Vahe Gregorian

The blessings and potential burden of being Kansas City Chiefs savior Patrick Mahomes

Patrick Mahomes mania grips Kansas City

KC Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid talk about the young quarterback’s adjustment to being the face of the franchise and a recognizable figure in Kansas City.
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KC Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid talk about the young quarterback’s adjustment to being the face of the franchise and a recognizable figure in Kansas City.

At all of 23 years old, Patrick Mahomes is a precious, precocious phenomenon, a would-be savior to savor for Kansas City. His transcendent game and remarkable broader appeal give him the aura of a transformational presence for the Chiefs and their fans, who at least have fresh hope after nearly two generations of postseason misery have left many feeling either cursed, generally condemned or simply cynical.

Mahomes Mania began bubbling early in the season after he threw 10 touchdown passes by any number of means through two starts; near-hysteria prevails now after a regular season in which he became the most valuable player in the NFL (whether he’s voted into that award or not) by throwing for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, tying for the second-most in a single season in NFL history and 20 more than the previous franchise record.

So good luck getting ahold of any Mahomes gear between now and Saturday, when the AFC top-seeded Chiefs play host to the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, which is just one indicator of Mahomes’ perhaps unprecedented wide popularity as a local athlete both here and around the nation.

George Brett and Tom Watson and Len Dawson, among others, deservedly enjoyed far-flung and intense fame and acclaim in their heydays. But it’s not merely recency bias that says Mahomes’ Syndrome evokes a different sort of fever than what any of those have compelled over the years, or that the 2014 and 2015 Royals might have aroused as a group best known for being the ultimate team.

In part because of the times themselves (the proliferation of media, social and otherwise), in part because of the sheer time elapsed since the Chiefs did anything meaningful in the postseason (25 years since their last AFC title game and a playoff victory at Arrowhead; four playoff victories since Super Bowl IV) and in part because of the NFL’s popularity today, Mahomes’ blessings in some ways already leave him occupying a dimension of his own in KC sports lore.

While expectations of not just what’s ahead this year but for many to come might make for delirium for many, the other side of all this is what a burden this sort of adulation and anticipation might pose to Mahomes.

Great as it must be to be him about now, it can be lonely to occupy a place few others can fathom. Or, as Bruce Springsteen put it in “Growing Up,” it’s “really hard to hold your breath” in the stratosphere. After all, as most recently popularized by the Spider-Man movie franchise, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

And while we’re on this pop culture-of-yesteryear riff, let’s tie together what’s lurking on Mahomes’ shoulder with some wisdom from “Caddyshack”: With that goofy golf match on the line, Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) tells Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), “Don’t worry about this one; if you miss it, we lose.”

So he’s got all this going for him: No pressure, kid. Just take care of all the hopes and dreams of a city that could use the boost to its self-image, would you? Or, you know, everyone will be shattered again.

Now, the perception that this is entirely up to Mahomes isn’t really true, of course, especially since he’s bolstered by such record-breaking playmakers as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

But the notion of how essential his role will be is further warped by an unreliable defense that suggests Mahomes and the Chiefs offense have minuscule margin for error because of the plight the defense might leave the team in.

So there’s no way around it: Unfair as it might seem, how the youngster who was leading Texas Tech two years ago manages this potentially infinite weight will have much to do with what’s to come.

The reassuring aspect of this for the Chiefs and their fans is that a major component of Mahomes being able to thrive so far is his uncanny poise. Pressure makes diamonds, it’s been said, and so far that concept is aptly applied to Mahomes.

With few exceptions, no moment has seemed too big for Mahomes, who typically appears either unfazed by or oblivious to drama that might crumple others.

Witness how he thrives when flushed out of the pocket, as if it were simply a launch point to start creating yet another stupefying throw from another absurd arm angle. Observe his command of the offense and progressions and decision-making with defensive monsters swarming him, the laser focus on the field and in preparation. See the sheer serenity on his face as he sits on the bench, helmet off, ho-hum, chatting things over with coach Andy Reid.

But those are just the outward signs, not the reasons, that Mahomes has the capacity now to stay within himself, a clichéd term I hope I’ve never actually used before but feels right for this.

While there’s no way to know exactly how Mahomes processes all this inside, you can at least make some sense of where it comes from and why it figures to hold up.

Mahomes is fundamentally grounded, raised to be respectful and considerate of others and to have confidence in himself without being cocky. In some ways, in fact, there remains a sort of innocence about him. That shows up in everything from interviews, in which he often offers self-criticism and showers appreciation on others, and in his charity work and gestures such as hurrying to an injured Cleveland Browns player before celebrating a Chiefs touchdown.

Meld that with being around major-league clubhouses with his father from the time he was a tyke, and you get someone who feels exceptionally at ease both in his own skin and in a locker room — where you can find him interacting with about anyone.

“He just grew up that way,” Mahomes’ father, Pat, said outside the Chiefs locker room in Pittsburgh, adding that playing at the NFL level doesn’t rattle Patrick any more than playing in high school did. “Without a doubt it doesn’t. That’s what makes him special.”

Among plenty of other things, in both his play and persona. Which led to a scene that encompassed all of this at the University of Kansas Health System oncology unit early in the season.

Before exiting through a human tunnel of hundreds of generally giddy KU Med staff members, Mahomes (and backup quarterbacks) visited cancer patients. Those included Craig Malsbury, who had been in the hospital a month as he fought acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Waiting for Mahomes to enter the room, Malsbury’s mother-in-law and longtime Chiefs season-ticket holder Jeanna Ribeau spoke of how she can die a happy person now knowing the Chiefs are seemingly headed toward a Super Bowl. Then she added, “Now I’ll probably go to like five, six. Maybe seven. Eight!”

When Mahomes entered Malsbury’s room that day, he obliged her request to sign the Arrowhead tattoo on her leg and told him she thought he’d be “the best quarterback who ever lived.”

Mahomes casually smiled and said, “I appreciate it.”

So this is what it is right now to be Patrick Mahomes, quite a blessing if he can keep shrugging away the burden hovering nearby.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.

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