Every memorable athlete has their first moment. For some, it’s an iconic snapshot that far eclipses anything else they might ever do. For others, it’s the beginning of a journey shared by millions of enraptured spectators.
On Oct. 1, Americans settled into their couches and recliners. Some eagerly. Some with a critical eye. All about to get their initial dose of Patrick Mahomes. On a Monday night against the Denver Broncos, it was the opportunity for the Kansas City Chiefs to showcase their burgeoning superstar. Just as critically, it was a chance for a region, long kicked in the teeth by better quarterbacks in big spots, to find out if it finally had its trump card.
Things predictably went sour for Kansas Citians. The underdog Broncos rattled Mahomes in a raucous Mile High, holding the high-flying Chiefs to 13 points through three quarters. For all the hype leading into the affair, Mahomes now had 12:47 to lead his team back after struggling or much of the night.
The ending would have been almost preordained for generations past. The Chiefs would have lost and a football nation would have moved on to teams that actually mattered.
It took only 36 real-time minutes for Mahomes to show why the Chiefs, and Kansas City, mattered for the first time since the Clinton Administration. Utilizing a left-handed pass with Von Miller nipping at his heels and a facing a second-and-30 that somehow ended in a game-winning drive, Kansas City wasn’t just another flyover town with rabid fans that go home sad in January.
It was the scene of a football awakening, led by a 23-year-old prodigy who talks like gravel is stuck in his throat.
That night, Patrick Mahomes was the most Google-searched term in America.
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The journey didn’t begin in Denver. It started in Philadelphia, with the Chiefs facing a decision that would define the upcoming decade and beyond.
With the 10th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs select Patrick Mahomes II. Quarterback, Texas Tech.
On the ESPN broadcast, commentator Jon Gruden chuckled two seconds after the selection, followed by “I love it.” Now the Oakland Raiders head coach, he’s probably wishing Kansas City had gone another direction.
Those 23 words from league commissioner Roger Goodell may have changed a city forever. The Chiefs hadn’t drafted a quarterback in the first round since 1983. In the process of changing that trend, the team was uncharacteristically aggressive, trading two first-round picks and a third-round selection to Buffalo to move up 17 spots to get Mahomes.
Not yet old enough to rent a car, Mahomes is making an impact on Kansas City that hasn’t been seen for decades, if ever. George Brett and Bo Jackson lit up the Royals on the other side of the Truman Sports Complex, and the Chiefs have had their fair share of Hall of Fame talents, but nothing compares to what’s currently transpiring.
For all his greatness, Brett was more a local hero than a national icon, largely remembered outside of Kansas City for going postal over pine tar. Jackson is a phenomenon to this day, but came and went like a great fireworks show because of his injury-shortened career. The fact that Jackson played football for the hated Raiders didn’t help him with Kansas City fans, either. As for the Chiefs, the biggest national star to come from the organization is a three-man debate. The argument centers around Len Dawson, Derrick Thomas and Tony Gonzalez. Dawson retired 43 years ago and the latter two combined for three playoff wins over their tenures.
“George Brett certainly had a very high profile,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James said, a 66-year-old lifelong resident. “I can’t think of anybody who would deny that. I think the city was ablaze when Joe Montana came to Kansas City. But the difference is Brett was there for a long time and built that, he kept getting better and better. Montana was here near the end (of his career) and was imported. This is different because (Mahomes is) a young guy who is very similar to the character and attitude of the city, someone we believe will be here for a long time with a plethora of weapons and a great head coach around him.”
Mahomes hasn’t even reached the postseason yet, but the promise of what’s to come is impossible to ignore. He’s on the cover of both ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated, giving the Chiefs only their 10th SI cover and the fourth since the turn of the century.
With Kansas City at 9-1, the Chiefs are the odds-on favorite to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 49 years.
In the nearly five decades since the Chiefs brought home a title, Kansas City has become better known for crushing defeats and mild manners than kick-ass football.
That is changing by the minute.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
For Mahomes, going to a town with five reporters instead of 50 was a godsend.
“He’s genuinely happy to be there,” agent Leigh Steinberg said. “When he was drafted, we felt like he died and went to heaven … He grew up in Tyler, Texas and played college ball at Lubbock. He doesn’t have interest in being in a big city like New York or Los Angeles.”
The results, early as they may be, are staggering.
Mahomes, 23, has lit the NFL world on fire with one record-setting week after the next, showcasing a nuanced understanding of head coach Andy Reid’s complex, hybrid-scheme offense to accompany his rocket arm. Through 10 games, Mahomes is leading the league with 3,150 passing yards and 31 touchdown strikes, playing the ringleader an aerial circus that includes three other potential All-Pros in Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt.
Nationally, Mahomes has become a wunderkind with demands on his time beyond anything he likely could have imagined. Locally, he’s already a demigod with legions feeling unworthy to bow at his pigskin alter on Sundays within Arrowhead Stadium.
In recent years, Kansas City has had its share of playoff teams, winning consecutive AFC West crowns for the first time in franchise history, and reaching the postseason four of the first five seasons under Reid. The problem is what happens once the Chiefs get to the postseason. The team has only one playoff win since 1993, a 30-0 win over the hapless Houston Texans in 2015.
The continued losses in January — many of them in Arrowhead — prompted the fanbase to bemoan its fate, wondering when its savior would arrive. For those who remember the disappointment of Todd Blackledge, Elvis Grbac and Matt Cassel among others, the savior appears to have arrived.
“Whatever extent some are holding back because of nightmares about 21-3 or Lin Elliott or anything else are overwhelmed with an unapologetic embrace of all things Mahomes,” Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger said. “Literally, I’ve stood in line for coffee and seen two men pass each other wearing Chiefs gear. ‘Mahomes,’ the first guy said. ‘Mahomes,’ the second guy said.”
The passion can be seen in myriad places.
At Rally House, one of the leading merchandise stores in Kansas City, sells jerseys of Hill, Kelce and Hunt. The demand for Mahomes is impossible to keep pace with by comparison.
“There’s no slowing down,” said a manager from Rally House who didn’t want to give his name. “We get shipments every week and they’re gone in a couple days. NIKE just shipped out his stitched jersey on Nov. 1. We got 50 of them and there are only three or four left in stock (after six days).”
If the store receives a typical shipment of 12-to-20 Mahomes jerseys on Monday — the shipment of 50 was for the initial batch of authentic jerseys — they are gone by the weekend. When the Chiefs play a home game, the fervor only intensifies, with sales jumping approximately tenfold as fans want to be spotted at Arrowhead showcasing the jersey of their newfound love.
And for the fans who come to the store and can’t find one due to a quick sellout?
“That’s a daily thing,” per the Rally House manager. “We get phone calls too. Not just for the men but for women and children as well.”
Getting ahold of a Mahomes jersey isn’t only a local problem. Nationally, Mahomes’ jersey was the top seller in October, according to Fanatics. He’s at the second spot for the year, behind only Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears.
The same level of consumer craze is happening at Arrowhead. Per the Chiefs, Mahomes jerseys have been flying off the rack since the home opener in Week 3 against the San Francisco 49ers. That afternoon, the team sold more than 700 from the stores within the stadium, a game-day record.
As of Nov. 10, Mahomes’ jersey is on pace to shatter the record for most sold of a single player in Chiefs history, surpassing Kelce from only a year ago. Kelce’s jersey remains a hot item this year, but has sold fewer than half the amount of No. 15. Since training camp, the Chiefs have reordered Mahomes digits a half-dozen times with no let-up in sight.
“It’s excitement,” Yahoo Senior NFL reporter and former Kansas City Star beat writer Terez Paylor said. “Having a player like this who is fun to watch and has this kind of talent. He’s not just good for the team on the field but off the field as well. People are buying tickets. People want to see him. This is the most valuable asset in pro football. Having a rookie quarterback on a rookie contract is the most valuable asset, and the Chiefs have that.”
Much of the fervor can obviously be attributed to his dazzling play and the publicity that comes along with being the guy in a town, but there’s more to it. While the flamboyant Kelce has been embraced by the community, Mahomes represents the masses.
Despite his overnight celebrity, Mahomes remains withdrawn and humble, turning his weekly press conferences into a sermon on how everyone surrounding him is the only reason for his apparent greatness.
For James, Mahomes’ personality fits hand in glove with the city. James has literally seen every year of Chiefs football. He has watched the levels of fandom that have risen with the Super Bowl season of 1969, then bottomed out in the 1980s after two decades of sustained losing.
Now, with the city being put on center stage every autumn and winter weekend, it’s an electrifying time to live in a place bisected by a state line.
“People really do embrace the attention that he’s brought to Kansas City, because one thing with people living in the Midwest, we always feel the coastal cities get the attention and they barely pay attention to us, but that’s not happening with the Chiefs and Mahomes right now,” James said. The fact he’s so humble and approachable makes it better because he’s exemplifying the people in this city. … He doesn’t shine the light on himself but on the people he works with.”
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Two contradicting statements can be true at the same time.
This is most certainly the case with Mahomes in Kansas City, where kids are already dressing up as him for Halloween, rocking the vagabond haircut and jorts that he sported at an independent-league T-Bones baseball game.
Mahomes is rocketing toward being the most popular athlete Kansas City has ever called its own. He’s also notched only 11 starts, and can’t possibly be put into that conversation by a reasonable individual.
Yet this is where those two thoughts converge, because nothing about Mahomes is reasonable. In an era where every athlete wants camera time, Mahomes wants none of it. Through Steinberg, Mahomes has made a point of turning down television interviews and billboard advertisements, concerned that he’ll be viewed as taking from the city before he gives enough to it.
While an unintended consequence, it’s a brilliant stroke by Steinberg and his client. People always want more of something they can’t have, and while Mahomes delivers a cavalcade of highlights on Sundays, he largely disappears for the remainder of the week. For all of his success, Mahomes isn’t the face of a national brand. He’s not appearing on ESPN or NFL Network, either. The Texas native only recently agreed to do a weekly segment on 810 radio in Kansas City, with that being considered ample exposure.
During an off day in November, Mahomes quietly worked with Veteran Community Project, a non-profit group attempting to end homelessness for veterans. With his bushy hair hanging out of his snapback hat, Mahomes painted and hammered. In the near future, the trend of giving back will continue in another vein.
“He wants to do a charitable foundation in Kansas City which will aid underprivileged youth and will probably be getting the leading business, political and city leaders to sit on the advisory board,” Steinberg said, describing Mahomes as honest with a caring heart.
Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images
Come January, folks in Kansas City will hold their frozen breath. They will make the pilgrimage to Arrowhead Stadium and nervously watch, because that’s what you do when your franchise has given you no reason to feel comfort.
There will always be that looming fear and lingering doubt, the nagging thought that something is about to go terribly wrong. Even Mahomes can only suppress so much of that before getting into the postseason, a place where the Chiefs have all too often tortured their fans.
“I think people here want to believe,” Paylor said. “They do believe. This isn’t a question of ability. They believe in the player. That’s not a question. As a player the things he’s doing are rare. He’s fun to watch. But when you’ve had your teeth kicked in as much the Chiefs have, it’s hard not to wonder when the show is going to drop, and the only way to make that go away is win.”
That said, this year feels different because, on the surface, it is. A team always constricted by limits now feels limitless, and a city burdened by fright is no longer peaking through its collective fingers but cheering full-throat, hope replaced by tangible belief.
For decades, Kansas City was the scrappy underdog facing the mismatch at quarterback, often losing to John Elway, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Tom Brady in the postseason. Now, it has turned the tables.
“For years and years and years the Chiefs have made do with someone else’s backup, who was almost always professional and boring, and now they have a damn comet with shaggy hair and an arm that can throw a ball over them mountains,” Mellinger said. “It’s bonkers. Any town would be psyched to have Mahomes, but I think you have to have lived in Kansas City a while to really know what it means here. It’s like if you drove a Ford Focus your whole life, and all of a sudden someone gave you a dang race car.”
Mahomes, downshifting with the pedal floored, can let his mop-top fly behind him in the breeze. He’s beloved by a city that could never have imagined a talent like his would belong to it, a place that has finally seen the light, and wants to remain in it.