“It’s awesome because I can turn it on and it feels like I’m back in college hanging out with them,” said Craig Carey, a longtime friend and former teammate of both. “I’m not surprised at how successful it is because I lived it.”
The Kelce brothers grew up together in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, less than two years apart in age. But the seeds of their already legendary NFL careers were planted at the University of Cincinnati, where the two became college teammates and roommates. And where they cemented the unique brotherly bond that would forever impact their shared futures, on the field and off.
Jason and Travis arrived at Cincinnati in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Both were largely unheralded prospects coming out of high school, Jason in particular, but the outsized personalities that have been on display in recent years were evident to those present back then.
“Those two, it was just insane. Like, holy s—, these guys are crazy,” said Tom DeTemple, a friend and college teammate with the Bearcats. “Those two are really good at drinking beer. They used to love playing Nintendo 64 for hours, smashing the controls and chugging beers at the same time. They would just come up with these random drinking games while playing, and they were incredibly good at it.”
Each had their own distinct characteristics — Jason wore flip flops and listened to country music, Travis was into fashion and hip hop — and there was a clear big brother/little brother dynamic between the two. But both were outgoing and engaging in ways that drew others to them and drew them to each other, particularly on the same college campus, whether at a house party or throwing darts in the back corner of a bar called Uncle Woody’s.
“They are both people persons,” said Reuben Johnson, another mutual friend and former teammate. “They love people, people love them. They have that energy.”
That energy extended to the football field as well, where Jason and Travis burnished the competitive, tough-nosed reputations that helped develop them into NFL Draft picks.
“Both of them, when you put the ball down and it was time to play, rabid competitors,” said former Bearcats receiver Armon Binns.
Yet it was the relative obscurity of a nasty, romp-filled college house — where the two spent a year unexpectedly sharing the same bedroom — that helped lay the groundwork for so much of what followed: Super Bowl rings, Hall of Fame resumes, that wildly popular podcast and their culture-spanning stardom.
Following a playoff loss Monday night, it was reported that Jason Kelce informed teammates he plans to retire after 13 seasons and six All-Pro nominations with the Philadelphia Eagles. Travis and the Kansas City Chiefs play Sunday at Buffalo in the divisional round.
The Athletic spoke with more than fifteen of the Kelces’ former Bearcats teammates, coaches and roommates to reminisce about their stint at Cincinnati and its ongoing influence.
Also, the beer. So much beer.
The Kelces’ college careers coincided with the rise of Bearcats football, which won at least a share of the Big East championship in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012 and reached back-to-back BCS bowls in 2008 and 2009.
Jason arrived at Cincinnati in 2006 as a walk-on linebacker. After a redshirt season in which he earned the scout team defensive player of the year award, Jason switched to offensive line under new head coach Brian Kelly in 2007, where he became a multi-year starter and all-conference honoree.
Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati running back, 2008-11): It was Big Kelc. The younger guys didn’t call him Jason.
Craig Carey (Cincinnati linebacker, 2005-09): We were having a party after one of the games and Jason was a little bit inebriated, let’s say, and he ripped the sink out of the wall in one of the bathrooms. And everybody was like, “What the hell? Who is this guy? This walk-on just ripped the freaking sink out of the wall.”
Pead: He was an animal.
Carey: That’s how everybody knew him after that. Holy s—, this dude is nuts.
Reuben Johnson (Cincinnati cornerback, 2009-11): I just remember how fiery he was (on the field). Tight shirt, stomach out, bunch of body hair, drooling, sliming at the mouth, very intense.
Pead: Every time you saw him, he was on. It was so much, it was like, “Man, Big Kelc, are you always like this?”
Craig Parmenter (Cincinnati offensive lineman, 2007-10): Don’t poke the bear.
Reuben Johnson: We were in offense vs. defense (drills) and we were supposed to be in thud, so all it took was for one guy to go harder than he should, because no one was supposed to touch the ground.
Tom DeTemple (Cincinnati long snapper, 2007-11): You see this big scuffle go down and all of a sudden you just see somebody’s helmet get ripped off, and Jason starts spinning around with the helmet in his hand and shot-putted it 15 rows deep into the stadium.
Carey: He absolutely chucked that helmet.
Reuben Johnson: That was kind of the lion roaring. That set the tone.
Evan Davis (Cincinnati offensive lineman 2008-11): Jason looks for any and every opportunity to stir the pot and get somebody going.
Armon Binns (Cincinnati wide receiver, 2007-10): Everybody knew Jason, everyone respected the way he played.
Butch Jones (Cincinnati head coach, 2010-12): We were so competitive. The way we practiced, our effort, our mentality, our toughness — we were an extremely gritty football team, and a lot of that stemmed from Jason.
Parmenter: The thing with Jason, even off the field, if he finds something he likes, he’s determined to be the best at it.
Alex Hoffman (Cincinnati offensive lineman, 2007-11): Good guitar player, hell yeah. Good singer. He could pick up songs by ear and play them.
Parmenter: I couldn’t play Mario Kart against Jason because he was so godd— good at it.
Carey: He was obviously undersized as a player, but you could see how athletic he was and the way he moved compared to other linemen around him.
Reuben Johnson: Jason was pulling at center (as a run blocker). That’s when I realized this guy is not normal.
Binns: He’s like 285, 290 pounds, and we go out to do sprints at practice and he’s beating all the skill players. It’s ridiculous what kind of athlete he was.
Jones: Just as impressive is how cerebral he is.
Hoffman: He was on a weight-gain diet. We would make fun of Jason for being big, having long hair, eating all the time. He would always fall asleep while eating so we would roast him for that.
DeTemple: I think it was St. Patrick’s Day. We’re getting ready for spring practice and he goes and gets a Gatorade bottle and fills it up with Jameson. He puts a thing of tape around it and gives it to one of the water girls and says: “Do not give this to anybody but me.”
Hoffman: All he cared about was playing football and having a good time.
Greg Forest (Cincinnati quarterbacks coach, 2007-09): I would always say that after he got done playing, Jason was going to be in WWE.
Reuben Johnson: What made Jason so great is that he’s a live-in-the-moment guy. Whatever that moment calls for, that’s where he lives, that’s what he gives you.
Travis followed his older brother two years later, joining the Bearcats in 2008 as a 6-foot-6, two-star quarterback who also had scholarship offers to play Division I basketball. He saw the field as a wildcat quarterback as a redshirt freshman in 2009 before ultimately moving to tight end.
Tony Pike (Cincinnati quarterback, 2005-09): The brilliance of Travis is literally who he is: It’s his personality. He was so freaking funny, man.
Forest: He just likes to have fun more than anything.
Zach Collaros (Cincinnati quarterback, 2007-11): For some reason, my dumbass left the bills up to him, so I would pay him cash to pay the bills. One day we came home and the lights were all off. I’m like, “Yo, man. What’s going on?” He was like: “Yeah, I forgot.” We just didn’t have electricity for like three nights.
Sherry Murray (Cincinnati football office administrator, 2010-present): We always had the women’s Football 101, which was a fundraiser for breast cancer, and we would do a player fashion show as part of it. Travis, when it was his turn, he decided to strip at the top of the runway and walked down in his underwear, those compression shorts. So of course all 300 of these middle-aged women are hooting and hollering and carrying on. We decided that might be a good time to end the fashion show portion of this program.
Collaros: One Thanksgiving we just went and got two rotisserie chickens and we sat there and drank a 40 of Miller Lite and played NBA 2K.
Greg Davis (Evan’s dad): Always a jokester, always a comic. We were down at Party Source buying some stuff for the weekend and here comes Travis around the corner with a sombrero on, driving an electric shopping cart. And it’s filled, stuff piling out of the basket.
Evan Davis: He’s not scared to talk to anybody, he relates to everybody, he’s personable. It’s one thing to be all of those things, but you still have to go out and take a risk, and that’s Travis.
Collaros: I’d always say to him: “Walk with your shoulders back. You’re the man.”
Reuben Johnson: Trav was cool, man. He was always stylish, always into fashion, always had the new sneakers.
Evan Davis: Playing pick-up basketball games and seeing him throw down dunks, you knew he had the athletic ability.
Reuben Johnson: He was catching dunks off the backboard. I’m in disbelief, like, “Who the hell is this White boy?”
Binns: He’d be cooking everybody. Guys who actually played basketball at UC would come play with us and Travis was giving them buckets, talking trash.
A tour through Travis Kelce’s baseball era
Mark Elder (Cincinnati assistant coach 2010-12): He’s not a wound-tight kind of guy. Travis did what he needed to do in the classroom and meeting room, but I always had an unbelievable amount of respect for how hard he went in practice. It was like the Super Bowl every day.
Jones: Probably nine times during Travis’s last season the officials would tell me before the game to make sure we controlled No. 18 because he likes to play to the echo of the whistle. I would just smile, because I knew we had already intimidated our opponent.
Dave Johnson (Cincinnati tight ends coach, 2011-12): He understood coverages, maybe from his experience as a quarterback. He understood route-running, where to find open voids, how to separate and create space. He had a very high football intelligence.
Carey: He had another gear on the field. He had that (83-yard touchdown) in the Belk Bowl where he just ran away from the secondary.
Elder: That was the dichotomy of Travis: He was maddening in some ways, except when it came to what mattered most, which was playing ball.
Reuben Johnson: He wanted the spotlight. He searched for the spotlight. He was always like that. The moment was never too big for him.
Jason lived at 127 W. Nixon Street, an off-campus house he shared with a handful of teammates that he once described as a “real life Animal House.”
DeTemple: That house was incredibly legendary. There was … just … yeah. So many gross people in there.
Parmenter (housemate): That house could have been a sitcom.
Evan Davis (housemate): My parents owned the house.
Greg Davis (homeowner): Those guys were absolute pigs. They had a giant outdoor garbage can sitting in the middle of the common living area, and it was stacked 2 feet out of the top of the can with pizza boxes.
Hoffman (housemate): You would want to throw up if you walked in our house.
Collaros (housemate): Our front door was broken as well. People could just walk in and out of it. Very strange.
Hoffman: Jason was usually the ringleader. He would sit there in his T-shirt and shorts in the living room with his guitar, watching “Trailer Park Boys” or “South Park” or — what was the Kenny Powers show? “Eastbound & Down,” yeah. And we would go back and forth at each other.
Collaros: When LeBron switched (from Cleveland to Miami), they wanted to kill me. Kill me. Jason and Travis were Cavs fans. When (LeBron) said, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” I started chirping them so hard. I remember Jason’s exact quote: “If you say another f—ing word, I’m going to kill you.”
Carey: We were always chirping at each other and making fun of each other.
Collaros: We’re all still best friends. My wife doesn’t get it.
In 2010, Travis, a redshirt sophomore, was suspended by the NCAA for a full season because of a failed marijuana drug test, something he’s since spoken about publicly. New head coach Butch Jones revoked Travis’s scholarship as a result, but Jason went to Jones and advocated to keep Travis in the program.
Part of Jason’s petition? Moving Travis into his bedroom at 127 W. Nixon Street.
Jones: Jason said, “We want to get Trav right, and he’s going to come live with us.”
Hoffman: We didn’t even think about it: “Just have him move in here.”
Carey: I remember walking into that house and going into Jason’s room and Travis was sitting on the bed, and there are two beds in the room. I’m like, “What the hell are you doing?” and he’s like, “I’m just chilling.”
Hoffman: It was the nastiest room in the house.
Collaros: My mom visited one time. This was when Travis was suspended. She doesn’t like going to the games so she just stayed behind and cleaned the house, which is a story in and of itself. She smells something and walks downstairs in the basement and it’s Trav — smoking a joint. She goes: “Travis, aren’t you suspended for this?!?” He goes: “Hey Momma Collaros, it’s all right. When are we going to the game?” And they walked to the game together.
DeTemple: One time we went out and got some food and came back and the house smelled like weed. We’re all kind of looking around like, “Who’s smoking in here?”
Collaros: Travis was coming up from the basement and he just kind of looked down the hallway like, “Oh shit,” and then ran.
DeTemple: They had that industrial trash can in there.
Collaros: Jason took the top of the metal garbage can and he just threw it at Travis, like he was Oscar the Grouch.
Evan Davis: Travis went in and locked himself in their bedroom and then in their bathroom, so part of the hallway wall was on the other side of the bathroom. So Jason punched through it, missed the studs and went straight through both pieces of drywall into the bathroom.
Parmenter: It was a gaping hole. You could fit an average-sized person through it.
Collaros: I was just like, “Jesus Christ, dude! Did you just break your hand?” He’s like, “Nah, I’m good,” and then sits down and starts eating a Chipotle burrito.
DeTemple: He was like, “Yeah, I b—-ed him out,” and that was it.
Carey: Evan patched that hole up himself so his parents wouldn’t find out about it.
Collaros: Jason feels things deeper than anybody I’ve ever really met. He’s always had that relationship with Travis.
Reuben Johnson: I think Jason knew that the moment Travis started taking it serious, he could become something special.
Hoffman: Travis didn’t want to disappoint Jason. He knew that Jason stuck his neck out for him.
Travis Kelce (Super Bowl media days, 2023): He was my lifeline.
Jason Kelce (Super Bowl media days, 2023): We truly do believe in each other. We always have.
Hoffman: Butch saw the talent Travis had, but the fact that Travis knew that Jason and all of us stuck up for him, there was part of Travis that wanted to prove himself. It brought the best out of him. Travis really turned it up in the weight room that year, and all of that stuff really morphed him.
Travis Kelce (Super Bowl media days, 2023): When I say I owe it all to (Jason), I really do.
Jones: If you talk about love from a big brother and respect from a little brother, those two defined that relationship.
Reuben Johnson: When you look back, there wouldn’t be no Travis Kelce without that year. That was a turning point. He went from being a funny guy to being a leader. He finally put everything together.
Hoffman: By the time he graduated, he was a different person. That maturity in Travis was huge, and that’s the year it clicked for him.
Jones: I always have a group of retired, ex-Navy Seals come in during the offseason and train the team in shared stressful situations, under duress, leadership training. His last year, I’ll never forget, in our debrief they told me the leader of the team was Travis Kelce. I said, “What?” They said Travis has influence, and the players follow him.
Elder: He was a fantastic teammate. He had the team in the palm of his hands because of who he was, just so genuine.
Jason was drafted by the Eagles in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Travis was selected by the Chiefs in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The two have combined for 13 All-Pro honors, 16 Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl titles.
Reuben Johnson: They haven’t changed one bit.
Hoffman: My wife and I went to stay at Jason’s penthouse in Philly. This was before he met Kylie. My wife and I were sleeping on his couch and he just had undeposited paychecks laying around. Like $50,000 between a few checks, and he was like, “Eh, I haven’t gotten around to them yet.” That just defines Jason. He doesn’t care about the money.
Carey: Jason was in my wedding and Travis came to it, and I remember when we were sending out invitations I told my wife, “We’re not wasting postage on him.” I just called Travis and told him the date.
Hoffman: Yup, that’s what I did too.
DeTemple: Those two, they don’t plan ahead. A couple years ago, they were supposed to come to town for Travis to walk at graduation at Cincinnati, because he finally got his degree. His mom and dad were going to be there, everything. Of course, Travis and Jason don’t show up. Jason’s side of the story was that he called Travis, and Travis told him he missed the flight and wasn’t going to be there. Jason was at the airport, ready to come to Cincinnati for it, and he said he just got in an Uber and went back home. If Travis isn’t going, I’m not going either. Meanwhile the university is waiting for them to show up, probably had all this s— prepared for it. … (But) they’re just so funny and fun loving you’re like, all right, whatever. They win you right back over.
Hoffman: That’s what made all of it so cool. We all had that family mentality. I consider them family.
Carey: Two of the most genuine people you’ll ever come across. It permeates those around them. Everyone else is getting to see what all of us already knew.
Jones: Those two mean everything to me. There are certain people who come along in your coaching career who really define why you do it. Jason and Travis Kelce are the reason why I do what I do.
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(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Streeter Lecka / Getty Images, Courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics)