Travis Kelce is in a good mood. Dressed in a clean pair of Air Jordan XIs, jeans and a white t-shirt, the former University of Cincinnati tight end and soon-to-be NFL draft pick is loose and laughing about his penchant for playing Christmas music to calm his nerves before a big game. "Chesnuts roasting on an open fire..." he intones, before trailing off. "If I got into it, it would probably be embarrassing, so I won't."
His cell phone rings. It's an NFL team. The draft is in three days. Things are good.
If you haven't heard of Kelce, he's a 6' 5" 255-pound specimen who set a single-season school record for tight ends with 45 catches for 755 yards in his senior season. He wrapped up the year with a last-second 83-yard touchdown catch-and-run that lifted the Bearcats to a win over Duke in the Belk Bowl. The younger brother of Philadelphia Eagles starting center Jason Kelce, Travis has seen his stock shoot up in the weeks since the NFL Combine, after several experts suggested he might be the second tight end selected after Notre Dame star Tyler Eifert.
Turn back the clock to 2010, or even just a few weeks ago to the NFL Combine: to see Kelce in such good spirits feels like a minor miracle. After making a name for himself as a mobile quarterback in high school, he switched to tight end at Cincinnati. He hit the weight room to bulk up his body, specifically his shoulders, to take on the extra physical contact he'd recieve on the line of scrimmage. He was big but agile enough to make defenders miss, and he possessed great hands. But in 2010, his sophomore season, he was suspended the entire year for an undisclosed reason—one he still won't discuss publicly. He had a quiet junior year, catching just 13 balls for 150 yards. And during his breakout senior season, he developed a sports hernia that needed surgery in January, which kept him from working out at the Combine.
Fairly or unfairly, the Combine can have an enormous impact on a prospect's career. It's another hard reality that, in evaluating a football player's potential as a pro, negatives are highlighted and the positives from your college career can be forgotten in an instant. Whispers began to swirl. He's a hothead. He's uncoachable. He's injury prone.
There was little talk of his record breaking senior year, his experience running a Wildcat offense or his blocking ability. Those positives were buried beneath perceived negatives. Kelce had to find a way to dig himself out.
"The guys that are doing most of the judging and most of the writing, for the most part, have never even talked to me," Kelce says. "They don't know anything about me other than I missed a year of college football."
Since showcasing his physical skills on the field at the Combine wasn't an option, Kelce latched on to the only opportunity he had to change his image: team meetings.
"It was important for me to go to the Combine to get my character and personality and everybody's mind going in the right direction. All the stuff that's happened in my past is exactly what that is, in the past," Kelce said. "It helps when I go out and I meet teams and show them I'm a genuine, personable guy, and I can sit there and have a conversation without getting upset. When they ask me what's happened in my past, I let them know."
Instead of emerging from the Combine as a late round pick surrounded by red flags, Kelce turned his future around simply by having a conversation. When he finally did have a chance to work out at his April 4 Pro Day, the negative whispers dissipated. Now projected as a second round pick, Kelce feels relief watching his draft stock climb.
"It's been awesome just to see everything go up and start to go in a positive direction," he said. "I like to think I'm going to be the best tight end in the world. If I can stay healthy enough and stay on the field, I don't see any reason why I can't be. That's just the confidence I present and the confidence that I need. That's what I'll strive for every single day no matter what organization I go to."
And why shouldn't he be confident? NFL coaches like the Cincinnati Bengals Marvin Lewis attended Kelce's Pro Day. Just last week, Kelce flew from Cleveland to San Francisco, then to Washington, then back to Cincinnati in one day, just to meet with teams and go through workouts.
On a rare off day, he reclines in a pair of Ferragamo loafers and daydreams about running routes for his hometown Cleveland Browns, or having the chance to turn a pair of his favorite Jordans into a cleat he can wear on the field, like Andre Johnson has.
A month ago, none of those dreams were realistic. But by the end of the weekend, Kelce will be an NFL athlete. And as he sits there, reciting Christmas music, moments away from another NFL team dialing him on his cell, he recalls a piece of advice his older brother gave him.
"'Just be yourself.' Other than the time aspect and the taking care of your body off the field, it's just football at the end of the day." Kelce says.
Photo: USA Today