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The Jason Kelce brand has limitless opportunities post-Eagles, but it makes retirement ‘very daunting’

Kelce has prepared for life after football with his podcast and other pursuits, but he keeps on playing. As for next season? His mom, Donna, offers a prediction.

PHOENIX — Jason Kelce was once a campus linebacker who pulverized any student who didn’t contribute to Cincinnati’s “Proudly Pennies” campaign.

“He was tackling people on the street because they wouldn’t put pennies in a jar,” his mother, Donna Kelce, said, “because he was, you know, a defensive player in college in the beginning.”

He didn’t really mean it.

Kelce was acting (!) in a commercial the marketing major and his group had created to help raise a billion pennies for the university. The ad’s premise was a riff on the “Terry Tate Office Linebacker” short comedy film in which the lead character policed negligent workers.

The bearded Kelce, dressed in his Bearcats practice shirt, dropped pennies into a container as he psychotically explained his role as campaign enforcer. Interspersed in the commercial were cuts to his crushing and harassing holdouts.

“It’s hard to remember,” Kelce said, “how we drew a correlation back to the project.”

The ad helped accomplish the campaign’s goals, according to classmate and teammate John Goebel. But for Kelce, his marketing education was beneficial after he transitioned from enforcer to protector — forever altering the trajectory of his life — and became one of the best centers to ever play football.

“I do think it’s been applicable for my NFL career because … I don’t like phrasing it this way, but we’re all a brand,” Kelce said, sitting on a riser for 10 select Eagles at Super Bowl LVII on Tuesday. “Everything I do in front of this microphone, out on the field, what I wear, all of this is ultimately a representation of myself, my values, and who I am as a player.”

The Kelce Brand has become a valuable asset. From the “New Heights” podcast he started with his brother, Travis, to the A Philly Special Christmas charity album he sang on with teammates Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata, nearly every recent project he has touched has turned into a touchdown.

The 35-year-old Kelce has set himself up for a successful and lucrative post-NFL existence. But he has seemingly only scratched the surface. The opportunities are manifold, not only because he is marketable, but also because he has myriad interests.

“It’s very daunting,” Kelce admitted during an interview last week.

» READ MORE: Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson are toughness personified as the Eagles pulverize the Giants in the trenches

In each of the previous four offseasons, Kelce has contemplated retirement. He came the closest following the 2018 season, but he has seemingly needed less time with each passing year to decide to return.

Kelce will again take a few weeks to contemplate his future. He said he didn’t think that Sunday’s outcome, when the Eagles face Travis’ Kansas City Chiefs in nearby Glendale, will have any bearing on his decision.

It helps that the five-time All-Pro is still playing at a high level and that his team has been trending upward the last two years. But taking the leap into the after-football unknown — however promising it appears — could have Kelce holding off retirement yet again.

“I definitely feel not knowing what you want to do after football makes it harder to step away from the game,” he said. “In some ways, I’m looking forward to that journey. I know it’s going to be hard. I know there are going to be ups and downs. But I didn’t know I wanted to play football [for a living] until it kind of happened.

“And I feel like that’s kind of what’s going to happen next. I’m going to start doing stuff and something will happen.”

Kelce’s rags to NFL riches story has been oft-told: College walk-on endures multiple position changes, becomes undersize center who gets drafted late, wrestles starting job from incumbent, and battles through injuries and subpar stretches on the way to Super Bowls and the Hall of Fame.

But the foundation of his persistence — and that of Travis, the Chiefs tight end also headed to Canton — was laid in Cleveland Heights by their parents, Donna and Ed, who worked hard in their various occupations but never harped on having a fallback if football fell through.

“I don’t know if I really stressed that as much as I said, ‘Follow your dreams. Whatever you want to do, whatever you feel that you can attain, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it,’” Donna Kelce said Tuesday. “That is the fire that both of them have under them when they do anything.

“If somebody tells them they can’t do it, they’ll like, ‘Well, I’ll show you.’”

» READ MORE: Jason Kelce’s career is likely headed for the Hall of Fame. It started with him asking for a scholarship.

Donna Kelce has become a national celebrity since the Eagles and Chiefs advanced to the title game, setting up the first Super Bowl with siblings on opposite sides. Her sons have tried to downplay “Kelce Bowl” hysteria in interviews and on their podcast.

Jason has taken the same careful approach to enterprises outside football. His managers are constantly fielding offers in everything from business ventures to sponsorships and product endorsements.

Kelce could almost do anything in his next phase. There are obvious paths in media and coaching. He loves music. He likes farming and gardening. He also has his wife, Kylie, and two daughters with another child on the way. But right now there’s still a game to play, and mother seems to know best about his future after Sunday.

“I don’t think he’ll retire. This year he’s had more fun than I think he’s ever had in his entire career,” Donna Kelce said. “The Eagles and Chiefs are playing each other next year and he may just stay for that, to be able to play against his brother one more time in a rematch.”

Conversational virtuoso

Five days before the big showdown, the Kelce boys were taping “New Heights” on “Radio Row” at the downtown convention center. Travis showed up an hour late, partly because of roadblocks related to the Super Bowl, and the entire process stretched into the late evening.

Tuesday is essentially a day off for Eagles and Chiefs players and has mostly been when the Kelces have recorded their weekly podcast. Jason said they had broached the idea for years and had trepidation about an in-season show for various reasons.

“You worry about it being a distraction,” Kelce said last week. “You worry about it potentially being viewed as something that’s taking away from the team or your preparation.”

Obviously, that never happened and the podcast exploded. The playful banter that exists between the wise-cracking pair is the centerpiece of the show. Interviews with Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes also showed the Eagles and Chiefs quarterbacks at their most relaxed.

But the chemistry between the brothers, who have obvious similarities but distinct personalities, is what drives the 90-minute gabfest. Jason is the principled older brother, while Travis is the outgoing younger one. Both, though, are always looking for a laugh.

“I knew they would be funny, I just didn’t know if they would have enough material,” Donna Kelce said. “It’s like having them at the kitchen table. I can’t wait for it to come out every Wednesday.”

» READ MORE: Eagles linemen share their best Jason Kelce stories, from schooling rookies to losing his trunks in Lake Lanier

Chris Long recalled Jason Kelce’s calling him during the summer for counsel. The former Eagles defensive end started his “Green Light” podcast not long after he retired in 2019 and has a loyal following of his football-based show, which averages three-four episodes a week.

Long said his advice to his friend and former teammate was to launch it immediately to capitalize on being an active player. But “New Heights,” despite its popularity, may be just one facet of post-NFL Kelce in the media sphere.

“I envision Kelce being kind of a conversational virtuoso,” said Long, who occasionally delves into music and culture on his podcast. “He just has people on from all walks of life, whether they’re football players or anthropologists. I think he would talk to anybody.

“And hopefully he doesn’t confine himself to the sports world, which is an easy thing to do and it’s not as fulfilling.”

Few offensive linemen are media darlings, but Kelce was almost an instant go-to quote upon his arrival in Philly. His national stature increased exponentially after the Eagles won the Super Bowl five years ago and he delivered his epic “Underdogs” speech at the parade.

But the podcast and now “Kelce Bowl” has taken his exposure to another level.

“I know that there are options. There’s nothing concrete,” Kelce said. “Obviously, the podcast is going really well. I’ve heard through the years from different producers saying you might be good at this if you ever wanted to do it.

“I’ve always thought about coaching. It’s a hell of a time commitment.”

Brand strategizing

Kelce is already in some ways a coach. He helps offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland with the run game and makes most of the pre-snap protection calls on the field. He could become a head coach, too, having necessary leadership skills and authenticity.

But Donna Kelce, and various teammates like Johnson and Mailata, said they think the time constraints would deter the husband and father from following in Stoutland’s footsteps.

“It would be terrible for him and I don’t even know if he would be allowed to,” Mailata said. “He’d have to start paying Kylie for the hours to coach. He would be an amazing coach, one of the best ever, but I don’t see it happening.”

Kelce’s parents both worked while he was growing up. Ed started in landscaping before becoming a sales representative. Donna was a commercial banker. They ping-ponged child care.

“We were like a tag team. It worked out great,” Donna said. “One parent was with one kid while the other parent was with the other kid. If we would have had one more it probably wouldn’t have worked.

“But they got to do whatever they wanted to do, whatever they wanted to play. If we had the wherewithal and the finances to do it, we would do it.”

Donna Kelce transitioned to work for the division of banks that invested in real estate to assist low-income families in affordable housing. She had found her calling and traveled to Florida and other states and said she often felt like “an angel” when handing over the keys to a new home.

“They were great people to work with,” she said. “I loved seeing the smile on people’s faces when they were in a new apartment that was beautiful and had a refrigerator. I just really enjoyed it.”

Her son enjoys giving back, as well. Jason Kelce has long supported causes since becoming a pro, most notably the Eagles Autism Foundation. But in the fall he launched his “Underdog” apparel line which benefits the (Be)Philly Foundation.

Kelce is the face of the initiative, which plays on his parade message that captured the zeitgeist of his adopted hometown. But the artwork on some of the shirts feature Eagles such as Hurts, A.J. Brown, and DeVonta Smith, along with one of Long and Johnson in the German shepherd masks they wore during the postseason run five years ago.

Proceeds go to Philly charitable organizations that support city students.

“One of my worst fears is I start a foundation and it really doesn’t do anything and it’s just a public charade, which quite frankly most foundations are, especially athlete foundations,” Kelce said. “I kept dragging my feet on that because I didn’t feel confident in where the money was going, what the direction was going to be, and how we were going to accomplish things.

“So it took a lot of brand strategizing.”

But Kelce also wanted to be prudent with his personal brand even though he could parlay his local identity as a beer-chugging, truth-telling, tough-minded teddy bear into any number of get-rich-quick schemes.

His caution also stems from his marketing background.

“Branch strategy, influence marketing, all these courses I took in college, you can’t help but retain some of that stuff,” he said. “You think of things a little more calculated than I think maybe someone who might not have been exposed to that.”

Reasons to transition

Kelce started out in finance, but followed Goebel into marketing. The “Proudly Pennies” commercial was their senior project, and the teammates, because they were members of the honorary Sigma Sigma fraternity, were able to cast student body presidents and Bearcats quarterback Zach Collaros, who won three Grey Cups in the CFL.

“The person you see on ‘New Heights’ — that’s Jason,” Goebel said. “That’s who Jason was in the classroom. That’s who he was off the field. He went to being a walk-on linebacker to being an all-everything offensive linemen and went from 220 to 280 [pounds] in a couple years.

“And we played off that [in the commercial]. He loved being that big guy character.”

He was a character off-camera, as well. Goebel recalled Kelce, after Cincinnati’s loss in the 2009 Orange Bowl, deciding not to go to class. He finished the quarter with a 0.6 GPA. When coach Brian Kelly told him he could lose his eligibility, Kelce scored a 3.7 in the next marking period.

“And Coach announces it to the team, ‘And with the greatest turnaround I’ve ever seen: Jason Kelce,’” said Goebel, who now works in sales. “Jason is one of the most thoughtful people that I’ve met. But when we had a wedding in Vegas to go to, he didn’t bring his bag and had to buy all new clothes.

“He visited me and my wife in Chicago and spent the night on our couch — an NFL guy — and the next day decided he’d buy a ticket at the airport and head home.”

As deliberate as Kelce has been about his branding, as hard as he has worked to become an elite center, there’s a charm to his occasional nonchalance. It’s almost as if he could stumble into success. It’s unlikely he’ll need to work immediately after retiring, having made nearly $70 million in his 12-year career.

“Sometimes I still think about why would I do it? I could just enjoy my life,” Long said. “But there’s a lot of reasons to transition to the next stage, whether it’s podcasting or business or real estate, I think it’s important that your kids see you working.

“It’s important because it’s healthy, it’s the way you’re wired, to chase something and try to succeed at something.”

Donna Kelce retired in October 2021 — “Much to my chagrin,” she said — before a merger potentially affected her job. But her son will get to call his own shot, even with rookie Cam Jurgens waiting in the wings.

Kelce has talked before about missing the camaraderie of the locker room. Guard Landon Dickerson is in only his second season, but injuries have given him a glimpse of what life would be like without football.

“You’re around your friends 24-7 for eight-nine months out of the year. We’re always hanging out, always getting to know each other. As soon as you leave that … it’s just sad,” Dickerson said. “You realize, [shoot], some people do this for the rest of their life.”

Long has been to the other side. Stoutland has told Kelce that he’ll know when he can’t do it anymore.

“Howard Mudd, before he passed, gave me the advice, ‘When in doubt, don’t,’” Kelce said of his first O-line coach with the Eagles. “And he said, ‘You can use that for anything, not just retirement.’”