LAS VEGAS — In a corner of the Kansas City Chiefs locker room late Sunday night, Travis Kelce — through the haze of cigar smoke and past a group of players dancing in a circle, holding the Lombardi Trophy aloft — tried to take off his pads.
The process required several phases and the help of a team member. First, they took off Kelce’s grass-stained No. 87 jersey. Then they unbuckled the shoulder pads, and finally – with a strong swing – the two of them pulled off the shoulder pads.
Kelce could concentrate on the rest of the night. A sparkly black suit hung in his locker.
A teammate came over and hugged him.
“Mother damn Super Bowl champions,” Kelce said.
A reporter asked Kelce where he was going next.
“Vegas will roll out the red carpet,” he replied. “You might as well call me Elvis.”
The most magical season of all ended for the Chiefs on Sunday with a second straight Super Bowl victory, their third in six seasons. They have an all-world quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, who may be the greatest to ever play the most glamorous position in sports. On the CBS broadcast, analyst Tony Romo called him “Michael Jordan” after he threw the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to beat the San Francisco 49ers 25-22.
But it’s Kelce, the 34-year-old tight end with the lush beard, who brings the Chiefs closest to Jordan’s Bulls this century. It’s Kelce who is making the Chiefs a cultural phenomenon, who somehow made the NFL feel even bigger thanks to his budding romance with Taylor Swift.
Kelce delivered a solid performance in the Super Bowl. He had nine catches for 93 yards, including a crucial reception on the game-winning drive at the end of regulation, and he played a key decoy role on the game-winning pass to Mecole Hardman. After the game, as confetti fell, he led the crowd in one of his favorite songs: “You gotta fight for your right to party.”
But all of this was, at least for most Americans, a prologue to the championship kiss between Kelce and Swift on the field at Allegiant Stadium, the two stars surrounded by hordes of cameras. “This woman is on the verge of tears,” Nate Burleson said on the CBS broadcast. “Travis is emotional. This is true love. That’s what you can achieve when you have the support of a woman behind you.”
The scene was the highlight of a season that catapulted Kelce to top-notch stardom. He appeared in more commercials during NFL games than any other player. He hosted “Saturday Night Live.” His podcast took off. His brother became a meme. Thanks to Swift’s presence, more young girls watched NFL games. Her participation in the Super Bowl attracted great interest to the Japanese Embassy.
Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce celebrated after the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl in overtime on February 11th. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)
Since teams in all sports have preached the value of limiting distractions, this title was an affirmation of the Chiefs’ embrace of all distractions, a cardinal sin in most locker rooms.
“More attention is more fun,” Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton said. Chiefs owner Clark Hunt added: “You could never imagine the impact their relationship would have on the Chiefs. We now have a whole new fan base made up mostly of young women who haven’t watched NFL games before. But now they are arranging a viewing appointment for the Chiefs games.”
It was almost a different night for Kelce. In the first quarter of the game, he was on the bench when running back Isiah Pacheco fumbled. Kelce angrily confronted Andy Reid on the sidelines, nearly throwing his 66-year-old coach to the ground.
“I just told him how much I love him,” Kelce said after the game. What could have been a key story in the Chiefs’ loss became little more than a footnote. A truly enchanting life.
As he and the Chiefs weathered a slow start and a 10-0 deficit, Kelce simply said, “Stop playing like a jabroni, man.”
The evening before the game, the Chiefs had gathered for a meeting. Kelce stood up and addressed the team. After the win, one player after another described the speech as a key moment in the preparation. “Whatever Travis said, I have to bottle it and sell it,” safety Justin Reid said. “It was just the ultimate juice, the ultimate passion. You could feel that throughout the room. He touched everyone who was in that room and heard his voice.”
Kelce would only say that he told his teammates that they had a winning formula that the 49ers didn’t have.
A year ago, after Kansas City’s victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII, Kelce said it was the greatest year of his life. This season certainly has to be topped. “Just when you think it couldn’t get any better,” he said before disappearing into the bowels of the stadium. Videos of him and Swift arriving at the Chiefs’ afterparty at a Las Vegas hotel later circulated on social media. Kelce was wearing the sparkly black suit that had been hanging in his locker.
Earlier, a reporter asked Kelce which Swift song he would hear first at the party.
“Whatever the DJ plays,” Kelce said.