Travis Kelce wasn’t about to have one of the most important conversations of his life during his graduation ceremony.
It was three months before Kelce began his college career on the University of Cincinnati soccer team and 13 years before he helped lead the Kansas City Chiefs to another Super Bowl. In 2008, then-quarterback Kelce spoke to his mother and high school soccer coach Jeff Rotsky in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
“Look, they see you as a quarterback.” Rotsky told Kelce. “But you have to fully understand that if you’re not that guy you will have an amazing ending. And that is exactly what is likely 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.
Travis Kelce:5 things you should know about the former Cincinnati Bearcat who plays for Kansas City in Super Bowl LV
Prior to joining the UC Bearcats, Kelce had been recruited by other schools as a close and defensive end. He was also recruited as a basketball player and a baseball player. But Kelce didn’t want any of it.
He wanted to be a quarterback.
In 2008, Kelce selected the Bearcats over offerings from Michigan, Michigan State, and West Virginia. It helped former UC head coach Brian Kelly’s recruiting field give Kelce a real shot at the quarterback, and that’s how Kelce began the Bearcats.
When he stepped onto the Clifton campus, Kelce had never blocked or caught a pass in a high-level soccer game. What Kelce knew was how to take the offensive from the quarterback position.
Kelce was redshirted in 2008, and the following season the Bearcats were stacked at the quarterback with starter Tony Pike and backups Zach Collaros and Brendon Kay.
But that summer Kelly was determined to find a role for Kelce.
“Brian Kelly looked at all of us and asked how we could take advantage of a defense in different ways,” former UC coach Lorenzo Guess told The Enquirer. “Coach Kelly came up with a Wildcat package so he can bring Kelce more to the field. We had so many people who were good soccer players back then that we had to find different roles for different people. “
The coaches left the meeting with a Wildcat package that revolved around Kelce as quarterback. There was no backup Wildcat quarterback, and the Bearcats coaches believed in Kelce so much that they gave him some of Pike’s snaps.
UC practiced the Wildcat package almost every other day during the preseason. Kelce positioned himself in the background next to Bearcats’ former star-wide receiver, Mardy Gilyard, and Armon Binns was the only receiver on the outside.
It was mostly a series of zone readings, and Kelce could call up a speed option, pass the ball to Gilyard, or keep it and run.
“It was all Travis’ world, whatever he wanted to do there,” Gilyard told The Enqurier. “What he did was crazy, but it worked because we all trusted his athleticism.”
In an opening season win over Rutgers, the Bearcats used the Wildcat package on four games, and Kelce had three transfers for 18 yards. The following week, Gilyard ran for a touchdown from the Wildcat lineup. In the Sugar Bowl loss to Florida, Kelce had UC’s second-longest game, a 19-yard run from the Wildcat set.
“I saw his maturity there,” said Gilyard. “Once he was able to get something to own at UC – as a Wildcat quarterback – he showed maturity and good decision-making.”
After the 2009 season, Kelce’s career changed. He was banned for the 2010 season for violating team rules. When he returned, the Bearcats had a new coaching staff led by head coach Butch Jones.
The Wildcat package was gone, and the new hires decided that all of Kelce’s snaps were going to be scarce.
“It was a process,” Butch Jones told The Enquirer on a phone call this week. “But when you look at the positional traits you’re looking for in a tight environment – from the toughness standpoint, the athleticism standpoint, and the ability to create matchups against a defense – it was a breeze. But he had to be himself hard work in this position. He had to work every day. Every day there were fights and triumphs, but in two years he became a changed person on and off the field. “
Bit by bit, the coaching team taught Kelce a tight final position that was relatively new to him.
Kelce stayed after training to work on ball exercises and footwork. He was never in a hurry to get back to the locker room.
Former Bearcats assistant coach Mark Elder said that Kelce’s teaching was built from the ground up, but Kelce showed potential from the start.
“It was such a natural fit that we all thought a close end was what it should do,” said Mark Elder, who was UC’s attacking assistant between 2010 and 2012. He would block you and bury you in the ground, but had such great body control. For us there was no question that the close end was the position he should be playing. “
Former UC coach Dave Johnson started with Kelce’s feet and showed him how to stick them in the ground and how to take his first step in various blocking concepts.
Then Johnson moved to Kelce’s hands and showed him how to move a defense attorney where he wanted him without committing a penalty.
“You do a little at a time, you try not to overwhelm them with too much at first,” Johnson told The Enquirer. “You let that take effect and take it to a new level every day. They choose your battles each day with things to work on and hopefully they understand. Travis got the game, he understood the leverage and angles in the restricted areas. “
The Bearcats allowed Kelce to take the time to learn how to play a close ending. Kelce was the third tight end for the 2011 Bearcats, and the other two tight ends, Blake Annen and Adrien Robinson, both played in the NFL.
In 2011, Kelce had 13 catches for 150 yards, finishing seventh on the team. The following season, all offense revolved around him.
“I knew in his senior year that he could do great things,” said Jones. “You saw the real Travis Kelce come out in terms of leadership, tenacity and effort. He set the standard for what we believed in our football program.”
During the summer of the 2012 season, former UC offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was confident that Kelce would be Bearcats’ best playmaker. Ever since Star UC began refluxing Isaiah Pead after the 2011 season, the coaching staff have been drafting a pass-first offensive that Kelce went through.
“Our offense was about mismatching and isolating a linebacker (Kelce),” said Jones. “The great thing about (Kelce) was that even if he was isolated from a security or corner, this was still a cheap matchup for us. (Kelce) was just as gifted as any person I was with.”
In 2012 the Bearcats used Kelce as a traditional tight end on the scrimmage line. They also left him standing in the background and as a receiver far out to guess the defense.
Prior to a few games early in the 2012 season, various referees approached Jones and asked him to stop Kelce from playing after the whistle. At this point, Jones said he knew Kelce was what opposing teams were most concerned about.
As the season progressed, the coaching staff designed more games for Kelce. He set the program record for receiving yards with a tight finish at 722 and played his best games at the end of the season.
“The more you gave him, the more he would do,” said Johnson. “When you have a man who is willing to invest time and has the talent that he has, that increases his role on the game plan.”
Prior to the 2012 Belk Bowl, Jones traveled to Tennessee with most of the coaches from UC. Jones brought neither Johnson nor wide-angle receiver trainer TJ Weist, which is why they carried out the Bearcats offensive at the Belk Bowl. They decided to use Kelce on his final college game as much as possible.
In practice, Weist and Johnson installed a new game that isolated Kelce with a linebacker in the middle of the field. They asked Kelce to read the defense and decide whether to abandon his route 10 meters away or continue a vertical route in the field.
At the Belk Bowl they named this game when the score was a tie with a minute from time. The result was a game-winning touchdown of 83 yards, and Kelce finished the game with five catches for 123 yards.
Not a bad way to end a season for a former quarterback.
“After he finished his season, I was surprised that (Kelce) was no higher in the draft,” said Jones. “But I knew that. I knew all he needed was an opportunity. He had just run the country close at receptions, and he was the best blocker in all of college football. I just knew everything what he needed was an opportunity. “
It wasn’t just any team that Kelce picked in the 63rd election of the 2013 NFL Draft. It was the Kansas City Chiefs. Since 2015, Kelce has been appointed to six Pro Bowl and three All-Pro teams.
He was the best close end in the NFL during that six-year stretch, averaging 90.8 receptions per season for 1,170 yards. On Sunday, Kelce will be looking to win his second straight Super Bowl with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes when Kansas City takes on Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“What you see now is normal for us,” said Gilyard. “We all knew he would do this for another 10 years. Now he becomes a future Hall of Famer. “