach is the wrong coach.
“I’ve studied that,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “How many quarterbacks could have been if they’d had the right environment?”
Reid is the Chiefs’ most powerful football man, one of the league’s highest-paid coaches, and now his top priority is making sure Mahomes has the right environment. He’s had good quarterbacks before, but never quite like this.
The Chiefs finished fourth in points last year, sixth in yards, and believe speedy receiver Tyreek Hill is not only a perfect fit for Mahomes’ arm but getting better overall. They spent $48 million on receiver Sammy Watkins. Tight end Travis Kelce remains in his prime. Running back Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing last year as a rookie.
Mahomes is the most emphatic piece now, the lightning bolt from Tyler replacing the predictable Alex Smith, and one of the NFL’s most starved fan bases is buried in possibility.
Kansas City has never seen a quarterback like this. He’s the youngest starter in franchise history, with almost certainly the best arm. He sends practice highlights to friends back home over Snapchat. He sits in the front row at Kauffman Stadium, wears a kit to Sporting Kansas City games, and jorts and a sleeveless Kansas City T-Bones jersey to a NASCAR race.
There’s a story behind that, too. Gehrig Dieter, the Chiefs receiver and one of Mahomes’ closest friends on the team, wore “regular” clothes the year before, and fullback Anthony Sherman wore him out about it. As Mahomes tells it, he’s from Texas, so obviously he had jorts and decided to “give Sherm what he wanted.”
Is it exaggerating to say no Kansas City athlete has done anything more popular since Eric Hosmer’s mad dash home run in New York during the 2015 World Series?
“No regrets at all,” Mahomes said. “I loved it.”
He is a star, in other words, already the most visible quarterback the Chiefs have had since Len Dawson anchored the 10 o’clock news after practice. At least at the moment, that status is based entirely on potential. He’s on billboards, his jersey a top seller, all before his first season as a starter.
How often has this much been expected from someone with so little history? The Chiefs chose Mahomes over Deshaun Watson, the former Clemson star who beat Alabama in the last minute for a national championship.
“What makes this difficult is that Deshaun Watson made it look so easy that first year,” Steinberg said.
Mahomes’ football success, then, depends largely on how quickly he can play catch-up. His physical gifts are obvious, but he’s wicked smart, too — the 2016-17 Big 12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year in football, blessed with the type of mind that not only recalls facts from a book, but can remember where the words were on the page.
That’s terrifically advantageous now, flashes of film and past snaps scrolling through his mind as he approaches the line of scrimmage.
“I was a good student and stuff like that,” Mahomes said. “But this is like my favorite class.”
Quarterbacks soar or fail based largely on what they make of adversity, and for all the talk of his inexperience under center, his most glaring inexperience is against obstacles. He just hasn’t had many. Throughout the reporting for this story, many of those closest to him — from childhood friends to his parents to Reid — were asked about Mahomes’ greatest challenge.
“Oh, Lord, that’s a good one,” Randi said.
“We never had to face a lot of adversity,” Patterson said.
“He hasn’t done it yet, so it’s uncharted territory,” Reid said.
Eventually, they all took guesses. Growing up with a single mom wasn’t easy. Pat’s history as a big leaguer produced outsized expectations from the jump. Choosing football over baseball wasn’t easy, and neither was grinding against his best friend for the job in high school.
So, you can come up with stuff. But nothing like this. Careers and reputations are on the line, from the jobs of assistants to Reid’s case for the Hall of Fame to the franchise itself wiping away five decades of postseason failures. The stakes are clear, and unforgiving.
Vague plans are in place to set up scholarships and legacy foundations — first in Tyler, then Lubbock, finally in Kansas City. This is what legends do, and at this tender moment, when Mahomes has neither succeeded nor failed, when he has neither lived up to the hype nor disappointed, two facts are abundantly clear.
Patrick Mahomes, relative quarterback neophyte, the hand-picked replacement for a Pro Bowler who had the season of his life in 2017, needs to be great and appears entirely unbothered by any of it.
“I want to win Super Bowls here,” he said.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “I want to be great. I’ll put that pressure on myself, so we can do it, so it’s not like I feel any pressure from anyone else.
“I love this game. I love working, so being able to come in here every day is enjoying life. People before you have built the foundation, so you have to just go out there and finish it off.”