A few months ago, he was merely football famous. Now Travis Kelce is ready to tell his story. “I’ve never dated anyone with that kind of aura about them.”
HEN TRAVIS KELCE was a young man, his college football coach pulled him aside one day and told him the secret of life: Everybody you meet in this world is either a fountain or a drain.
“I need fountains,” the coach growled at Kelce. “I don’t need f—ing drains. Travis, you’re f—ing draaaining me!”
The advice left a deep impression. (“Changed his life,” says one of Kelce’s closest friends.) Yes, Kelce thought—you’re either a giver of the basic wellsprings of life or a thirsty taker. He vowed to be the former. In a world of gutters, be a geyser.
You think about that story as Kelce drives you around his beloved Kansas City, home of his world-champion Chiefs, for whom he’s the star tight end and arguably the second-most popular player, after his best friend, quarterback Patrick Mahomes. You think about that story on a gorgeous autumn afternoon as Kelce gives you a personal tour of his decadelong history in this city, his singular journey from clueless rook to legend. (“I used to take this scenic route [to the stadium]—there’s just something about seeing the city you’re about to go represent….”)
You can’t help thinking about that fountain story, not only because Kelce’s custom-made Rolls-Royce looks like a font of glowing light, not only because its silver goddess hood ornament is a burbling spigot of mercury. You think about that story because, as Kelce stops at a red light, as shirtless guys begin shambling toward the Rolls, apparently intent on opening the doors, getting an autograph, maybe even catching a ride, Kelce doesn’t seem the least bit alarmed. He’s smiling, waving, honking, even chuckling at a fan who leaps off the curb and “hits the stanky leg,” a dance Kelce has been known to bust out after a touchdown. At one point Kelce rolls down the window and exchanges hellos with some guy heedlessly reversing his rig into oncoming traffic, just so he can pull alongside Kelce and give a thumbs-up.
A different sort of celebrity might be more guarded, might even chirp those big Rolls tires and speed away before someone throws their body across the luminous silver bonnet, but Kelce’s default emotion is this—exuberant extroversion. He likes people. Loves people. Never mind deciding not to be a drain. If people gush at him, he can’t help it, he gushes back.
Noting all this, you think how fame itself might be a kind of fountain. Some people moan about getting wet, others frolic like kids around a hydrant. You even wonder if this fountain-drain paradigm might be the skeleton key to Kelce, the Rosetta Stone for which half of America seems to be hunting right now.
Kelce was famous for several years, thanks to his Hall of Fame résumé, his symbiotic relationship with Mahomes, but that was just football famous. This year, after winning the Super Bowl, after hosting Saturday Night Live, after starring in all the commercials, Kelce became inescapable. And that was before—you know.
People have begun to ask in all earnestness why they can’t turn on their TV anymore without seeing Kelce’s sculpted mug. They wonder, not with snark, but in all sincerity: Who the frick is this guy? And where did he come from?
You have a TV. You wonder too. So you decide to join the search for answers. One weekend, in the thick of football season, you get on a plane to Kansas City.
BUT FIRST. Back up. Like that knucklehead who threw it into reverse, go back. Before you can take the Travis Michael Kelce Guided Tour, you need to watch him cry.
Kelce is a hard man to tackle, but he’s shockingly easy to trigger. You just have to mention his best friends, the tight-knit crew who hang at his house and tag along on his golf outings, who manage his money and curate his diet and fill his private suite at Arrowhead Stadium. Suddenly, his cornflower-blue eyes, which normally twinkle, start to glisten. Now come the tears. Big sloppy ones. Talk about your fountains.
Kelce tries to play it off. He launches a sentence, stops. He launches another, again aborts. He paws his eyes with his giant hands and looks to be on the verge of losing it, because if Kelce loves people, what he really loves is his people.
This whole display takes place on a Monday afternoon at a Kansas City steakhouse, where you and Kelce are having an early dinner. Like, retirement-community early. He’s in recovery mode, healing from dozens of violent collisions sustained during the previous day’s win over division rival Los Angeles, and food is medicine. He can intuit when he’s hit the caloric sweet spot necessary to mend or maintain his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame (roughly 4,000), and he’s not there yet. So he orders the dry-aged filet rubbed with coffee, Caesar salad (hold the anchovies), a side of “triple-cooked” fries and a glass of water.
After a long pause, and several Lamaze breaths, Kelce collects himself, apologizes. Can’t help it, he says; those folks who always have his back, who call him by the ancient secret nicknames (Big Yeti, El Travedor, Killatrav, Michael, etc.)—they’re everything. He doesn’t think of them as his entourage; he thinks of them as family, an extension of “Mama Kelce” and “Poppa Kelce” and older brother Jason, the starting center for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Travis, left, exchanging jerseys with his brother, Jason, after a game in 2017. Their mother says Travis “could never quite catch up” to his older brother. “He was always just second, just searching to be the best, and never quite getting there.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF TRAVIS KELCE
Patrick Bacon, a friend since first grade, says Kelce’s go-to method of winding down after a hard game or long day is to sit with this “core group” around his kitchen island and chop it up. Talk, that’s what nourishes Kelce, not videogames, not bottle service at some club.
“He loves to talk about the old days,” Bacon says. But it has to be with people from the old days. People who know that Kelce will sometimes dismiss a bad or subpar thing as “buns.” People who know that one of Kelce’s favorite desserts is French toast dripping with whipped cream and syrup. People who know that, growing up, he played every sport in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and also know the difference between Cleveland Heights and Cleveland proper. You want to break into the Kelce core group? You better have a phone number that starts with 216.
And yet, you wonder how well his friends really know him, how well he lets anyone know him, because to a person they all say Trav lives in the moment, Trav never thinks about tomorrow, Trav never worries about retirement, despite recently turning 34, making him a Gollum in the NFL, whereas Kelce confesses that he thinks about it nonstop, “more than anyone could ever imagine.” In the same spirit, perhaps, he keeps his own counsel about his round-the-clock physical anguish. “That’s the only thing I’ve never really been open about,” he says, “the discomfort. The pain. The lingering injuries—the 10 surgeries I’ve had that I still feel every single surgery to this day.”
Kansas City’s longtime tight ends coach, Tom Melvin, says Kelce undersells the pain because the alternative is not playing, and the man will not miss games. “He has phenomenal pain tolerance. He’s played through things that other athletes I’ve coached through the years have not been able to push through. Mentally tough—way off the charts.”
Kelce’s trainer and physical therapist, Alex Skacel, says there’s not a single day, in season, when Kelce stretches out on the training table and doesn’t have some gruesome bruise. What few realize, however, is the insane number of scratches. Guys claw each other out there, Skacel says; it can leave Kelce’s epidermis striated with crimson. To bounce back after such abuse requires more than basic therapy. Kelce and Skacel use a battery of esoteric treatments, from cupping to dry needling to occlusion therapy: essentially tying off a limb with a tourniquet while Kelce works out. Kelce also adheres to a pregame regimen of anti-inflammatories, which he doesn’t like to discuss because they “have a history of affecting people’s insides.”
Despite it all, Kelce sounds like a man who’s never loved football more. Skacel recalls being with Kelce in Paris for Fashion Week. Around midnight, after 12 hours of bouncing from one designer show to another, Kelce was feeling guilty that he hadn’t done enough that day for his body. He suggested a run. Soon, a quick jog along the Seine turned into a mini-marathon, then wind sprints across empty bridges. While Paris slept, Kelce and Skacel grinded. It was cinematic, both men say, a double pump of adrenaline, like something out of Rocky. More, it was a reaffirmation of what matters most.
IF KELCE BROODS on life without football, one reason is that he had an excruciating sneak preview. A redshirt sophomore at Cincinnati, he got booted off the team for smoking pot. In a blink, he lost everything—his purpose, his meaning. “It was like my life was over.”
He also lost his scholarship. He had to get a job. The best one he could find was at a telemarketing firm, doing healthcare surveys. “Eye-opening,” he says, bowing his head.
Cold-calling people in southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, eastern Indiana, asking what they thought of Obamacare, taught him a lot. (“Uh, sir, I ran out of the comment box, I can’t write anymore, we gotta kind of keep this moving.”) Above all it taught him that he didn’t want to ever do that again.
He probably won’t have to. He’s got options. Sometimes he sees himself in a broadcasting booth. Sometimes his manager talks about action flicks. (Maybe a Marvel movie? Kelce’s already built like Wolverine.) You also get the sense that Kelce toys with notions of doing some form of comedy. He haunts clubs, lives for open-mic nights, and he’s gotten to be friendly with several rising stand-ups.
At the moment, of course, the only thing millions of people want to know about Kelce’s future is whether or not it will include Taylor Swift. And the second thing they’re dying to know is how he and she got together in the first place.
More study has been dedicated to the opening salvos of their relationship than to the first seconds of the Big Bang, and thus far both origins remain a mystery. People have even speculated that Kelce somehow spoke his desire into the universe and just—manifested Swift?
Did he sit in a dark room and say Jumanji three times? He laughs. “I don’t know if I want to get into all of it,” he says, and then he gets into it, because fountain.
It all started when he tried to meet Swift at her Arrowhead concert in July and got blocked, presumably by security. He then recounted the experience in a charming way on the podcast he does with Jason. Soon after, he says, he received an unbidden assist from inside Team Swift.
“There were definitely people she knew that knew who I was, in her corner [who said]: Yo! Did you know he was coming? I had somebody playing Cupid.” He wasn’t aware at the time, however; the revelation only came later, after he looked down at his phone and got the shock of a lifetime. “She told me exactly what was going on and how I got lucky enough to get her to reach out.”
He lets slip that some of his early helpers were part of the Swift family tree. “She’ll probably hate me for saying this, but…when she came to Arrowhead, they gave her the big locker room as a dressing room, and her little cousins were taking pictures…in front of my locker.”
Understandably, he’s not handing out details about the first date, though he will say that he managed to not be nervous. “When I met her in New York, we had already kind of been talking, so I knew we could have a nice dinner and, like, a conversation, and what goes from there will go from there.”
If anyone was nervous, he adds, it was his core group. “Everybody around me telling me: Don’t f— this up! And me sitting here saying: Yeah—got it.”
As those first heady days unfolded, as news bulletins and cutaways showed Swift cheering Kelce on from his suite, Kelce was uncharacteristically guarded with the media. “That was the biggest thing to me: make sure I don’t say anything that would push Taylor away.”
Likewise, his mother. Donna Kelce still berates herself for how she handled a question about Taylor on the Today show. Trying not to sound too enthusiastic, she came off underwhelmed. Kelce, not wanting his mom to feel bad, immediately phoned her and assured her that she did a super job—adding that her green eyeglasses looked great.
These days, however, with the relationship progressing, Donna feels more at liberty. “I can tell you this,” she says, beaming. “He’s happier than I’ve seen him in a long time…. God bless him, he shot for the stars!”
Kelce seems freer, too. He doesn’t need to be asked about Taylor; he mentions her unreservedly, lavishes praise on her, calls her “hilarious,” “a genius,” notes that they share compatible worldviews, especially when it comes to family and work. “Everybody knows I’m a family guy,” he says. “Her team is her family. Her family does a lot of stuff in terms of the tour, the marketing, being around, so I think she has a lot of those values as well, which is right up my alley.”
One of Kelce’s friends describes a sweet, magical moment, a late-night gathering around Kelce’s firepit. Kelce and Swift looked like two “peas in a pod,” the friend says, and at one point they even burst into a memorable duet of—“Teenage Dirtbag”?
This must be fake
My lips start to shake
How does she know who I am?
Kelce squints into the distance: He’s not sure they were singing…Wheatus. But he allows that his memory might be compromised.
“There was some wine involved, for sure.”
LONG BEFORE MEETING SWIFT, Kelce was just another Swiftie. In some ways he still is. He explains the concept of her concert—“She does it in eras”—as if you live in a yurt in Outer Mongolia. Then he eagerly informs you that the night he attended, he was counting the minutes until she got to 1989. (Both he and Swift were born in 1989.) “ ‘Blank Space’ was one I wanted to hear live for sure. I could make a bad guy good for the weekend. That’s a helluva line!”
More often than not, he says, it was a Swiftian beat, a melody that captivated him. (“She writes catchy jingles.”) But lately he’s all about those lyrics; he’s scrutinized the breakup stuff. What a miracle, he says, the way Swift can turn life into poetry. “I’ve never been a man of words. Being around her, seeing how smart Taylor is, has been f—ing mind-blowing. I’m learning every day.”
Something he might need to learn from Swift: how to handle the attention. Kelce lives in a quiet neighborhood north of downtown—leafy trees, trim lawns, no gates. There’s now a clutch of desperate-looking dudes with cameras stationed on his sidewalk 24/7. He’s followed everywhere, drones buzzing overhead—it’s stressful, more than he lets on, according to one confidante.
“Obviously I’ve never dated anyone with that kind of aura about them…. I’ve never dealt with it,” Kelce says. “But at the same time, I’m not running away from any of it…. The scrutiny she gets, how much she has a magnifying glass on her, every single day, paparazzi outside her house, outside every restaurant she goes to, after every flight she gets off, and she’s just living, enjoying life. When she acts like that I better not be the one acting all strange.”
Asked if he has anything to teach Swift, he looks shy. He can’t think of anything offhand.
Sure, he says, sounding unsure.
Of course, the thing she probably wants to learn about most is him. While talking to Kelce you realize all at once that the most avid participant in the national scavenger hunt for clues about his character is likely Swift herself. To that end, Donna says that anyone wishing to understand her younger son would do well to start with her older. Travis “could never quite catch up” to Jason, she says. “He was always just second, just searching to be the best, and never quite getting there.” (The only way in which the two brothers were full equals was appetite. As boys, Donna says, “they would sit down and eat whole chickens.”)
Others say the key to Travis is simpler than that. He’s basically still the kid who filled his Dad’s shampoo bottle with hand cream. “He just lives his life with so much joy,” Jason says. “He’s always kind of surrounding himself with people who are funny, who have a zest for life; it’s one of the things that defines him.”
Jason recalls many nights in the Kelce family room, the two brothers and mom eating in front of some comedy. “We had one of those coffee tables that the top would lift up and meet you at your face if you were eating,” he says, guffawing.
Maybe that’s why Kelce still watches and rewatches those same movies and shows? All his sacred entities got fused into one dollop of sensory memory—food, family, laughter.
Indeed, Kelce has warned Swift that she’s going to have to reckon with this part of his personality. Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell—they will all be a part of the relationship. “I told Taylor that I have that world, I’ve got to introduce it to her. I let her know: This is my jam right here.” (Kelce does an uncanny imitation of Farley’s dorky baritone, and the ringtone on his phone is Farley primal screaming: For the love of GOD!)
If the past is any prelude, this will register like an 8.0 earthquake among Swifties. Their queen—screening Tommy Boy? Every new factoid, every new piece of the puzzle, gets eagerly cataloged, investigated, celebrated, especially on “SwiftTok,” a fervent virtual community, according to Brian Donovan, a professor at the University of Kansas who teaches a seminar called The Sociology of Taylor Swift.
Donovan says several of his class discussions this semester have been given over to No. 87. Swifties make no apology for delving into her relationships, just as Shakespeare scholars like to contemplate the subject of the sonnets. But the deep “vetting” of Kelce, Donovan adds, goes well beyond fans. “I think there’s a public fascination, because it seems like a pure unalloyed moment of joy in the wider context of global wars, deepening political polarization, dysfunction in Congress, an ongoing health crisis. There’s a lot of bad news out there, and this is a common story that everybody knows about and can talk about. I don’t think we’ve had that in American culture for a long time.”
NOW GET IN THE CAR. Now you’re ready for the Rolls. Or are you? Gawking at the ceiling, you ask, Are those stars?
Yes, Kelce says.
You stare in disbelief. Embedded in a leather firmament are scores, no, hundreds—many hundreds—of twinkling lights, a fiber-optic galaxy meant to resemble the larger galaxy in which we’re all floating. For the sake of verisimilitude, the Rolls even produces a shooting star now and then. There was one, just a second ago, Kelce says. “Make a wish. Dreams come true.”
He guns the engine and steers toward downtown. The Rolls doesn’t drive so much as waft you around Kansas City. The ride is so cush, it almost makes sense, for a moment or two, that the car is worth more than many of the buildings you pass. (A Rolls Ghost, before customizing, goes for nearly half a million dollars.) All of which makes it that much more startling, as you come to the heart of downtown, when Kelce points out his first-ever apartment and shows you the alley door where he’d sneak in and out when he was late on the rent.
It was his rookie season, he says, and the paychecks rolled in every week. But he didn’t understand that paychecks stop when the season does. So he didn’t budget. “I don’t want to say I was broke….” But he was. “There might have been one or two days I avoided the landlord.”
He’s not ducking landlords these days. Still, he’s grossly underpaid. His $14 million salary, though near the top among tight ends, is half what the league’s star receivers make, and Kelce often functions as a receiver.
Nothing to be done, he says flatly. The Chiefs know, he says, that he would play for free. They know he loves his city, his quarterback. “Unfortunately, in this business, things gotta get ugly, they gotta get unpleasant [if you want more money], and I’m a pleasant son of a buck.”
Thank goodness for endorsements. At this point, says his co-manager Aaron Eanes, “the NFL is just his side hustle.”
Eanes and his brother, Andre, handle much of Kelce’s business life, from investments to marketing, and it was they who widened his investment portfolio, putting him into a tequila company, an energy drink and a chain of car washes. They also steered him into lucrative endorsements, like Bud Light and the Covid vaccine, for which he caught much grief from Aaron Rodgers. The Jets quarterback, out since game one of the season with a torn Achilles, belittled Kelce as a Pfizer shill during one of his Tuesday appearances on The Pat McAfee Show.
Kelce took the high road then. He’s staying on it now. “Aaron’s always been cool to me,” he says. “I knew he was trying to have some fun. He’s in a situation where Tuesdays are his game days…. So I get it, man, I’ve been injured too…. Who knows what the guy is going through?”
Kelce double-parks the Rolls outside a building that’s brightly lit, unusual in this neighborhood. That’s Operation Breakthrough, he says, voice swelling with emotion. Founded in 1971, the charitable organization provides safe spaces and cutting-edge educational resources for the city’s poorest children. Kelce enjoys coming here to visit, and sometimes invites the children to his suite on Sundays. And three years ago, when Operation Breakthrough wanted to expand, he bought them the muffler shop next door.
Mary Esselman, Operation Breakthrough’s CEO, says that whenever Kelce visits, he doesn’t bring media and he doesn’t leave until the last kid has felt seen and appreciated. Not long ago, she adds, Kelce sponsored a football camp. Afterward, Esselman asked the children to name the highlight of the experience.
One told her: “He remembered my name.”
Kelce drives you past a jazz club he likes, a coffee place he used to frequent. Just recently, he concedes, he could go to a Starbucks in Manhattan without anyone looking twice. Those days seem over. Minutes later, he’s steering past a small airport, where Swift’s plane is often prominently parked these days.
Is it there now, gleaming in the moonlight? The Kelce eras tour is coming to a close. Left unsaid, but palpable: She’s at the house, waiting.
The Rolls pulls off the highway, up the hill to your hotel. You thank him for taking so much time, for answering all your questions. As you step out of the Rolls, you turn, ask him one more.
You ask him if you’re going crazy, or did he really say that thing when you first got in the car? Did he really point to a shooting star in the ceiling of his Rolls-Royce and say, “Make a wish. Dreams come true”?
He cracks up.
He did. He said it.
He’s not running from it.
What’s more, it might just be true.
“How do you think I manifest it all?”
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