There was no one in front of Travis Kelce.
As the ball floated out of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Chase Daniel's hand and spiraled through the darkened Missouri sky, a buzz rose from the crowd at Arrowhead Stadium. Kelce caught the ball at his own 45-yard line, turned his head and saw nothing but fresh cut grass and orange pylons marking the Promised Land. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end sped toward six points, galloping ahead of the smaller, seemingly more nimble Cincinnati Bengal defenders who appeared to be in awe that something so big could move so fast.
As he flipped into the end zone, slapped hands with his teammates and jogged back to the sideline, Kelce remembered a promise he'd made to running back Jamal Charles. He turned to the crowd behind the end zone, raised his right hand in the air and stuck his left arm out to the side. He then wiggled his hips while waving his right hand back and forth, celebrating his first NFL touchdown with a dance called the "Nae Nae."
"I was too excited and too happy so I didn't do (the dance) right away," Kelce said. "I thought of it as I was running toward the sideline and was like 'Aw man, I promised Jamal I'd do it.' It was fun."
The 2013 Kansas City Chiefs were an offensively revamped bunch. They hired former Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid to bring his offensive prowess to the Midwest. To replace the suddenly ineffective Mat Cassel, they brought in San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, an above-average player who had lost his starting job to Colin Kaepernick. Then they drafted Elvis Fisher to shore up the offensive line, and Kelce, a tight end in the mold of Rob Gronkowski, to dominate the position for years to come. The Chiefs rocketed to a 9-0 start, then fell back to Earth, finishing the season at 11-5 and losing to the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs after watching a 38-10 second-half lead disappear. But Kelce didn't play a down.
When the Chiefs took Kelce 63rd overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, they were looking to shore up a tight end position that had been in flux since Tony Gonzalez's departure in 2009. Kelce had no time to think about filling the shoes of a great TE. A mere week after the draft, he was flown from his hometown of Cleveland to Kansas City, and immediately got to work participating in rookie mini-camp and OTAs. There, he generated buzz with his speed and athleticism. When OTAs ended, Kelce used the remaining month before training camp to find an apartment, settling on a place downtown.
"I'm a city guy," Kelce said. "I'm not used to the farmland and the outskirts. I'm used to staying close enough to where I can see business buildings and a variety of people."
He didn't know anyone in a state almost 12 hours from home. Learning the Chiefs intricate playbook occupied most of his time, but Kelce admits things were more solitary than he expected. But now he's settled in his new home. A childhood friend moved into his apartment after moving to Kansas City to take a job. He began hitting Bristol, a seafood joint, and Maker's Mark on a consistent basis.
Then, just as training camp began and Kelce shone, his knee started to bother him.
"I didn't know what it was—just thought it was normal football soreness or bruises, strains that go on during training camp that you have to push through," Kelce said. "But it never got better."
Kelce needed microfracture surgery, a procedure that has taken once-explosive athletes like Amare Stoudemire and Tracy McGrady and turned them into pedestrian athletes, robbed of the athletic gifts that made them superstars. It frightened Kelce.
"You read up on all this stuff and you're like 'Aw man, I hope this doesn't happen to me," Kelce said. "I was in the dumps there for a while, contemplating whether or not I was going to be able to play football at a high level again or become the player I knew I could be."
So Kelce dedicated himself to rehab, staying in Kansas City to learn what it would take to make it through the full NFL season. He attended team meetings and kept the rest of his body as sculpted as it could be. Still, rehab proved to be a major mental block.
"All I know, and all I have fun with, is playing sports," Kelce said. "I didn't do anything but play sports 24/7, 365 days a year, my entire life. Not being able to run for four months, or even do anything athletic for about a good eight months was the most challenging thing I've ever done."
Kelce finally began running again in July. It took time for his nerves to dissipate when he made a cut or changed directions quickly, but they did. Kelce likened it to climbing back on a bike after not having ridden in some time. His surgically repaired knee is not on his mind anymore. His physical challenges met, it was on to another hurdle: putting the playbook into action on the field.
"It was like reading Chinese when you first open it. You really have no idea what you're doing," Kelce said. Even as he memorized Reid's language, hearing it on the field was something else entirely
Used to reading simple signals specifically meant for the tight end from the sideline at Cincinnati, Kelce likened his reaction to Reid's playcalls, which could take five or six seconds to speak in the huddle, to a French major traveling to France and being shocked by how fast everyone spoke.
"What the terminology means, how it's even going to sound in the huddle…," Kelce trails off. "Half the time the quarterback says it so fast and it's such a long play call that you don't even catch all of it." And if you can imagine, lining up with no semblance of what you're supposed to do is not a pleasant feeling.
This preseason has put Kelce at ease. His surgery didn't steal his athleticism, the playbook has become second nature, and the flashes of talent that he was unable to build upon last season have returned. He caught two touchdowns in four games this pre-season, a testament to his freakish combination of size and speed. His first score, the aforementioned catch and run against the Cincinnati Bengals, showed off his speed. The second—where he caught a ball over the middle and ran into the end zone dragging a Carolina Panthers defender behind him like he was a tow truck—showcased his size and pure power.
Kelce's name is suddenly popping up on major sports blogs, the NFL is tweeting about him, and several articles have hyped his fantasy football value. Though he's still listed at no. 2 on the depth chart, many in the NFL feel starting tight end Anthony Fasano is just a placeholder until Kelce is ready to play full time.
Kelce tries not to pay attention to the media coverage. He's more excited about the fact that he can keep up with the big boys. "It's a testament to myself to know that I can still get up and run fast and separate from defenders, regarding the knee injury," he said. "I know I'm in the NFL, I know I deserve to be here. I put in a lot of work through college and the year that I've been here."
With Charles challenging him to get funky with it in the end zone, Kelce appears to be fitting in quite nicely in the locker room. His impact on the field remains to be seen. Two games is no way to judge a player. But Kelce's freakish skill set has him on a path to becoming Kansas City's next great tight end. We hope to see more dance moves in the future.
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