Travis Kelce wasn’t planning on having one of the most important conversations of his life during his high school graduation party.
It was three months before Kelce started his college career playing on the University of Cincinnati football team and 13 years before he helped lead the Kansas City Chiefs to yet another Super Bowl. In 2008, Kelce, a quarterback at the time, was talking with his mother and high school football coach Jeff Rotsky in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
“Listen, they see you as a quarterback.” Rotsky told Kelce. “But you’ve got to have the full understanding that if you’re not the guy there, you’re going to be an unbelievable tight end. And that’s probably what’s going to happen.”
Then Rotsky hugged his former all-league quarterback at Cleveland Heights High School and told him he was going to play in the NFL.
Before Kelce committed to the UC Bearcats, he had been recruited by other schools as a tight end and as a defensive end. He was also recruited as a basketball player and as a baseball player. But Kelce didn’t want any of that.
He wanted to be a quarterback.
In 2008, Kelce picked the Bearcats over offers from Michigan, Michigan State and West Virginia. It helped former UC head coach Brian Kelly’s recruiting pitch that he planned to give Kelce a real shot at quarterback, and that’s how Kelce got his start with the Bearcats.
When he stepped onto campus in Clifton, Kelce had never blocked or caught a pass in a high-level football game. What Kelce did know was how to run the offense from the quarterback position.
Kelce redshirted in 2008, and the following season the Bearcats were stacked at quarterback with starter Tony Pike and backups Zach Collaros and Brendon Kay.
But during the summer, Kelly was determined to find a role for Kelce.
“Brian Kelly looked at all of us and asked ‘what are different ways we can exploit a defense?’” former UC tight ends coach Lorenzo Guess told The Enquirer. “Coach Kelly came up with a Wildcat package so he could get Kelce on the field more. We had so many guys at that time who were good football players, we had to find different roles for different people.”
The coaches left that meeting with a Wildcat package that revolved around Kelce as its quarterback. There was no backup Wildcat quarterback, and the Bearcats coaching staff believed so strongly in Kelce that they gave him some of Pike’s snaps.
UC practiced the Wildcat package almost every other day during the preseason. Kelce lined up in the backfield next to former Bearcats star wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, and Armon Binns was the single wide receiver on the outside.
It was mostly a series of zone reads, and Kelce could call a speed option, hand the ball to Gilyard or keep it himself and run.
“It was all Travis’ world, whatever he wanted to do back there,” Gilyard told The Enqurier. “What he did was crazy, but it worked because we all trusted his athleticism.”
In a season opening win over Rutgers, the Bearcats used the Wildcat package on four plays, and Kelce had three carries for 18 yards. The following week, Gilyard ran for a touchdown out of the Wildcat formation. In the Sugar Bowl loss to Florida, Kelce had UC’s second-longest play of the game, a 19-yard run out of the Wildcat set.
“That’s where I saw his maturity,” Gilyard said. “Once he was able to get something he could own at UC – being the Wildcat quarterback – that’s when he showed maturity and good decision making.”
After the 2009 season, Kelce’s career changed. He was suspended for the 2010 season because of a violation of team rules. When he came back, the Bearcats had a new coaching staff led by head coach Butch Jones.
The Wildcat package was gone, and the new staff decided all of Kelce's snaps would come at tight end.
"It was a process," Butch Jones told The Enquirer in a phone conversation this week. "But when you look at the position traits that you look for in a tight end – from a toughness standpoint, from an athleticism standpoint and from the ability to create matchups against a defense – it was a no brainer. But he had to put himself into that position. He had to work every day. Every day there were struggles and triumphs, but in two years he became a changed individual on and off the field."
Bit by bit, the coaching staff taught Kelce a tight end position that was relatively new to him.
Kelce stayed after practice to work on ball drills and footwork. He was never in a hurry to get back to the locker room.
Former Bearcats assistant coach Mark Elder said teaching Kelce was building from the ground-up, but Kelce showed potential from the start.
“It was such a natural fit that we all thought tight end was what he should be doing,” said Mark Elder, who was an offensive assistant coach at UC between 2010 and 2012. “He was a big athlete, and he was tall, he would block you and bury you into the ground but had such great body control. For us, there was no question about it that tight end was the position he was meant to play.”
Former UC tight ends coach Dave Johnson started with Kelce’s feet, showing him how to put them into the ground and how to make his first step in different blocking concepts.
Then Johnson moved to Kelce’s hands, showing him how to push a defensive lineman where he wanted him to go without committing a penalty.
“You do a little bit at a time, you try not to overwhelm them with too much at the beginning,” Johnson told The Enquirer. “You let that sink in, and you take them to a new level every day. You pick your battles every day with things to work on, and hopefully they understand it. Travis did, he understood the game, he understood leverage and angles in the blocking areas.”
The Bearcats allowed Kelce to take his time learning how to play tight end. Kelce was the third-string tight end for the 2011 Bearcats, and the two other tight ends, Blake Annen and Adrien Robinson, both went on to play in the NFL.
In 2011, Kelce had 13 catches for 150 yards, which ranked seventh on the team. The following season, the entire offense revolved around him.
"I knew heading into his senior year that he could accomplish great things," Jones said. "You saw the true Travis Kelce come out in terms of leadership, toughness and effort. He set the standard of what we believed in our football program."
During the summer heading into the 2012 season, former UC offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was confident that Kelce would be the Bearcats best playmaker. Since star UC starting running back Isaiah Pead graduated after the 2011 season, the coaching staff designed a pass-first offense that ran through Kelce.
"Our offense was all about creating mismatches and isolating (Kelce) on a linebacker," Jones said. "The great thing about (Kelce) was that even if he was isolated against a safety or a corner, that was still a favorable matchup for us. (Kelce) was as gifted as any individual I’ve been around."
In 2012, the Bearcats used Kelce as a traditional tight end on the line of scrimmage. They also had him line up in the backfield and out wide as a receiver to keep defenses guessing.
Before a few games early in the 2012 season, different referees approached Jones and told him to keep Kelce from playing after the whistle. That's when Jones said he knew that Kelce was what opposing teams were most worried about.
As the season went on, the coaching staff designed even more plays for Kelce. He set the program record for receiving yards by a tight end with 722, and he played his best games at the end of the season.
“The more you gave him, the more he would do,” Johnson said. “When you have a guy that’s willing to put in the time and has the talent that he does, that increases his role in the game-plan.”
Before the 2012 Belk Bowl, Jones left for Tennessee with most of UC’s coaching staff. Jones didn’t bring Johnson or wide receivers coach T.J. Weist with him, so they ran the Bearcats offense in the Belk Bowl. They decided they would use Kelce as much as they could for his final college game.
In practice, Weist and Johnson installed a new play that isolated Kelce with a linebacker in the middle of the field. They asked Kelce to read the defense and decide whether he should break off his route at 10 yards or keep going for a vertical route down the field.
In the Belk Bowl, they called that play when the score was tied with a minute to go. The result was a game-winning 83-yard touchdown, and Kelce finished the game with five catches for 123 yards.
Not a bad way to end a season for a former quarterback.
"After the way he finished his season, I was surprised that (Kelce) didn’t go higher in the draft," Jones said. "But I knew this. I knew all he needed was an opportunity. He had just led the country in receptions as a tight end, and he was the best blocker in all of college football. I just knew that all he needed was an opportunity. "
It wasn’t just any team that picked Kelce with the 63rd pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. It was the Kansas City Chiefs. Since 2015, Kelce has been named to six Pro Bowl and three All-Pro teams.
He has been the best tight end in the NFL over that six-year stretch, averaging 90.8 receptions per season for 1,170 yards. On Sunday, Kelce will look to win his second straight Super Bowl with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes when Kansas City faces Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“This that you’re seeing now, that’s normal to us,” Gilyard said. “We all knew that he was going to be able to do this for another 10 years. Now, he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer.”