LOS ANGELES — Jason Kelce meticulously glued a pea-sized sparkle around a heart he had emblazoned on a Nike cleat. He was customizing the footwear, he said, for his wife ahead of Valentine’s Day, but the project was part of the NFL’s community outreach at the Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Kelce was among the Walter Payton Award Man of the Year nominees who devoted their time to the event and engaged with local youth on Friday. The Eagles center ultimately didn’t win the award Thursday night — Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth did — but Kelce was no less enthusiastic about his arts and crafts a day later.
But what about football?
Every year for the last four, Kelce has entered the offseason not sure if he has played his last down. He said Friday that he’ll take a few more weeks to decide, but indications are that he’ll return for a 12th season. Several people close to Kelce, while not saying they know what his decision will be, have said they believe he won’t retire.
“I understand that,” Kelce said to The Inquirer. “I’ve done the same thing the last four years and I’ve come back. Before the season started, I honestly thought it was going to be my last year. I thought there’s no chance I could possibly do it another year after that.
“And the season went well. I was healthy for a large portion of it. We ended on a good note, minus the playoff loss, which [stunk]. But so there’s definitely a lot of things right now that are making me entertain the idea of playing another year.”
Kelce said he feels healthy, which is probably the most important factor in his possible return. He hasn’t missed a game since 2014, but he’s played through many injuries and accumulated various bumps and bruises. But the scaling back on his practice load has allowed for the 34-year-old to heal more easily.
But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a grind, especially mentally.
“It’s mostly just figuring out if I can mentally dedicate myself to the way it needs to be done, or at least the way I think it should be done, to be a good player, a good teammate, and if I think I can do that,” Kelce said. “The physical portion gets in the way of that. It’s never like the pain. It’s more like the physical struggle of playing with the pain causing you to mentally be disconnected.
“And that’s what I’m trying to avoid. It hasn’t happened yet, but I know eventually it’s going to happen.”
When Kelce walked off the field at Raymond James Stadium last month, he said he asked himself, “Is that really going to be my last game?” The Eagles got pounded by the Buccaneers in the first round of the playoffs. But few players, Kelce acknowledged, get to walk away winners.
“Unless you win the Super Bowl, they all end the same,” Kelce said. “Nobody gets the happy ending unless you’re walking off with the Lombardi. I don’t think that’s the way to look at it.”
Kelce did win the Super Bowl. He has accomplished far more than most players, having also been voted to five Pro Bowls and been named All-Pro four times. He has Hall of Fame credentials. But he’s also still one of the best, if not the best, centers in the NFL. He still enjoys many aspects of playing.
And the Eagles, who went from 4-11-1 in 2020 to 9-8 and a playoff berth in 2021, are seemingly trending upward.
“I’ve talked with a few of the people that I’m close with, coaches, and one in particular was saying, ‘You’ll know when it’s time to walk away if you just don’t want to play anymore,’ ” Kelce said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I’m always going to want to play.’ And he’s like, ‘No, there’ll be a time when you’re not going to want to play.’ ”
Kelce said he needs a period away from the game to completely mull over his decision. He said most mornings he wakes up and can see himself still playing. And then there are the other days.
“Sometimes I wake up and I’m like, ‘How the hell can I do another 17 games-plus?’ ” Kelce said. “That’s the problem. Kylie [his wife] jokes around all the time during training camp when I’m like, ‘This is OK.’ She’s like, ‘You still got a long time left.’ ”
Kelce is signed at least through 2022, although his contract will have to be restructured before June 1 because beyond that date there is a massive guaranteed figure the Eagles won’t pay. But the team clearly wants him back and there would be a lot of money left on the table if he retired.
“I’m either going to get restructured, cut, or I retire,” Kelce said. “Those are the three options. I’m not going to play on the current deal.”
Money has never been a prominent reason for playing. Kelce doesn’t live extravagantly. He could retire and very easily walk into another lucrative career. But with so many options post-football, signing up for another year may be one way of kicking that can down the road.
Coach Nick Sirianni said last month that he sent a keg of beer to Kelce to convince him to stay. Various teammates have either called or texted him in a show of support either way or to help nudge him back. Tackle Jordan Mailata, who was at Radio Row at the Super Bowl media center, said he was planning on meeting up with Kelce this weekend.
“And that’s when I’m going to buy him a couple shots, five beers, all the rounds, and whisper in his ear, ‘Come back, come back,’ ” Mailata said.
Kelce, now a father, has two young daughters to consider. They’ve forced him, he said, to become reacquainted with his arts and crafts side. When they color together, he said as he worked on his heart-covered cleat, he makes sure he stays within the lines.
While signs seem to point to a return within the lines on the field, Kelce said he’s not yet ready to commit.
“I’m trying to disconnect from the emotions as much as possible to really evaluate if I can do another season,” Kelce said. “That’s pretty much it.”