In the fall of 2007, on a visit to the University of Cincinnati, Derek Wolfe became fast friends with a recruit from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Wolfe played defensive line, and the other kid played quarterback, but they recognized in each other similar Northeast Ohio values. They were hanging together at a campus fair when a Bearcats football player strode toward them with a giant beer mug in his hand and a Hawaiian shirt billowing off his shoulders, unbuttoned to reveal an offensive lineman’s belly.
That was how Wolfe discovered his new friend, Travis Kelce, had a brother named Jason on the team. Drywall Screw Coarse Thread
In the years since, Jason, two years older, has grown into an icon as the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting center. Travis has produced historic tight end statistics as Patrick Mahomes’s favorite target on the Kansas City Chiefs. Both all-pros, potential Hall of Famers and rambunctious personalities, Jason and Travis on Sunday will become the first brothers to play each other in the Super Bowl.
They last played together at Cincinnati, during college years that shaped their lives. The seeds of what they would become were planted on practice fields, in weight rooms and at house parties. They overlapped for three years but shared a game field for only one, an undefeated regular season that ended in the Sugar Bowl. Jason’s work ethic and simmering intensity transformed him from walk-on linebacker to NFL center. Travis harnessed remarkable athleticism, found his position and overcame a career-threatening suspension with brotherly love, firm guidance and a loaned bed.
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Cincinnati is “probably where I changed and grew the most as an individual,” Jason said this week in Phoenix. Travis recently finished the UC degree he fell short of earning during his playing days. When the Kelces interviewed their father on their podcast this week, Ed Kelce wore a Bearcats football jersey.
The Kelce brothers will always remember the one college season they played together. Travis might owe his career to the year they didn’t.
Jason was lightly recruited as a linebacker and running back — he averaged 9.5 yards per carry at Cleveland Heights High — and walked on at Cincinnati. He earned the scout team defensive MVP as a freshman in 2006. In 2007, Brian Kelly replaced Mark Dantonio as coach before the season and needed quick offensive linemen to run his spread scheme. Strength coach Paul Longo told Jason, “You know, son, you’d make a great center.” Jason thought, “What is this guy talking about?”
By 2008, Jason had become the starting left guard. “There wasn’t a day when you didn’t know his butt was out there,” said Walter Stewart, a freshman defensive lineman that fall who is now a Cincinnati assistant coach.
The intensity Jason required to force his way on to the field sometimes surfaced violently. During one scrimmage, he scuffled with a defensive teammate. He tore the defender’s helmet off and chucked it into the bleachers. “I’ve never seen a helmet be thrown further,” said Tony Pike, the Bearcats’ 2009 starting quarterback, who now hosts a radio show in Cincinnati. “... I’m like, ‘Man, I’m glad that guy’s blocking for me.’ ”
During another scrimmage, with boosters in attendance, the Bearcats broke out into a fight. “I’ll never forget Jason,” Stewart said. “He was like a frickin’ gladiator in this brawl. Waylaying guys, ripping guys off the pile. In my mind, I remember all these bodies flying and Jason standing in the middle of it, nobody touching him.”
At one practice, the offense ran the same play three consecutive times, and when it still couldn’t execute correctly, Jason snapped. “He ripped his helmet and threw it into the 43rd row of the bleachers,” said Kerry Coombs, a Cincinnati assistant coach. “He had had enough. And it was directed toward everybody. It was directed toward players. It was directed toward coaches. It was like, ‘Get your stuff together.’ You don’t see that kind of leadership very often. You would be afraid of him.”
Kelce’s teammates recalled a litany of flying helmets. “He would always go get it and come right back in and get back to the next play,” said Armon Binns, a star wideout who now coaches wide receivers at Northwestern.
Teammates remembered Jason just as much for his wry sense of humor. The offensive line gathered on Sundays to review film. Jason would ask Chris Jurek, Cincinnati’s center and team leader, to rewind a play as if he had a question. Then he would point out a teammate who had tripped and fallen. “That was the room we had,” said Jurek, now the strength coach at San Diego State. “We could mess with each other and joke around. At the same time, we knew we were going to line up for each other.”
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College programs also overlooked Travis. Playing quarterback, he showed enough athleticism to attract recruiters’ attention but not enough skill to collect many scholarship offers. Most of his interest came from Mid-American Conference schools. Even with his brother on their roster, Bearcats coaches hesitated to offer him.
“He would tell you he could really spin it,” Coombs said. “But that wouldn’t be true.”
In the summer before Travis’s senior season of high school, he played an AAU basketball tournament on Cincinnati’s campus. The basketball coaches — perhaps trying to land a potential player using a football scholarship — alerted the football coaches. They were so taken with his athleticism and competitiveness that they offered him a scholarship.
“When we saw him play basketball, there was no doubt this kid could do something,” Coombs said.
The question became what. Teammates marveled at how well Travis moved for a 6-foot-6, 265-pound athlete. He could toss a basketball off a backboard, spin 360 degrees in the air and dunk. At the campus rec center, he played pickup games with other skill players against members of Cincinnati’s men’s basketball team. “He’s giving all those dudes buckets, and he’s talking trash to them,” Binns said. “This dude could probably go start and drop 18 a game for the basketball team.”
Travis remained at quarterback as he redshirted. He could throw a football 60 yards flat-footed, but the intricacies of the position escaped him. At one practice, Travis dropped back, surveyed the defense and took off running. Kelly halted practice and screamed at him for not making the correct pass. On the next snap, Travis did the exact same thing, drawing another earful from Kelly.
“Travis had a big arm, but it was wildly erratic,” Binns said. “The ball might come anywhere, but it was coming fast. There wasn’t much reading of the defense going on.”
Travis grew close with his recruiting class, and Jason had already established his friend group within the team. During the 2009 season, Jason might tell Travis to focus in a practice huddle or wrap him in a playful headlock, but the Kelces forged their own identities and social patterns.
Jason would drink beer in a sweatshirt, shorts and flip-flops with friends at off-campus house parties, singing and playing the ukulele, harmonica or whatever instrument he had chosen to teach himself that month. On the offensive line, he continued to improve.
Travis would venture out to clubs and bars, dressed to the nines and eager to mingle. Teammates respected how Travis worked, but he became prominent in UC’s social scene. “He didn’t have a lot of adversity as a player because he was so gifted,” Jason said.
“They couldn’t have been more opposite,” Pike said.
Both brothers loved to dance; Travis was exceptional, and what Jason lacked in grace, he made up for with enthusiasm.
On the field, Jason thrived, and Travis found his way. Jason earned a spot on the all-Big East second team and became a key cog on an offense that set a school record for points and touchdowns. Bearcats coaches, still unsure how to use Travis but certain they couldn’t waste his talent, created a package of short-yardage plays each week for Travis as a wildcat quarterback. He ran eight times and scored two touchdowns. They were his final snaps at the position.
“I joke with him, at some point I’ve got to get a little bit of a kickback for the fact that he didn’t beat me out, so he moved to tight end,” Pike, the Bearcats’ quarterback that season, said.
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The Bearcats dominated many games, pulled off miraculous comebacks in others and rose to No. 3 in the nation after finishing 12-0. Kelly left for Notre Dame before the Sugar Bowl, in which Tim Tebow’s Florida Gators blew the Bearcats out.
Even when Jason and Travis diverged, nobody doubted their dedication to each other. “Jason doesn’t take crap from anybody,” Coombs said. “He certainly wasn’t going to take any off of Travis. But I will tell you this: If anybody was ever going to try to get between the two of them, it was going to be an issue, and it was going to be a fight, and you better bring your lunch. [Jason] was clearly the older brother, clearly a dominant figure on the team and a guy that enabled Travis to see and develop the same kind of work ethic.”
Jason shared a house with Wolfe and quarterback Zach Collaros. The roommates had a code: If you wanted to party, you had to win games. “That was how we lived,” Wolfe said. “We’re going to work hard, and we’re going to play hard.”
One day after the 2009 season, Travis came to the house with bad news: He would not be playing during Jason’s senior season. Cincinnati had suspended Travis, whose grades had been slipping, after he tested positive for marijuana.
Jason fumed and chased Travis around the house. Travis barricaded himself in a room. After Jason couldn’t bash in the locked door, he blasted a hole through the drywall and confronted his younger brother.
“That was one of the funnier ones,” Wolfe said. “He didn’t beat him up or anything. He just was in there yelling at him, trying to get him straightened up.”
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Jason forced Travis to live with him, moving an extra bed into his room so Travis would sleep there. He brought him meals from the football team cafeteria. He dragged him to weightlifting sessions and workouts. They did footwork drills in the basement.
“Sometimes guys just need that big brother to wake you up,” Wolfe said. “You could tell he saw his true potential. He was like, ‘Oh, wait, I really am wasting an opportunity here.’ ”
Without a scholarship, Travis worked at a call center to make spending money, phoning people in Southern Ohio, Eastern Indiana and Northern Kentucky to promote Obamacare. “People weren’t too happy about that at that point in time,” Travis said. “So I was just getting yelled at every single day.”
If not for Jason’s standing in the program, Travis may have had to restart elsewhere. Jason pleaded with Coach Butch Jones and visited administration offices asking to grant Travis a second chance. Jason and other teammates told anyone who would listen that Travis was too talented to give up on and his missteps wouldn’t define him.
“I’ve never questioned whether he was going to be fine and be back in it,” Jason said. “Anybody that’s ever met Travis knows he’s a great person. He has a great heart. … What he was kicked off the team for was something so stupid. It wasn’t anything regarding his accountability to his teammates or who he was on the field.”
“I’m forever in debt for what he was doing and how much he was really promoting me in that building to be able to change and do the right things,” Travis said. “I wouldn’t be here without my brother. His competitiveness, his leadership — there’s no way I’d be here without him.”
Cincinnati allowed Travis back on the team his junior season, Jason’s rookie year in Philadelphia. As a full-time tight end, Travis blossomed. His senior season, he caught 45 passes for 722 yards and eight touchdowns.
Andy Reid, who had drafted and coached Jason with the Eagles, had just taken over the Chiefs. Reid dismissed the character concerns many teams had about Travis, and Kansas City picked him in the third round of the 2013 draft. He may retire as the best pass-catching tight end in NFL history.
Those 2010 roommates have all reached the sport’s pinnacle. Jason, Travis and Wolfe have won Super Bowls, with a fourth title ensured. Collaros, the quarterback, has won two Grey Cups as a Canadian Football League star. “We did pretty good, considering,” Wolfe said. “If you would have met us back then, you would have said, ‘These idiots are going to screw this up.’”
An era of Cincinnati football players, who once went undefeated together and are now spread out all over the country, will be watching Sunday night. Pike bought a Kelce Bowl T-shirt this week. When the Eagles and Chiefs play, there’s no doubt which team they will root for.
Drywall Screws For Hanging Nicki Jhabvala in Phoenix contributed to this report.