Before podcasts and dating shows, Christmas albums and Super Bowls, Jason and Travis Kelce were football players at the University of Cincinnati.
Back in college, the Kelce brothers were playing at different spots than the ones you will find them this weekend, when Super Bowl LVII gets underway from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
The winding path both brothers followed, from Cleveland Heights to the pinnacle of their sport, is one worthy of revisiting.
Jason Kelce was an undersized walk-on looking for a chance
During his high school days, Jason Kelce was a standout for Cleveland Heights High School on both sides of the football, at running back and linebacker. He was twice named an All-Lake Erie League selection. He was the captain of the team as a senior when he notched over 100 tackles from his linebacker spot.
But the scholarship offers were not exactly rolling in for the older Kelce.
That’s the problem when you’re 6’2” and 225 pounds as a senior in high school. The stats are one thing, but the size profile screams something else.
“He was a heck of a player,” former Cleveland Heights head coach Mike Jones told The Philadelphia Inquirer this week. “But he was a tweener back then.”
Without offers from a Division I program, Kelce faced a choice. Commit to a lower-level school, perhaps at the Division II level, or enter a Division I program as a walk-on.
He chose the latter path. “My parents almost pushed me to go to a Division I school,” Kelce told The Athletic back in 2018, during his last trip to a Super Bowl. “I think they both knew that’s what I wanted to do. And I think they both had a lot of confidence that I could do that. Maybe they didn’t, and I didn’t know it at the time. They never even hinted that they didn’t think I could play Division I football.”
Kelce decided to walk on at Cincinnati. An assistant coach for the Bearcats, Don Treadwell, did his best to convince the high school senior that a future was possible at Cincinnati. But Kelce’s journey began without a position. He spent his first season in college on the scout team, first on the defensive line and later on the offensive line, working every day to prove that he belonged and that he deserved a scholarship. “Being a walk-on’s different,” Kelce told The Athletic in 2018. “I didn’t really feel like I deserved anything. I really feel that being a walk-on probably humbled me in the best way possible. It really forced me to have a realistic look at maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I need to work harder to be better.”
However, the road would get tougher. Then-head coach Mark Dantonio left the Bearcats to take the head coaching job at Michigan State, bringing Treadwell with him to East Lansing. In came Brian Kelly, who had a new vision for the offense, and a new vision for Kelce.
With the move to a spread-based system, athleticism was paramount up front, and a position switch for Kelce was recommended. With a history of success — Kelly moved Joe Staley from tight end to left tackle during his Central Michigan days — Kelly looked to do something similar with Kelce.
But it was not an overnight success.
“It took a lot of work,” Kelly told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “There were some frustrating days. It wasn’t perfect early on. He’s a guy who is very prideful. He takes a lot of pride in his work so you can imagine there’s some tough days there. We’re demanding and he had some tough days. But he stuck with it. That kind of mentality got him to where he could function at a high level. But I’d be lying to you if I told you it was all easy. There were some really tough days where it got heated but he got through it.”
Eventually, the switch clicked. Kelce started 38 games at Cincinnati, 26 at left guard and the final 12 at center. He helped Kelly put the Bearcats on the map, as the team reached a pair of BCS bowl games during his days on campus.
He also earned that scholarship.
Despite the position switch, and the success, Kelce was still considered a longshot by NFL standards. He was undersized for the position yet again, despite measuring in at 6’3” and 280 at the NFL Scouting Combine. Those measurements put him in just the 37th percentile among centers for his height and the 1st percentile among centers for his weight.
He also posted the fastest 40-yard dash among offensive linemen at the Combine that year, with a rather quick 4.89-second effort.
His scouting profile at NFL.com described him as a scheme-specific center, ideal for a zone-blocking scheme. But it also outlined how he would never be a road grader in a gap/power scheme, and as such, was likely a late-round pick, or an undrafted free agent.
He fell to Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round.
Still, having faced adversity before, he was ready to do it again. Kelce entered training camp behind incumbent starter Jamaal Jackson, but he won the starting center job by the end of training camp.
Kelce would become the first player in franchise history to start all 16 games at center as a rookie.
Now? The older Kelce is at the tail end of his career. During the Scouting Combine a season ago, one of the questions facing the Eagles was whether Kelce would return for another season, prompting head coach Nick Sirianni to joke at the time that a beer delivery could pave the way for Kelce to return for 2023. “We’ve been in communication. We’re hopeful. There’s been no final decision made. The keg has been sent to his house, and I think it got delivered today courtesy of Lower Merion Beverages so I appreciate them helping out with that.”
He did return, and Kelce even helped the organization scout centers this off-season, pointing them in the direction of their second-round pick, Cam Jurgens out of Nebraska.
It has been a long journey for Kelce, from being an undersized recruit without a Division I scholarship offer to the cusp of his second Super Bowl title. While his retirement decision will reportedly not come down to Sunday’s result, he remains one of the league’s best at his position, even at the age of 35. Returning to play another year at the age of 36 might be considered a long shot, but it’s nothing he has not overcome before.
Travis Kelce went from QB to TE and became a star
Unlike his older brother, the path Travis Kelce followed from Cleveland Heights to the Kansas City Chiefs was a little smoother.
But not by much.
Travis was a three-year letter winner for Cleveland Heights High School on the football team and earned All-Lake Erie honors after his senior season.
As a quarterback.
Kelce racked up over 2,500 yards of total offense, including 1,016 rushing yards — and ten touchdowns — along with 1,523 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. Unlike his brother, who was unranked as a recruit, the younger Kelce was graded as a two-star recruit out of high school. He entertained scholarship offers from Connecticut, Akron, and Eastern Michigan, but accepted another one.
He joined his older brother on campus with the Bearcats and began his collegiate career as a quarterback. But shortly thereafter, his position would change. When he was taking snaps with the quarterbacks early in his Cincinnati career, Kelly made a rather shocking declaration:
“That is an NFL tight end.”
The team used Kelce as a quarterback in some wildcat packages, and he had eight rushing attempts for 47 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2009. Still, his future was at tight end.
Unfortunately, it would have to wait a season.
The team announced prior to the Sugar Bowl at the end of his freshman year that Kelce would be suspended for the 2010 season for a violation of team rules. When he returned, Kelly was in South Bend, as the new head coach of Notre Dame. In his place was Butch Jones, and the switch to tight end was on.
“It was a process,” Butch Jones told The Cincinnati Enquirer back in 2021. ”But when you look at the position traits that you look for in a tight end – from a toughness standpoint, from an athleticism standpoint and from the ability to create matchups against a defense – it was a no brainer. But he had to put himself into that position. He had to work every day. Every day there were struggles and triumphs, but in two years he became a changed individual on and off the field.”
As Jones indicated, it was a process. Kelce was the team’s third-string tight end during the 2011 season, catching just 13 passes for 150 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, perhaps foreshadowing his NFL usage in Kansas City, the Bearcats designed the bulk of their offense around him before his senior year, viewing him as a matchup nightmare for defenses. “Our offense was all about creating mismatches and isolating (Kelce) on a linebacker,” Jones said to The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2021. “The great thing about (Kelce) was that even if he was isolated against a safety or a corner, that was still a favorable matchup for us. (Kelce) was as gifted as any individual I’ve been around.”
That year, Kelce caught 45 passes for 722 yards and eight touchdowns. The Bearcats used him in a variety of formations and alignments, seeking to create those favorable mismatches, and the effort paid off. He was a First-Team All-Conference selection and helped Cincinnati defeat Duke in the Belk Bowl that year, scoring the game-winning touchdown.
When it came time for the NFL draft, however, evaluators were not completely convinced. Kelce was part of a deep tight-end class that included Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz, and he faced some questions. Questions over his suspension, questions over his athleticism, and questions over having just one season of production.
He came off the board at the start of the first round. To the Chiefs, and their new head coach.
It seems like they found the right direction.