Home Sports How Eagles center Jason Kelce became the ‘king of Philly’

How Eagles center Jason Kelce became the ‘king of Philly’

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How Eagles center Jason Kelce became the ‘king of Philly’

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PHILADELPHIA — Donald Blalock was the kind of man who named his son Don and his daughter Donna. Late in his life, at least one family member refused to speak with him. He was once arrested, though never indicted, on a charge of industrial espionage. He used the alias Bob Steele. He left one family in Ohio to start another in South Dakota. “He cheated on just about every wife he had,” his grandson Jason Kelce said. “I think he had five of them, so he had plenty of opportunities.”

People are complicated, and sometimes flawed ones do the perfect thing at the perfect time. One day nearly 20 years ago, on a rare occasion when he visited his grandsons in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Blalock handed Kelce a golden card. Kelce read the words printed on one side of it. They changed his life.

The message helps explain how a college walk-on and undersized sixth-round draft pick became the soul of an NFL franchise with realistic designs on winning its second Super Bowl in six seasons. On a roster studded with stars, including MVP candidate Jalen Hurts, Kelce may be the likeliest bet to make the Hall of Fame. And yet his performance at center accounts for only a portion of what he means to the Eagles and his adopted city.

Kelce’s No. 62 jersey will dot the Lincoln Financial Field crowd Saturday night, when the top-seeded Eagles host the New York Giants in a divisional playoff game. Kelce is a fan favorite at a position that does not produce fan favorites. He has delivered a legendary Super Bowl parade speech, tended bar for charity on the Jersey Shore and sang with linemates on a Christmas album. He became an all-pro for his blocking. He is beloved for his authenticity.

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“Those qualities — humility, sense of humor, the fact he’s so real — that’s something that speaks to the sort of ethos of Philadelphia in a greater sense,” said Charlie Hall, Kelce’s friend and the drummer for Philadelphia-founded rock band the War On Drugs. “We love an undersized overachiever. He’s this scrappy, down-to-earth, smart — super smart — funny dude who works hard. It’s like, what else could you possibly want?”

Inside the Eagles’ locker room, Kelce breaks down the sport’s intricacies and converses in “Kingpin” and “Wedding Crashers” movie quotes. He is the offense’s nerve center and the franchise’s emotional ballast. He is equal part teacher, philosopher, comic, enforcer and favorite grumpy uncle.

“It’s like having a damn stand-up comedian at times,” Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said. “It’s like having a poet sometimes when he gets emotional. It’s like having a wrestler sometimes when he gets f—— angry and loses his temper. He’s almost like a WWE character.”

At 35, in his 12th season, Kelce remains one of the NFL’s best linemen. Teammates uniformly believe he is one of the greatest centers ever. His speed and balance, both exceptional for his position, allow him to pull and barrel downfield for blocks in a way other centers cannot. He views football as solving a mathematical equation. In fractions of a second, he deciphers defensive schemes and alerts teammates how they need to respond.

“He’s the smartest player on the field at all times,” Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata said. “That’s not a knock on Jalen, because Jalen’s a pretty f—— smart dude.”

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After the Eagles’ opening drive, Kelce will frequently return to the sideline and explain to coaches what play to call based on subtleties in the defense’s alignment: the technique a nose guard uses, the way a safety rotates before the snap.

“We go out there the next play — boom, gash, touchdown,” Mailata said.

“He’s basically like a conductor, not just for the O-line but the offense in general,” Eagles offensive lineman Andre Dillard said. “He leads us in meetings. He’s always coming up with ways to help us win. … He basically is a coach. It seems like he knows everything.”

On the eve of games, Eagles coaches sometimes ask a player to address the team. When it’s Kelce’s turn, no matter how many times he has made his speech before, he knows he will cry. It ends with Kelce telling his teammates that their belief in each other is more powerful than they realize. It begins with the quote on the back of the card his grandfather gave him.

Kelce grew up with a younger brother, Travis, now a Kansas City Chiefs tight end who is also one of the best to play his position. They played full-contact one-on-one basketball games, dented garage doors with hockey slap shots and ran up unholy grocery bills for their parents. Ed Kelce was a sales rep for steel companies, and Donna was a banker who specialized in low-income housing tax credits; she would often take her sons to fundraising events that benefited the underserved.

In the summer before his senior year, Jason Kelce didn’t know what he wanted to do after high school. He had been a star athlete, but no scholarship offers materialized. Should he play lacrosse in college? Try to walk on as a football player? Did he want to go to college at all?

That summer, his grandfather visited from Sioux Falls, S.D., where he had relocated after one of several divorces. Blalock played football at Ohio University and later went into manufacturing. He had worked for 20 years for a company that made furnace parts, including a years-long stint in Russia during the Cold War. (While overseas, he met and married a Russian woman.) Eventually, Blalock became disgruntled and started his own company. His original employer hired a private investigator to determine whether Blalock had stolen plans to make parts and then sold them at a reduced rate. The company also believed he had sold blueprints detailing how to make those parts to his Russian customers. Blalock never acknowledged any wrongdoing.

“Oh, hell no,” Donna said. “My dad would never do that.”

At 7 a.m. on Dec. 8, 1981, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, sheriffs raided Blalock’s condo and served him with an arrest warrant. He was never convicted and did not serve jail time, and he continued working in manufacturing through the 1990s. The story the Cleveland Plain Dealer published about his arrest, headlined “Industrial theft case cracked here,” is housed in the CIA’s digital archives.

“He was not the best grandfather,” Kelce said. “He wasn’t the best dad. His own uncle for a long time didn’t talk to him. But he was a great grandfather at the perfect moment.”

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The card Blalock gave Kelce nearly two decades ago contained a quote attributed to Calvin Coolidge. Kelce carried it in his wallet before he lost it in college. (A friend found a replacement and laminated it for him, but Kelce lost that wallet, too.) It read:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

“That quote really hit me in the face,” Kelce said. “It’s not over until you say it’s over. A lot of times, the people who end up making it are the people who just stick with it and have the perseverance to make it through adversity.”

The hesitation Kelce felt about his future evaporated. He decided he would press on. He walked on at Cincinnati as a linebacker. Coaches converted him to center. He earned a scholarship and became a starter. At the urging of offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who recognized his uncommon athleticism, the Eagles took Kelce in the sixth round of the 2011 draft.

Kelce started every game his rookie season and became a franchise pillar. Fans adored his steady improvement and honest appraisals of the Eagles’ performance. He played hard and spoke without a filter.

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“He’s just a driven human being,” Donna said. “And what drives him is when people tell him he can’t do it, he’s not good enough to do it, he’s like, ‘You’re not going to tell me I can’t do this.’ ”

Kelce’s acute sense for disrespect can manifest as anger. He admits he has a temper, and though he controls it more now than he once did, he believes it essential for him to release rage than let it fester. He mostly lashes out when he sees a lack of effort or fails to meet his own standard.

“He gets f—— mad,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen him throw [weight room] chalk bowls. I’ve seen him break s—. He’s tried to kick me a couple times for hiding his helmet.”

This offseason, Kelce helped choose his replacement. He watched film of last year’s top center prospects and gave the Eagles’ front office his opinion. After they chose Cam Jurgens out of Nebraska, Kelce instructed him at practice. Mailata, a five-year veteran, eavesdrops on Kelce’s tutorials to Jurgens so he can learn more about football.

“He always seems to know what to say,” Dillard said. “He always brings the type of energy that makes everybody want to come together and empower people.”

After the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018, Kelce submitted his most famous performance. For the parade, he wore a glittery, oversized green jacket and a poofy white hat topped with a feather. As Donna watched on television, she asked herself, “Why the heck is he dressed as a leprechaun?”

Kelce had in fact dressed up as a Mummer, a tribute to the traditional Philadelphia New Year’s Day parade in which people wear elaborate costumes and play wind instruments. Kelce eschewed riding on the float for walking beside it, chugging beers handed to him by fans. By the time the parade reached the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kelce said, he had drained “certainly well north of 20” cans.

On the stage, Kelce unleashed a speech of celebratory furor and explicit language. Shouting in a rasp, he extolled the virtues of being an underdog and detailed how every member of the organization had been overlooked. He started the day a Super Bowl champion. He ended it a Philadelphia legend.

“I try to be authentic and real,” Kelce said. “I think that usually that resonates with people.”

After games last season, Johnson and Kelce drank beer in the Lincoln Financial Field parking lot and sang along to old country songs. The ritual, along with Kelce’s love of Christmas music, hatched an unusual idea this year: Kelce wanted to make a Christmas album.

He got Johnson and Mailata on board. He had become friends with Hall through former Eagles linebacker and current front-office executive Connor Barwin, whose charity event the War On Drugs had played. Hall, who has arranged songs for other groups, agreed to produce the record. They all agreed they would donate the proceeds to a toy drive for the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center in Philadelphia.

Hall described the recording sessions as “unimaginable fun.” The linemen drank whiskey to calm nerves. They also worked with intent. Mailata, who once appeared on “The Masked Singer,” is a remarkable vocalist — “the voice of an angel,” Hall said. Johnson has pipes fit for Sam Phillips. Kelce played in his high school’s jazz band and, according to Donna, was recognized as one of the best prep saxophonists in Ohio.

Kelce’s analytical skills along the offensive line translated to the production studio. In one part of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the lead singer belts out “Please, please!” and the other singers respond. As Hall arranged those response hits, Kelce offered suggestions.

“He was moving them around them like a puzzle,” Hall said. “It was his idea to like, ‘What if you move the hit to this downbeat?’ And it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s so much cooler.’”

Given the singers’ profession, the final product is extraordinary. The album, “A Philly Special Christmas,” sold so many copies, the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center could not accommodate the amount of toys donated.

“You spend your life fine-tuning every single motion you do on the field,” Hall said. “They treated this with a similar respect — doing vocal exercises, asking for direction. They treated it with a seriousness. … Not to put too fine a point on it, that speaks to a little bit about why Jason, why he’s the king of Philly.”

It has been a busy year off the field for Kelce. Along with starting his own foundation — (Be)Philly, formed to aid Philadelphia public school students — and the Christmas record, he started a podcast, “New Heights,” with Travis. He cherishes the time with his brother, with whom he has never kept in such close touch during a season.

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The Kelces may soon star in a larger show. Both the Chiefs and Eagles captured the top seed in their conference. If each team wins two more games, the brothers would meet in the Super Bowl. “I would root for the offense,” Donna said, laughing.

She acknowledged it would be stressful, but like most things her older son touches, any tension would be overridden by joy. The Kelce family would all be in one place, brought together in part by an imperfect man who came along at the perfect moment. One brother would win, the other would lose, and they would all press on.

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