The public end of the 2018 NFL season was not the same for Jason Kelce as the previous one. There wasn’t a parade or an impassioned, and quite colorful, speech on the steps of the Art Museum. There was no day for the Eagles center to ride triumphantly on the city’s shoulders as the team had often ridden on his.
Instead, there was only a long trudge for Kelce and the others to the darkened tunnel of the Superdome in New Orleans before they disappeared entirely from view. A 14-point first quarter lead had drifted away and become a six-point loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. The pain of the defeat itself was real and, for Kelce, it had a lot of company.
“Last year, I played through a Grade 2 MCL sprain, a broken foot, other nagging things that had been building. A torn elbow. At one point, I had a brace on the entire left side of my body,” Kelce said, as the Eagles began their offseason workout program this week. “That starts to bother you a little bit.”
As he walked slowly to the tunnel, it was fair to wonder if Kelce would ever reappear in uniform. He had played eight seasons as a starter after being a sixth-round draft choice, had turned 31 in November, and the toll of those seasons and those years was obvious. It was a fair question, but Kelce knew enough not to ask it of himself for a while.
“You kind of wait for your body to get healthy and you take a step back, because it’s a long season, and for older guys it really starts to wear on your body a little more,” Kelce said. “From talking to older guys and gaining their advice, you really take need to take time after the season, recover and get more clarity of mind.”
In his case, while the injuries gradually healed and the pain subsided, he found that his desire to play football was unchanged. He accepted the Eagles offer of a restructured contract that added a year, potentially through 2021, and backloaded the current cap hit by converting money from salary to signing bonus. It helped the team, but Kelce wasn’t making his decision based on the money.
“It was very clear I wanted to keep playing [when] I decided to do that,” Kelce said. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I ultimately make the decision not to keep playing, but I got a pretty good word of advice from a good friend of mine who said, ‘When in doubt, don’t.’ So, I’ll stick to that.”
In the last four seasons, Kelce has played more snaps than any of his offensive teammates. He has been on the field for 4,731 of 4,838 snaps during that span. Of the 55 snaps he missed in 2018, 45 of those came in November during the regular-season game in New Orleans when his elbow gave way. He started the next week. The injuries didn’t disappear, however. They multiplied and Kelce kept playing.
“That’s every season. Maybe not all…at the same time. Pain isn’t necessarily a fun thing to endure,” Kelce said. “Luckily you can still get anti-inflammatories game day and you can push through some of that stuff. But everybody’s different. Everybody has what they’re willing to go through and do, and that’s just part of the game.”
The other side of the game, however, is what brought him back. After the sprains and bruises and tears and breaks healed, what he thought about were the things he would miss, not the pain football can bring.
“You love playing the game. You love being around the guys. You love competing, battling together with people you care about,” Kelce said. “For me, it’s a cost/benefit analysis. How much joy do I get from this game? What’s going to happen by continuing to play? Where’s my body at? Where’s my mind at? There are so many different factors, but the biggest thing is I know I love doing this. I know it makes me happy.”
The long-term effects of playing are more apparent than ever, and some guys get luckier than others. All of them have to weigh the bargain they make with those unpredictable whims of good and bad fortune.
Knowing when to say when is the hardest part. Jason Kelce isn’t ready to say it yet. At least not now that he has healed from the last battle with time.