LAS VEGAS — From his earliest days in professional football, Travis Kelce wanted people to know him. In a sport that restricts personalities and shields faces, he aspired to get his “out from under the helmet,” he said. He pursued and planned for fame. But he did not foresee the vortex of the past five months, which transformed him from a superstar tight end and burgeoning celebrity to a figure of global fascination. He was asked this week what the whirlwind taught him. Kelce is an uncomplicated man, and he reached an uncomplicated conclusion.
“Being worldwide,” Kelce said, “is way different than just being famous in Kansas City.”
At the apex of his sport for the fourth time, Kelce has both become the protagonist of Super Bowl LVIII and shifted the notion of how a football player — let alone a football player who doesn’t play quarterback — can transcend the NFL. The clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers could be the most-watched American sporting event ever because Kelce is playing in it. Or, rather, because of the person watching Kelce play in it.
Kelce’s romance with Taylor Swift has launched him into a different stratosphere of celebrity. But in the year before he met the world’s most famous pop star, Kelce had already jump-started a post-football career under the spotlight, launching a podcast, hosting “Saturday Night Live” and filming a deluge of commercials. He openly covets fame, viewing it as a vehicle for life after one of the greatest tight end careers in NFL history.
“The one thing about the NFL, it’s historically short-lived,” Kelce said. “You have to find another career after this. I didn’t want to wait until the end of my career to start finding out what I wanted to do after football. It’s always been on my mind, trying to find something I love. That’s always been a focus — getting myself outside of the face mask.”
How Kelce will ultimately wield his fame is an open question. There are “definitely Hollywood talks out there,” he said, but he has not pinned down exactly what he wants to do or even in what field. A universe of agents, executives and producers are eager to find out.
“He definitely could be the next Rock,” said producer and casting director Sheila Conlin, president and CEO of her own production company. “Absolutely. But in his own style. There’s something really super likable about him. He’s really good looking. He’s not pretty-boy good-looking. He’s kind of all-American good-looking. And I mean, my God, that body.”
“I have to tell you, this one stands out,” Conlin added. “The other ones still sort of fit their football world and do TV. The Mannings are doing stuff, too, but they still are known as football players. Travis Kelce is like a dream for someone like me.”
AS KELCE SETTLED into his chair during Super Bowl media night Monday, he announced, “What a time to be alive, baby!”
A reporter lobbed the first question: How was he doing?
“I’m livin’ the dream!”
The reporter identified herself as Lisa Guerrero from “Inside Edition.”
“Nice to meet you, Lisa.”
The Chiefs have long understood Kelce’s personality. “This isn’t new,” longtime tight ends coach Tom Melvin said, laughing. As a rookie, Kelce landed on injured reserve. He spent practices in the Chiefs’ weight room, which is separated from their indoor practice field by panes of glass. On Halloween, Kelce danced in the windows in full view of practicing teammates, dressed in a head-to-toe green spandex suit.
Melvin saw no change in Kelce after he began dating Swift. “It’d have been different had they met 10 years ago,” Melvin said. But Kelce’s experience and stature among the Chiefs allowed him to focus on football as tabloids and entertainment shows scrutinized him.
“He’s very good at compartmentalizing the different parts of his life,” Melvin said. “He’s a deep thinker in that respect. He does his best to separate the two so you really don’t have a distraction. He doesn’t bring outside [things] inside the building.”
Several years ago, before he achieved mainstream recognition, Kelce starred in a reality show called “Catching Kelce” in which women competed, Bachelor-style, for his affection. Nobody won, least of all viewers. “Whoever thought of it in the beginning to do his reality show, they were on the right track,” Conlin said. “Unfortunately, the show sucked.”
Kelce moved on to more successful ventures. He launched a podcast, “New Heights,” with his brother, Jason. It has grown into one of the most popular sports shows in the medium. When the Kelce brothers met in last year’s Super Bowl, it turned them both — plus their mom, Donna — into football superstars.
On the back of that Super Bowl title, Kelce fulfilled a dream and hosted “Saturday Night Live,” and his performance cast him in a new light. “He’s a natural,” Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of SNL, told Vanity Fair. “He was a presence from the moment he walked out.” Kelce has starred in commercials — so many commercials — for Pfizer, Experian and, alongside Jason and Donna, Campbell’s Chunky Soup.
Kelce leaned further into his fame. He showed up in glossy magazine photo shoots draped in high-end fashions — Vanity Fair in the summer, WSJ Magazine in the fall. Simply orbiting Kelce is enough to make you famous: the New York Times this winter featured his managers, college friends Aaron and André Eanes of A&A Management, both of whom declined to comment for this story.
Then, in July, Kelce mentioned on his podcast that he had unsuccessfully tried to meet Swift when her Eras Tour came to Kansas City, and a new realm of opportunities opened.
“If I was his agent, I would first of all be in heaven,” Conlin said. “He can write his own ticket into anything.”
Conlin said Kelce could supplant the Kardashians as the face of reality television. She would recommend he start his own production company. She could see him as an action-movie star.
“I’d probably suggest a few acting classes for confidence level and knowledge,” she said. “But he’s not bad. I could see him on ‘Yellowstone.’ This is going to sound crazy, but he could be the next Magic Mike, you know?”
Conlin said Kelce’s next step will come down to one question: What does he want to do? Kelce is still looking for an answer. He wants football to be part of it. Maybe comedy. He loves music and has already created a festival in Kansas City.
“I wish there was a clear-cut vision,” Kelce said. “But there’s never a clear-cut vision for me.”
WHEN REMAINS as much of a question as what. At 34, Kelce has reached an age at which NFL players confront the prospect of retirement. He told WSJ Magazine that he thinks about retirement “more than anyone could ever imagine.” His graceful game and the way the Chiefs often use him as a de facto wide receiver can make you forget he plays one of football’s most unforgiving positions. He has undergone 10 surgeries, he told WSJ, and he feels them all constantly.
“I’m always thinking about what’s next,” Kelce said this week. “That’s always a question you get when you’re later in your career and you start to fall off. So thanks for telling me that I’m not as good as I once was. I’ll tell you what, it’s something you got to think about. I come into this building and these arenas, I come in and work my tail off. I can’t imagine not doing this for as long as I can, because I know I’ll miss it when it’s all said and done. I can’t put a timestamp on how long I’ll play. I know I’m loving every single bit of coming into work right now.”
Kelce’s dedication to football has not waned, but his hunger for a brand of greatness that only comes with longevity may have abated. Late last season, Kelce became the fifth tight end to surpass 10,000 receiving yards. On his podcast that week, he made a telling revelation. He had studied the final five seasons of Tony Gonzalez, who racked up more career yards (15,127) than any tight end in NFL history, to see “kind of, what’s possible?”
Kelce discovered Gonzalez had gained between 800 and 900 yards every year between age 33 and 37. He calculated that if he were to average about 75 yards per game, he could break Gonzalez’s record and retire at 37, after the 2026 season. Kelce didn’t commit to the pursuit and exhaled deeply as he allowed, “That’s a lot of miles, man.” But he was doing the math.
A year later, after a September knee injury and an uncharacteristic spate of dropped passes, the appeal of chasing Gonzalez diminished. This week, Kelce laughed when asked whether the record remained in the back of his mind. Playing until 37 no longer added up.
“No, it’s not,” Kelce said. “I’d be far-fetched to even believe in myself to get to that milestone.”
AT SUPER BOWL MEDIA sessions this week, Kelce charmed his way through a gantlet. His answers were threaded with his devotion to family and his appreciation for Cleveland Heights, Ohio, his hometown. Nothing makes him happier, he said, than bringing joy to those close to him when he plays football. That group now includes the world’s most famous entertainer.
Kelce handled questions — so many questions — about his relationship with earnest chipperness. (What Era are you in? “My Super Bowl Era.”) Given the scrutiny of the entertainment press and the forensic study Swift’s fans apply to every public morsel, land mines surrounded every one of his answers. He pirouetted around them with the same finesse he deploys when finding green grass on third and six.
“It’s a roller coaster I did not expect,” Kelce said. “I’m enjoying every single ride, baby.”
Would Swift be giving him a Super Bowl pep talk?
“No, no,” Kelce said. “She’s focused on entertaining the crowd out in, uh, I think it’s Singapore right now? Or I think that’s in a few weeks. She’s out in Japan. Tokyo, maybe. She’s just working hard, entertaining them.”
Kelce did not expect he would ever meet Swift after he took his shot on his podcast. That he is now dating her, though, he seems to have normalized. He talks about Swift as if she is another member of his close-knit tribe from Cleveland Heights.
“We’re here, and we’re all happy,” Kelce said. “I know that.”
On Wednesday morning, Kelce stood up behind a small table, revealing royal blue pants dotted with white flowers. As he walked away, it somehow seemed easy to believe what he said when he was asked whether any part of his onrushing fame had been difficult for him:
“Nah. I got it all figured out, I think.”
A previous version of this article stated that Travis Kelce first mentioned his unsuccessful attempt to meet Taylor Swift on an episode of his podcast in September. The first mention of that attempted meeting was in July. The article has been updated.