SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. — Some athletes answer questions. Jason Kelce delivers lectures worthy of a college-level course. The topic of that course, loosely speaking, is the relationship between the people who root for Philadelphia’s sports teams and the people who play for Philadelphia’s sports teams.
Class is in session whenever someone asks him about his relationship to Eagles fans and to the city as a whole. Or whenever someone asks him about an athlete or athletes who have failed to connect with or faced the ire of the market’s fans and media. Or whenever he does what he did Wednesday: spend the day here, appearing on WIP 94.1 FM in the morning before guest-bartending at the Ocean Drive in the late afternoon to raise money for autism research.
He has spoken with passion about his belief that, in the NFL, nothing — no long-term aim, no player evaluation, no higher draft pick, nothing — should take precedence over winning football games. He called out Ben Simmons for his “lack of accountability, lack of owning up to mistakes. … Just play better, man. This city will love you.” Once in a great while — at, say, a Super Bowl parade — he has used visual aids to help him make his point. He’ll don a particularly ostentatious Mummers costume (as opposed to all the modest and tasteful Mummers costumes). He’ll chug a big can of beer to remind everyone he likes to have a good time. He doesn’t mind if the beer is cheap, which only enhances his man-of-the-people persona.
But persona isn’t quite the right word to describe what’s at work between Kelce and his adopted home, because persona suggests something about his public words and actions and interactions is insincere or at least calculated. Philadelphia fans like to have their egos and fandom stroked, but it’s not as if Kelce is telling them what they want to hear just to curry favor with them or to have them treat him nicely. There seems a genuine alignment between who he is and who they are.
He fits here, is appreciated and even loved here, in a way no athlete has been in the city’s recent sports history. Brian Dawkins, Chase Utley, Allen Iverson: They were revered, of course, and rightly so. But as terrific as Kelce has been over his career — he’s a four-time All-Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler, and could yet earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — there is something about him that makes him more relatable.
When did he start to understand Philadelphia and its fans? When did he start to get it?
“I don’t know, because I still don’t know what it is that I’m getting,” he said before Wednesday’s event, in an interview with a small group of media members. “It’s the same things that allow you to be successful in any market, I think. Philly’s going to be much more critical about who you are and what your values are, but you show up, and you try to be honest. You show up, and you try to be accountable. You show up, and you try to work your hardest. All these things are going to be well respected in Philadelphia and across the league. I just think Philadelphia embraces it that much more.”
Maybe it was February 2018 and his speech at the Super Bowl parade — the costume, the shouting, the intensity, all of it.
“For me, it was a little bit of the speech. but also it was just the whole year,” he said. “It was the whole arc of that team, which was largely a lot of guys who were unheralded, who were journeymen, who had been to a number of spots. It was a team full of underdogs who ended up being underdogs in the Super Bowl from a city that is largely underdogs in a lot of ways. All of those things go together, and my career has definitely been that. I, for sure, view myself in that same light, just a guy who comes to work, works hard, does all the little things right — or tries to — and I think the fan base respects guys who are honest, work hard, and put forth that kind of image.”
Maybe it’s that he is a lineman, that he has been the Eagles’ starting center for 12 years, which means his work is generally hard and nasty and dirty. Maybe it’s that he has started the team’s last 122 regular-season games, playing through sprains and torn ligaments and a broken foot, that he meets every standard and demand of the toughest sports town around. Maybe it’s more than that. Kelce grew up just a few miles east of Cleveland. Maybe he understood Philadelphia even before he arrived here.
“Cleveland is a city that is born off of industry, born off of a blue-collar mentality,” he said. “My dad worked in steel mills his whole life. There are a lot of people I grew up with who were tradesmen or guys who worked in the steel mills or wherever. Philadelphia is very much born of the same premises. I think a lot of the things that Clevelanders have as their values, that they hold and believe, or traits that they want to see their athletes hold and represent, Philadelphia does, too.”
The line outside the Ocean Drive was longer now, stretching nearly a full block to a nearby Wawa: men and women in Eagles shirts and jerseys, in bathing suits and muscle shirts, one guy from South Jersey in a Mummers costume. It was time for Jason Kelce to be among the people, his people. There was money to raise for a worthy cause. There was beer to be poured and beer to be consumed. Class had ended. Class was about to begin.
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This story was originally published July 1, 2022 2:30 AM.