Sportsman of the year is one of those nebulous awards that checks off boxes by usually honoring a do-gooder, an activist athlete, some stereotypical quarterback, a Finals MVP, Tiger Woods, the fastest man in the world, an American gymnast or some gold medalist in the pool during an Olympic year.
I’m more shallow than that.
This year, Travis Kelce has been making an unorthodox push on the field and off of it.
Who’s Kelce’s competition?
Lionel Messi? Inter Miami might miss out on the MLS Cup Playoffs while he misses time for international play. He’s put his head down and focused on football and family, which is commendable, but he’s not doing anything that warrants Sportsman of the Year, yet. The World Cup was last year. We’ve moved on.
Deion Sanders is the ideal recruiter for the NIL era. But we’ll see if his Colorado Buffaloes can maintain this level of national interest once the illusory effects of September football wear off. That Oregon butt-whooping humbled Sanders. Something tells me this Colorado squad is a year away, at least, from making serious noise in the New Big 12.
After recording only 11 catches for 95 yards in two appearances this season since missing Kansas City’s opener, Kelce’s 12th catch — as Bill Belichick so uncharacteristically put it — was the most clutch of all.
In 2023, Kelce has crossed over into a new dimension.
Any time you can get Belichick to shed his stoic mask in front of the media, you’ve crossed a rubicon. Then again, we know that his affection for TEs is stronger than any coach in the league’s.
Months after calling his shot on a podcast with his brother, Travis knocked it out the park like Babe Ruth in the ‘32 World Series. I mostly rolled my eyes at the Taylor Swift-Kelce rumor mill because he sounded like Kip Dynamite’s cousin constantly alluding to his girlfriend LaFawnduh rather than a tangible possibility. Then again, she was real, too. However, Kelce gets props for manifesting this vision. He did everything but borrow a page out of Deion’s playbook in his postgame presser, look the Chiefs beat writers squarely in the face and bellow, “Do you believe now?!”
Kelce winning a second Super Bowl as Patrick Mahomes’ number one option after Tyreek Hill’s departure for Miami pushed him into the Gronkowski stratosphere of commercial popularity. The only thing Kelce hasn’t done is make a stand for his fellow tight ends being used as pseudo-slot receivers and demand more money. This might be the recency bias speaking, but Kelce venturing into that parasocial territory where sportswriters and Twitter have passionate takes on his dating life has elevated him past Gronk.
The Dolphins scored 70 against Denver, but Kelce’s Q Score multiplied by twice that in one afternoon. Either this was the greatest PR stunt of the season or Kelce’s mackin’ skills are generational.
Whatever you think about Swift or Kelce, taking a heat-check shot at Swift and then draining it was inspirational for all the dream chasers and DM shooters out there. Riding off into the sunset with Swift with the top down was a T.O. caliber touchdown dance.
One of the underrated components of Sportsman of the Year is factoring in what each candidate has done for his brethren. Kelce’s 2023 calendar year has been a victory for an underrepresented portion of the sports population. Tight ends were once the poor man’s wide receiver. Brock Bowers won’t get mention in the Heisman convo, but Kelce was drafted before the NFL’s best wideouts in most fantasy leagues. In a few short years, the league has shifted into more 12 formations to get more tight ends on the field.
Despite winning three Super Bowls, Shannon Sharpe couldn’t even reach this level of fame until after his retirement. And even then, his slobbering over Eddie Murphy’s ex-wife, Nicole, only developed into a photo op before a cycling class at a luxury gym. In a league where diva receivers have been going extinct, Kelce’s always been one of the most ostentatious cats around. And yet, he’s somehow been able to maintain his top-shelf status on the field as well. His Week 2 touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars put the struggling Chiefs offense permanently ahead.
But with increased visibility comes greater polarization. Hosting SNL in March was a bold step, but venturing into a courtship of Swift is dangerous. Swift’s siren songs have left bruised egos in her wake, which speaks to the treacherous ground he’s walking on. Already, the Swifties clan and Haters Incorporated are piling on Kelce, but he’s still riding high. For now.
Activist and retired NBA player Etan Thomas might have gone overboard this weekend comparing Sportsman nominee Deion Sanders to Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his title and livelihood for refusing to be drafted into service for the Vietnam war, but love is a battlefield Kelce isn’t afraid to put himself out there for.
(OK, I’ll see myself out).
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