Most of the press 34-year-old Ohio native Travis Kelce has received is entirely sports-related. That makes sense, given the tight-end’s sparkling career. But love, the media and fame move in mysterious ways. Just a month ago, Kelce became a constant presence in all forms of media: TV shows, serious newspapers, supermarket magazines, talk radio, podcasts and hallways, basically any format in which two or more people discuss pop culture. Until then, Kelce was known simply for being the tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs football team. But his fame exploded overnight, and he has become America’s sweetheart. Well, he’s Taylor Swift’s sweetheart, which amounts to the same thing.
But before that, until just a month ago, Kelce (pronounced kelsi or kels, even his own family can’t agree on that, he has admitted) was just a football star, a figure in a sport that America loves in the midst of a busy season; he was not a global star. His relationship with Swift, 33, the megastar of the moment, has thrust him into the spotlight, a position that he handles with a perennial half-smile on his face. Kelce stepped into the Swiftie spotlight in July, when the singer gave a concert on The Eras Tour — for which she will earn $4 billion — at Arrowhead, the Kansas City Chiefs’ stadium. Then, he said, he tried to approach her to give her one of the friendship bracelets that Swift’s fans exchange at her concerts. But he didn’t make it. He didn’t hesitate to humorously recount that small failure on the famous podcast he does with his older brother, Jason, also a professional football player. Soon after, rumors began to spread that he had managed to talk to her. And that there had been a date. And that they were starting a relationship. Then, it all blew up when, at the end of September, Swift started attending his games. By the time they appeared holding hands in New York last Friday and Saturday, the bracelet fairy tale had come full circle.
Kelce was already one of the country’s most popular football players, thanks to his nearly 10-year-long professional career. Since 2013, when he began his career, he has been included among the top 100 players in the National Football League (NFL). His path is even more striking because it parallels that of his brother Jason, who is two years his senior and also a professional football player (he plays for the Philadelphia Eagles). At their school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, both played a lot of sports, as many as their parents, Donna and Ed, could afford. The couple saw potential in their sons and poured themselves into their success, no matter the sacrifice. In fact, his parents were essentially separated but kept living together so they could continue to pay the bills more comfortably than if they maintained two homes. In the documentary Kelce (Amazon Prime), which discusses Jason’s life, Travis recalls how he noticed something was off about his parents when he stayed over at other kids’ houses and noticed that other kids’ parents slept in the same room. His did not.
The Kelces’ efforts paid off. The two boys became professional football players and popular figures throughout the United States. Daniel Devesa, a former professional football player, official play-by-play announcer of American football games for the Federation in Spain, who has two specialized podcasts on the subject and conducted over 100 interviews with players, says that the brothers are currently among the NFL’s top players. “Travis Kelce is probably one of the greatest tight ends in history, and he’s still active. I consider his brother Jason to be the best center; he’s been the best center for the last five or six years,” Devesa says over the phone. Last season, their careers paralleled each other so much that they achieved something unique: for the first time two brothers faced each other in the Super Bowl, the epic annual American football final.
Made it to KC @heartinPhillyat8:15 pic.twitter.com/zFY4ub4GCt— Donna Kelce (@dkelce1) January 21, 2023
Donna and Ed Kelce have already seen their boys lift the championship trophy (at separate times): Jason with the Eagles in 2018 and Travis with the Chiefs in 2020. “Mom can’t lose,” Travis joked shortly before the so-called Kelce Bowl. He added, “You won’t see me make a lot of [Eagles] barbs because I love my brother. But it’s going to be a very emotional game, for sure.” The rest of America must have felt the same way: with 115 million viewers, it was the most-watched TV show in U.S. history. Donna made a T-shirt mixing the colors and numbers of her two sons. Travis beat Jason, and Jason, who was planning to retire with his second ring, decided to stay for one more year, at least. Jason is concerned about injuries and not spending enough time with his family (he is married with three daughters, ages four, two and a half and eight months). Travis still has at least a couple of years of high performance left.
These last few seasons have been quite profitable for the two semi-comic brothers. The pair live almost 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) apart, but a year ago, at the start of last season, they decided to launch a podcast together. At first, there was some trepidation — Jason has admitted that he was afraid of losing some of the popular fervor that surrounds him in his host city, where he is called “the king of Philadelphia” — but their ease together has made New Heights, as it is called, the country’s most followed football show in almost all formats (on YouTube alone, they get between one and three million weekly viewers). “The podcast is a hit. It is very likely that they will be successful in both advertising and sports contracts,” Devesa explains. Thanks to the way they tell NFL stories, interspersed with day-to-day and popular culture topics, as well as their personal lives (appearances by Jason’s blonde daughters, who adore their “Uncle Trav,” are commonplace), they have been winning over a handful of loyal fans and advertisers. That has helped the brothers boost their careers and increase their fortunes — both earn about $14 million per year for their respective teams. They both have developed their own businesses. Travis has a clothing line, Tru Kolors, and a charitable foundation, 87&Running, for children at risk of exclusion; and Jason has created Underdogs, also a clothing line, the proceeds of which are donated.
On New Heights, Travis told the story of the famous friendship bracelet he wanted to give Swift; Jason also asked Travis about the singer for the first time on the podcast. The two matter-of-factly discuss the subject, but they realize that their listeners, both regulars and newcomers, want to know about it. At the second Kelce game the singer attended, in New York, NFL cameras focused on her as many as 17 times; Travis went as far as to comment that they were “going a little overboard.” “For some people it’s a little over the top, we already know what’s on, I’m watching this for football,” Devesa joked. “I understand some people are purists and it bothers them; but I also understand that the NFL has tapped a rich vein there and wants to exploit it. There are Taylor Swift fans who had no idea about the NFL, and there will be people who will start following her and watching games because of her. I don’t know if Travis will end up getting sick of people saying, ‘Who’s that guy with Taylor Swift?’”
That doesn’t seem to be the case. Travis Kelce already sought a girlfriend (and some popularity) on the 2016 reality show Catching Kelce, where 50 girls from all 50 U.S. states competed to date him. The winner was Maya Benberry of Kentucky, whom Kelce dated for a few months. Earlier this year, he recalled it as an “extremely weird learning experience.” After that, he was in a relationship with Kayla Nicole, a sports and entertainment journalist and influencer whom he met on Instagram and then dated from 2016 to 2020 and then on and off until 2022.
Now Travis Kelce’s media visibility — along with that of Jason, Ed, Donna, and his whole family — has grown exponentially since the force of nature that is Swift entered their lives. The singer has been seen in box suites chatting with the players’ mother and laughing with their father (his kids joke that he’s checked out the artist’s records from the city library and is learning her music). Photos and videos of the two of them going out to dinner together are all over the place, and there are thousands of rumors that inevitably follow very high-profile couples: whether they’ve bought a house, whether he intends to accompany her on her intense world tour next year, whether she’ll go to his upcoming games. Only time will tell how the world’s most visible boyfriends have fared. Well, time and a future Taylor Swift song.
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