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Super Kelce Bros: Jason, Travis shaped by Cleveland Heights, University of Cincinnati and Andy Reid

PHOENIX -- Jason Kelce's Monday night greeting was muted: a nod and sheepish wave fit for a family room in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

But it wasn't for a small gathering of neighbors in the center's hometown -- the greeting was directed toward thousands of roaring fans who filled the stands of Phoenix's Footprint Center to welcome their beloved Philadelphia Eagles to town ahead of Super Bowl LVII.

Wearing a team-issued Eagles sweatsuit, matching Super Bowl LVII hat and small backpack, Kelce approached the edge of the stage centered inside the arena and acknowledged the Philly faithful with an uncharacteristic lack of energy.

He's been here before.

Kelce won Super Bowl LII with the 2017 Eagles, completing a magical run with a legendary victory over the New England Patriots. Then he capped off that triumph by delivering one of the most memorable speeches in the history of Super Bowl parades.

He's known as a fiery figure in Philadelphia and beyond, making Monday's moment of reservation a surprise. But before one can attempt to explain Kelce's Super Bowl LVII Opening Night demeanor, you must first understand the path Kelce traveled to this point.

Jason Kelce was born in 1987 in Greenville, North Carolina, but it wasn't long before his family planted roots in suburban Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Less than two years later, Kelce became a big brother to Travis.

Jason and Travis spent their youth ticking nearly every box on the brotherhood checklist. They were both involved in several sports growing up -- football, basketball, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, you name it -- and Jason even extended his interests to music, playing baritone saxophone in the high school jazz band.

They grew up competing with and against one another, turning part of their home into a makeshift wrestling ring, and playing catch with their father, Ed, by throwing footballs over the house to each other.

As the older of the two, Jason led the way in their sporting endeavors, introducing local coaches to the Kelce family in his own unique way.

"This guy, Jason, introduced himself as a freshman to me," Kelce's freshman football coach, Larry Hoon, told me, "and he said, 'Hello, my name is Jason Kelce. You can call me I.R. ... because I'm always injured.' "

The nickname wasn't just a gag -- it was accurate. Jason admitted that was how he was known throughout middle school, before he learned how to properly prepare his body and mind for the season, no matter the sport.

Conditioning and maintenance were far from the only lessons the Kelce brothers learned while attending Cleveland Heights High School. Versatility proved to be a critical quality for Jason and Travis, both physically and socially, and their hometown was the perfect incubator for developing these skills.

"Cleveland Heights is a very unique spot. It's a special place," Jason said. "It's very diverse of thought, it's very diverse in culture, it's very diverse economically. We were fortunate to play sports, to go to school, play music with lots of different kids and people from all sorts of walks of life. We got exposed to a lot growing up in Cleveland Heights that I think a lot might not get exposed to, and that was one of the big strengths.

"We were extremely fortunate to have -- in Cleveland Heights -- friends, coaches, mentors, people who constantly infused belief in us, constantly infused the idea that you can be successful in whatever you do if you put your mind to it, and work toward it, whether it's my parents or anybody in the community. We truly had an unbelievable upbringing in Cleveland Heights, and both of us being here is a direct reflection of the outstanding community and neighborhood that we had growing up."

The Kelces are incredibly proud of where they were raised. Travis begins every episode of their New Heights podcast -- which bears a title that is a play on the name of their hometown -- by reminding listeners they both hail from Cleveland Heights, and many of their stories find a way to circle back to their roots in the suburb just east of Cleveland.

Cleveland Heights is also eager to honor its favorite sons. Count former Cleveland Heights High School football coach Mike Jones as one of the many residents who gush over the Kelces and their journey from local standouts to NFL stars.

"We are excited as all get out up here," Jones told me of the city's response to both Kelces reaching Super Bowl LVII.

Jason didn't waste much time making an impression on Jones with his passion for pursuing success.

"He was just so intense. He brought the fire to everything," Jones said of Jason. "But he was also a leader. What I had to do was just try to foster both of those things, to try to just guide him and, yes, continue to be aggressive and continue to have that fire, but you have to lead, because people will follow you. You're a leader.

"My first impression was, Hey, we've got us a good leader here. We've just got to mesh him into the role."

Jason's leadership was on full display from the moment he joined the varsity squad, for better or worse.

"We were playing in a game in particular down in Middletown, Ohio," Jones recounted. "We were winning pretty good and we were starting to lose our grip, and Jason just went clean off on a couple kids he felt weren't giving their all. And the referee got involved, and he almost went off on the referee! And I come stepping out there, and he just couldn't get it together. And I said, 'Hey, you gotta get his dad out of the stands. We need Mr. Kelce down here right now!'

"Mr. Kelce gets him together -- he's a pretty physical guy himself -- but that's how intense he was. He would be ready to go every game."

During one season, Jones was forced to discipline his starting quarterback by benching him for the first half of a game, leaving the Tigers without a starter under center. Recognizing a need for a replacement, Jason -- a running back and linebacker Jones described as "wiry" -- volunteered to fill the void.

"He said, 'Coach, I will do it. I'll do it,' " Jones recalled. "I said, 'Jason, you're not a quarterback.' He said, 'I will do it, though.' When Jason looks at you in the eye and says, 'Coach, I got this,' we went with it.

"My offensive coordinator looked at me like I was crazy, but I said, 'Hey, listen -- he's a tough kid. The starting quarterback has two quarters to sit. We're going to try to get through it with Jay for the first two quarters.' "

Jason did his best, but as Jones admitted, "It didn't pan out very well." Still, it was a moment that demonstrated Jason's willingness to adapt to fit his team's needs, which, unbeknownst to Jason at the time, would carry him a long way as a football player.

Jason was a local standout, twice earning all-league honors while playing for the Tigers. However, as Jones said, Jason "was a tweener" without a defined position for the collegiate level, leading most Division I schools to pass on him as a scholarship athlete.

The relentless Jason wouldn't take no for an answer. Despite receiving a handful of Division II offers, Jason became convinced after a few visits to Cincinnati that he wanted to be a Bearcat, even if he wouldn't initially receive free tuition.

Jason joined Cincinnati as a preferred walk-on and accepted a position change almost immediately.

"I should've known something was written on the wall when I showed up a linebacker and they gave me the number 60," Jason said.

This was where Jason's upbringing again proved to be beneficial. He briefly switched from linebacker to fullback before eventually becoming an offensive lineman, relying on the versatility he developed in his youth to propel him to a successful collegiate career.

Along the way, he also cleared a path for his little brother to follow.

By the time Travis arrived at the high school level, the Kelces were no longer a mystery. Jason had introduced the family and its athletic talents to the community, and it didn't take long for Travis to grab the attention of the coaches at Cleveland Heights.

"Travis was always the guy that middle school coaches called up and said, 'Hey, we got us one down here,' " Jones said. "I'd say, 'You talking about Jason?' They'd say, 'No, Travis!' "

Like his older brother, Travis was involved in many sports, starring in basketball and football while also displaying potential in baseball and hockey. He enjoyed the benefit of being the younger brother of a standout athlete who had already ingratiated himself to the rest of the student body. But if Jason was well-liked, Travis could have run for president of Cleveland Heights.

"Travis, he led because he was so popular," Jones said. "He was way more popular than Jason. Travis was a good-looking kid, as you can see now. Jason was not a bad-looking kid, but Travis just had that swag, and the girls were just all over him. That was a thing that we had to make sure we tried to monitor a little bit because the girls were just all over Travis."

Travis and Jason both enjoyed their time at Cleveland Heights, but the younger of the two didn't always keep up with his responsibilities as a student. Struggles with a French class rendered Travis academically ineligible for his sophomore year -- Jason's senior season -- relegating Travis to scout-team player for his older brother's final year at Cleveland Heights. It was the first of two instances in which Travis would learn a hard lesson about fulfilling one's responsibilities to reap the benefits of your passion. The lesson remains strong today, so much so that the Kelce boys' mother, Donna, even ribbed Travis about it when recalling Travis' brief dream of moving to Canada to pursue hockey during her appearance on a recent episode of New Heights.

"And (with) your luck, you would've went to Quebec, and you would've had to speak French!" Donna said, sending Jason into a fit of laughter.

"I wouldn't be here without my brother. His competitiveness, his leadership -- there's no way I'd be here without him." -- Travis Kelce

When Travis returned to action, he discovered just how important his lost sophomore season was to his future. Travis had fallen behind in the recruiting process, and playing at Cleveland Heights -- a school that doesn't stand as tall in terms of prestige as some of its counterparts in the Cleveland area -- meant he would need to be a generational talent to attract big-school attention.

Instead, Mid-American Conference schools -- Division I mid-majors -- were the only ones that came calling. Confronted with a choice between a handful of MAC institutions, Travis decided he'd rather follow in his brother's footsteps to Cincinnati.

Luckily for Travis, Jason had once again introduced the Kelce name and proven its worth to the coaches at Cincy, where the Bearcats staff was eager to bring Travis on board.

Travis, though, made another mistake that left him without a clear path forward, testing positive for marijuana during Cincinnati's bowl week and resulting in his removal from the team after his redshirt freshman season. The ensuing year proved to be the most significant test of Travis' young life -- and the most pivotal to his football future.

While Jason prepared to play his senior season at Cincinnati, Travis was abruptly thrown into life without football. He wasn't enrolled at Cincinnati, but his father forced him to stay in town, perhaps as a reminder of what he'd lost due to his mistake. Left with little else to do, Travis received a hard but necessary dose of reality, getting a regular job where he was no longer treated like a star athlete with a bright future ahead of him.

"It wasn't easy," Travis recalled during Super Bowl LVII Opening Night. "I was working at a call center, calling Southern Ohio, Eastern Indiana and Northern Kentucky about Obamacare, and people weren't too happy about that at that point in time, so I was just getting yelled at every single day."

Meanwhile, Jason remained vigilant, ensuring his brother learned the most valuable of lessons from his time away from the team while also supporting Travis' efforts to return to football.

"First off, he gave me somewhere to stay," Travis said of Jason. "I wasn't getting a scholarship anymore. I wasn't enrolled at UC. I had to become a non-athlete in the sense that I was (just) a student. He gave me a lot of meals through his scholarship and things like that.

"He helped me out, not only just living, but eventually helped me get back on track. He knew exactly what I wanted to do in life. He knew that I had the ambition and ability to get there."

"Jason cracked the whip on him," Jones said. "Made him more accountable. He missed [football] tremendously. His drive got stronger. He understood at that point, Hey, man, I've got to push this as far as I can push it."

The work wasn't done there, though: Jason took it upon himself to implore the Cincinnati coaches to give his little brother a second chance.

"My brother was going around. It wasn't just Coach (Butch) Jones' office -- he was going in everybody's office trying to get me back on (the team)," Travis said. "I'm forever in debt for what he was doing and how much he was really promoting me in that building to be able to change and do the right things."

The sales pitch worked: Travis returned to the team in 2011, but once again missed out on playing with Jason, who had moved on to the NFL as a sixth-round pick of the Eagles. A year later, Travis blossomed, earning first-team All-Big East honors on his way to becoming a third-round selection of the Chiefs in the 2013 NFL Draft.

The coach who selected Travis had reason to feel good about his pick: He'd already spent one on his older brother.

Mike Jones could spend hours gushing over the Kelce brothers, but even he admits they might not have reached this point without the guidance of Andy Reid.

Jason arrived in Philadelphia as a late-round selection with low expectations, but -- unsurprisingly to those who know him -- worked his way up the depth chart so quickly that he earned the starting job by Week 1 of his rookie season. Since then, he's been nothing but reliable and highly effective: Starting 176 regular-season games in his 12-year career, Jason has earned six Pro Bowl selections and five first-team All-Pro honors along the way. A torn ACL cost him 14 games in 2012, while sports hernia surgery cost him four in 2014. Otherwise, the player formerly known as "I.R." hasn't missed a game, with perfect attendance over the past eight seasons.

Jason's immediate success was a testament to the fantastic work completed by Cincinnati's staff, turning him from a tweener to a tenacious NFL center. His ascendance continued at the NFL level with Reid, who saw potential in Jason and gave him the opportunity to prove his worth.

By Travis' draft day, Reid already knew what his new team, the Chiefs, would get from the No. 63 overall pick.

"He knew who I was, and he knew that I was a good person, and he had met Travis before," Jason said of Reid, who displayed his affection for Jason by tugging at the center's beard during their Monday night interaction in Phoenix. "I really think anybody that's ever met and conversed with Travis knows that he's a great person, that he's an empathetic, compassionate, great human being. I think that certainly helped the concerns that some teams might have had who didn't know Travis."

But once again, Travis had football taken away from him. A knee injury sustained in his first NFL preseason ultimately led to microfracture surgery, limiting his rookie campaign to just a single special teams snap. In Year 2, though, Travis found a perfect fit in Reid's offense, which quickly utilized the tight end's versatility to destroy opposing defenses by creating mismatches and watching Kelce feast to the tune of 67 catches for 862 yards and five touchdowns -- all team highs in 2014. In the eight seasons since, he's made the Pro Bowl every year while also earning first-team All-Pro honors four times, as well as three second-team nods. Long story short: He's on a direct course to receiving a gold jacket five years after his eventual retirement, an incredible feat for a player who was once without a team for a year in college.

All of the challenges the brothers have overcome might explain why Jason's demeanor was toned down Monday night, at least before he took the podium and let his magnetic personality show. It has taken Herculean efforts -- walking onto a team that didn't have a scholarship for him in college, sitting and waiting deep into Day 3 of the draft before hearing his name called and then beating out a veteran for a starting job -- for him to reach this point. The same can be said for Travis' journey to the NFL, which was far from certain back in 2010, when he was placing calls to irritable consumers instead of running routes for the Bearcats.

There's the element of an uncertain future, too. It's common knowledge that Eagles coach Nick Sirianni sent not one, but two kegs of beer to Jason's house last offseason as part of a pitch to convince the center to delay his retirement. The ploy worked, but for how long?

"It's a couple of years I thought Jason was gonna retire," Jones said. "He had a few bangs. I was at the NFC Championship Game when he went the first time. He was driving me back to my car. He said, 'Coach, man, I just got something going on in the back of my leg -- I don't know what happened.' I thought maybe that would be it.

"That year, they figured out what was going on. He did another year. When you see him out there, he's still pulling. He's still good in space. You never know. And they need him. If they win it this year, he could hang it up. But I think he's still got a couple years left."

Sunday's game could be Jason's last, and it will be infinitely more special because his younger brother -- the one he sparred with as a kid and protected fiercely as a student-athlete -- will be on the opposite sideline.

"I wouldn't be here without my brother," Travis said of Jason. "His competitiveness, his leadership -- there's no way I'd be here without him."

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