He’s one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
Always trust your cape
Jason Kelce isn’t afraid to cry.
Furthermore, the Eagles center isn’t afraid to let others see him cry.
“I’m a pretty emotional person,” Kelce said recently. “I feel like I’m pretty stoic until I’m not and then it all comes out. Guys around here know I get pretty emotional talking to the team. Even just listening to a sad country song, yeah, I can get pretty emotional.”
But the impetus behind the emotion, even when a little ditty may induce tears, is often profound. Kelce has a philosophical side. And that pragmatism coupled with his renowned passion can arouse deep sentiment as was evident earlier this season when he spoke publicly about the plights of teammates Lane Johnson and Isaac Seumalo.
Kelce’s empathy is considerable, but he has a soft spot for others who have overcome significant odds. To him, they are kindred spirits. There is story after story about Kelce assisting undrafted or late-round picks or taking them under his wing.
The former walk-on has long carried a chip on his shoulder and viewed himself as an underdog. It may be a cliché among athletes, but it defines Kelce in football, his friends say. It’s why he relates to real or fictional risk-takers, like the hero in Guy Clark’s “The Cape,” who ties a flour sack around his neck and tries to fly off his garage.
“Really kind of a stupid little song,” Kelce said last week, “but the message, although simple, hits me at times.”
Kelce offered other songs, movies or books that move him. There was “Souvenirs” by John Prine or “American Dream” by Hank Williams Jr. He cited Santiago, the aging, prideful fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, as an inspirational character.
Rocky “hits home” even though his identification with the fictional Philadelphia boxer may seem “incredibly cheesy” for a local athlete, he admitted. The scene in Rocky Balboa when he talks to his son about resiliency in the face of life’s adversity is another narrative that strikes a chord with the 34-year-old.
“I don’t usually seek it out, it’s more like I’m watching something or listening to something and it strikes me in the moment if that makes sense,” Kelce said. But, he added: “I don’t want to overplay the emotional stuff. I don’t just walk around crying all the time, ya know.”
Kelce is indeed multifaceted. He likes to have a good time and laugh as much as the next guy. His temper is almost as legendary as his crying. But it’s that passion and his principled manner, many close to him contend, that propelled the undersized sixth-rounder to become a likely Hall of Famer.
He’s reached the stage of his career where those lofty conversations are being had. The same goes for retirement. It’s possible Sunday’s season finale was his last at Lincoln Financial Field and next Sunday’s playoff game at Tampa Bay will be his final one in uniform.
It may seem like he’s always been a perennial Pro Bowler or Philly favorite. But the Eagles nearly traded Kelce five years ago. Publicly, there wasn’t much objection either. Kelce felt it. He perceived that no one, aside from offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, believed in him.
Whether that’s accurate or not, the 2017 offseason was pivotal in his career. Those doubts drove Kelce. He was always good, but he has since achieved greatness. He won a Super Bowl. He earned more first-team All-Pro honors than any other center over that span. He’s played through numerous injuries and, including the postseason, hasn’t missed a start in 128 consecutive games.
“Unless you were with him when he was down, and it probably wasn’t all that bad, but when everyone deemed he was down, you come into this organization and I don’t think it’s that crazy to say, with all the great sports figures who played in this town, to list Jason Kelce,” Eagles first-year coach Nick Sirianni said.
“In five, 10 years, would he be in the same breath as Mike Schmidt and [Wilt] Chamberlain?”
Kelce was embraced by fans almost immediately when he first arrived in 2011. His epic speech at the Super Bowl parade ensured his place in Philly folklore. But it’s his authenticity and passion that has vaulted him into rarefied iconic air, maybe only second to Brian Dawkins among recent Eagles players.
“He’s so perfect for the city,” former Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “He’s the one offensive center that [Philly] could fall in love with. Center is not a position you think of being a fan favorite. And he’s a fan favorite in really an effortless way. By wearing his emotions on his sleeve, by praising his teammates, by finishing a block.
“The way he approached that block against Washington — [when Kelce sprinted downfield ahead of Miles Sanders last month] — that’s the way he approaches all his relationships, the way he approaches all of his interactions.”
Kelce’s ability to identify with nearly every teammate has made him an exemplary leader. But his humanity extends beyond the NovaCare Complex. The Eagles nominated him for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award partly because of the charity work he’s done, specifically for their autism foundation.
They could have just as easily chosen him for his general Kelceness. He has core beliefs that aren’t exactly revolutionary, but that he lives by: hard work, honesty, and when it comes to football, competition and the importance of each individual on a team, no matter how seemingly insignificant.
The Eagles opened a recent episode of their “Unscripted” online series with a speech Kelce gave to the entire team last month. He recounted his journey and quoted the Calvin Coolidge proverb about the power of persistence that his grandfather first offered when he didn’t receive a Division I scholarship.
It was an intimate look at Kelce, an openness he has increasingly shown in news conferences. But he was unaware the Eagles planned to use that footage and was upset when it ran, team sources said. Kelce will say no to media requests, often because he respects team privacy, but also because he doesn’t want his intentions being misinterpreted.
But Kelce’s voice carries weight. The Eagles wanted his message to resonate and they were eventually able to smooth over any discord, sources said. But it wasn’t the first time he was unhappy with an organizational decision and spoke truth to power.
“He’s a genuine guy,” former Eagles defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “He’s not a [BS] artist and he’s not the kind of guy who’s necessarily going to tell you what you want to hear or give you lip service. What he says he means and what he actually feels.
“People in Philly can cut through the [BS] pretty fast, especially when it comes to the media and guys lying to themselves.”
Kelce’s recent screed on thriving in Philly made headlines as unsolicited advice to Ben Simmons. But he has long addressed the issues that affect athletes. What has stood out in interviews this season is the emotion, from cracked speech to unbridled sobbing.
Has it surfaced because he senses that the end is near? Or has Kelce gotten to a point in his career where he is cognizant of his standing and can be unapologetic about his feelings?
“We’re in a sport where everybody wants to be the macho, tough guy,” former Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. “Guys do cry at times over sad things or just how much something means to them. But when you have a guy that is willing to be authentic like that, and as good as he is, it goes a long way with a team.
“It shows guys how much he really does care. He doesn’t want to let his teammates down. That’s why he does this. If he didn’t have teammates, I don’t think Kelce would play football.”
Taming Mount Kelce
Eight years old with a floursack cape
Tied all around his neck
He climbed up on the garage
Figurin’ what the heck
Young Kelce had anger issues. Anyone who knew him then or knows him well now will typically balk at delving into that period. The Cleveland Heights, Ohio native worked hard to control his urges, although there could still be explosions, like the time he destroyed a foosball table after getting ejected from a high school ice hockey game.
Mount Kelce continued to erupt in college or the pros, seemingly less over time. Allen estimated that he was good for one or two blowups a season when they were together with the Eagles.
It may be something trivial that sets him off, or something deeper that goes against his principles. But there is often a slow boil that is almost visible, former teammates said, like a kettle under flame. And then he pops.
“He’s like Bobby Knight. You know how Bobby Knight could just chuck a chair across the court? It’s stuff like that,” Allen said. “And it’s usually the straw that broke the camel’s back. And Kelce’s funny about it because he’ll always own up to it. … He’ll always apologize for it.”
There may be a massive door slam or a broken window. Former Eagles guard Allen Barbre recalled the time, when in the weight room at the NovaCare Complex, a strength coach kept irritating Kelce during clean lifts.
“There’s one of those chalk bowls for your hands and it’s sitting on a stand,” Barbre said. “And Kelce just turns around and smokes that thing, smacks the crap out of it, and chalk flies everywhere. He storms out of there. And then a little later, I guess after he cooled off, he comes back in and cleans the whole mess up.”
Kelce’s practice habits are famous. If he does lose his cool on the field, it’s mostly during workouts. Games, he has said before, are usually when he is at his calmest. It took 11 seasons and a kick to the groin area against the Las Vegas Raiders in October for Kelce to finally be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Fights are common in practice. Allen said he tussled with Kelce a few times. Offensive linemen are always bumping into each other, and a cleated shin once had Kelce kick a trash can until it was no longer useful. Another former Eagles guard, Evan Mathis, recalled an memorable tantrum during pass-rush drills that was mostly comical.
“It was worth a good laugh,” Mathis said. “Jason will get over it and luckily nobody is hurt other than the trash can, but they’re pretty forgiving. And the thing is, if you really follow it back to whatever it is that triggered him, you can find a way to resonate with the emotion he’s feeling.”
In February 2019, Long persuaded Kelce and Allen to join him for his annual trek up Mount Kilimanjaro to help raise funding for sustainable water wells in Africa. Kelce and Allen trained together (if vacationing in Hawaii can be considered training), bought their gear at the same store, and shared a tent during the climb.
As they packed up before the final summit push, Allen couldn’t find his hat. They were holding up the rest of the group and as they frantically searched the tent, Kelce started screaming at Allen, who returned fire.
“Everybody in the camp could hear us. We were almost coming to blows,” Allen said. “I was trying to tell him it was in his bag and he finally looks in it — and, of course, it’s in his bag — and he grabs it and he just throws it at me.”
They didn’t talk for the next two hours. Kelce, though, had made a playlist for the final ascent and had EarPods. Allen did not. It was dark, oxygen was thinning, and he was miserable as he trailed behind.
“I’m exhausted, bored out of my mind trudging along,” Allen said, “and Kelce finally looks back at me and gives me one of his EarPods.”
They scaled the 21,000 feet, but the descent wasn’t a cakewalk either. At about 17,000 feet, Kelce tore into Long.
“I could see the steam coming out of his ears,” said Long, who won the Walter Payton Award in 2019. “He was like, ‘You did not tell me how ... hard this was.’ It was damn near where we were laughing. Well, I was laughing, he wasn’t. I was like, ‘Listen ... you got the brochure.’ That was the closest Kelce and I got to disagreeing on something.
“Kelce’s so open that you know where you stand if he’s unhappy with you. You know where you stand if he loves you. You know where he stands when he’s sad. Like, to me, he’s a real man.”
When they reached camp, Allen puked on his boots.
“And Kelce and Chris just stood there,” Allen said, “and laughed in my face.”
Perfect Philly fit
All grown up with a floursack cape
Tied around his dreams
He was full of spit and vinegar
He was bustin’ at the seams
When Kelce arrived in Philly as an “undersized” sixth-rounder — he measured 6-foot-2⅝, 280 pounds at the NFL combine — he had already surmounted significant obstacles. He walked on an in-state Cincinnati, endured several position changes, and didn’t start at center until his senior season.
Despite the lack of spring workouts because of the lockout, it took only three weeks for Kelce to supplant incumbent Jamal Jackson as the Eagles starter.
“It’s almost like he expected it,” then-offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.
Kelce suffered other setbacks. He lost most of the 2012 season to a knee injury. He survived a coaching change in 2013. But he has never forgotten what it feels like to be the underdog. He often pays particular attention to the “try hard” guys.
Alejandro Villanueva’s signing in 2014 received considerable attention because the Army grad was coming off three tours in Afghanistan. Four years earlier, he tried out as a tight end for NFL teams, but the Eagles brought him in as a defensive end.
Kelce found out after the third preseason game that Villanueva would be released.
“In order to avoid the ‘Hard Knocks moment’ in the head coach’s office, he took me out in Philly. … A night out with Jason Kelce,” Villanueva said. “And at the end of the night when we’re drunk, eating chips in his apartment, he told me that they would cut me the next day and what to do next.
“It made the next day a lot easier, and all I had to deal with was a hangover.”
Villanueva, now a Baltimore Raven, has since become a Pro Bowl tackle.
There were plenty of nights out for Kelce in the early years. Celek, Connor Barwin — both former Cincinnati teammates — Colt Anderson, Riley Cooper and several others were often his running mates. But the bearded, long-haired Kelce — he could come off as a cross between both The Dude and Walter from The Big Lebowski — was often at the center.
“He was like a neighborhood fixture. Even before the [parade] speech, he just didn’t care,” Allen said. “We did a karaoke at [McGillin’s] and he was crushing Colt 45s. I feel like Kelce’s always been a little bit of a Philly character.”
“Kelce’s so open that you know where you stand if he’s unhappy with you. You know where you stand if he loves you. You know where he stands when he’s sad.”
As hard as Kelce may have gone at it off the gridiron — Mathis said his bachelor party at Lake Travis outside Austin, Texas “would be a smash hit movie” — he was always full tilt when it came to football.
Kelce has seen his share of “unsuccessful men with talent” come and go over the years. But he’s consistently preached about the power of persistence and believing in your own self-worth.
Allen, who was a seventh-round draft pick, said it took years for him to appreciate the countless times Kelce stayed after practice when he was a rookie and they worked on his two-gapping technique.
Jimmy Morrissey played center at La Salle High School, which naturally made Kelce his favorite Eagle. But the similarities didn’t end there. He walked on at Pittsburgh and would eventually start. In the summer of 2018, Kelce and Barwin were working out at Pitt and Morrissey approached Kelce and asked if they could talk afterward.
“I thought he was probably too tired or would just forget,” Morrissey said. “But he walked over, dripping in sweat and he ended up spending an hour on the field with me, just teaching me stuff.”
Morrissey was selected by the Raiders in the seventh round of the 2021 draft. Last summer, he spent several weeks training with the similar-sized Kelce in Egg Harbor Township. The Texans signed Morrissey off the Las Vegas practice squad in October, and a month later he made his first career NFL start.
From the heart
Old and grey with a floursack cape
Tied all around his head
He’s still jumpin’ off the garage
Will be till he’s dead
The Super Bowl victory was in many ways the culmination of Kelce’s career. When recounting his Cinderella journey, he broke down on the postgame podium, perhaps the first time he had publicly cried.
He couldn’t sleep the night before the parade, but scripted in his head a speech that captured the underdog spirit of the Eagles’ run, of many on the team, but mostly the irrepressible city.
Dressed in a Mummers costume, he delivered a five-minute rant directed at the nonbelievers. Many close to Kelce said they had never seen him act that way or since. But a concoction of booze, emotion and the moment, they opined, made for his iconic ode to Philly.
“As much as it was a moment, and he seemed like this WWE persona,” Allen said, “it was very much spoken from the heart.”
A year later, Kelce nearly retired, his body beaten down by back-to-back playoff runs and a series of injuries. But he returned and has seemingly only gotten better. His influence in the building has naturally only grown.
He mostly goes about his business stoically, but when Kelce sees a wrong, or what he deems condemnable, he will let it be known. He has increasingly been publicly forthright on topics such as the Eagles’ regression in 2018, Carson Wentz’s struggles, or the idea of tanking down the stretch last season.
There’s nothing that bothers him more than when someone, no matter their position at NovaCare, is diminished. Kelce, though, can use his clout to protect others, and doesn’t have to worry about possible repercussions.
He’s long been “very unapologetic about who he is,” as Allen said, but he allows for almost no barrier between him and his teammates. Eagles assistant coach Jeff Stoutland chooses an offensive lineman to tell his story the night before most games. Mornhinweg said he watched from the back of the room last season when Kelce stood up.
“Everybody in the NFL has a heck of a story,” Mornhinweg said. “Most of them have big chips on their shoulders and some of them are boulders. And then there’s Jason. All of that emotion, all of that passion, is real. That’s just the way he’s built. He puts everything he’s got into something, so it means a little more than the other fellow who doesn’t put quite as much into it.
“This is a loyal, loyal guy. I think everybody around him feels that he’s so appreciative of them.”
When Seumalo suffered a season-ending foot injury in September, it was Kelce who put into words after the game the travails the guard had already overcome in his career. And after Johnson returned from a three-game absence to address his mental health, it was Kelce’s emotional news conference that gave gravity to what the tackle had accomplished just by returning.
Johnson called Kelce the brother he never had. Fourth-year tackle Jordan Mailata, who openly cried after the Giants loss in November, said that seeing a captain uninhibited creates an environment in which others won’t feel judged for acting similarly.
“I definitely wouldn’t have been a crier,” said Celek, who assists the Eagles now on a part-time basis. “But after being in moments with Kelce where he is being authentic and emotional, there are times when I would have wanted to, but I held it in. He has helped me personally, not only with my interactions with people in football, but interactions with my family.
“I really care about my family, and there’s conversations where it’s like, damn, sometimes you got to cry, show them what they really mean to you.”
Kelce has a family now. He married his wife, Kylie, almost three years ago. They have two young daughters, Wyatt and Elliotte. His family is a good enough reason to hang up his cleats. Kelce also won’t be without opportunity in retirement.
He could do almost anything he wants, but that may also make him reluctant to take the plunge.
“I talk to Kelce a lot and I don’t think anybody knows if he’s coming back,” Celek said. “It’s a fluid situation. He could have retired every year for the last four years — and he never did.”
Kelce is under contract at least through 2022. The easing of his practice load without affecting his performance in games has made recovery easier. The Eagles are on the upswing. And he’s still the best at what he does in the world.
Whatever he does, it’s likely he’ll still be wearing the cape, thinking he could fly, and inspiring others to follow.
“Almost feels like a lullaby,” Kelce said of Clark’s tune. “In fact, I often sing it to my daughter before she goes to sleep.”
He’s one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
Always trust your cape