What Drew Me to the Game?

"What draws you to your favorite song, your favorite book? It's what makes you feel. The seriousness of it. The intensity of it."

After 13 seasons with the Eagles, center Jason Kelce retired after 13 years. Through a tearful 45-minute speech, Kelce went through his high school, college, and NFL football careers, thanked the city of Philadelphia and his wife Kylie for their support, and shared memories of his time on the Birds.

The full transcript of Kelce’s speech is below:

There I lay, face up in the cool morning’s dew-covered grass, waiting for a whistle I knew would come at any second, knowing full well Anthony Harrell was a couple yards away on the ground waiting for the same. The foreign objects that rest upon my shoulders and head weighed me down and unbalanced my awaiting body.

As the whistle blew, I arose, turned all in one motion and ran to my teammate. It isn’t even the collision I remember most, but the feeling before of “What in the f— is about to happen? How is it going to feel? Will I win?”

Whenever I smell the clippings of a freshly mowed grass, I am brought back to this day. Twelve years old, Roxboro Middle School, first day in pads.

I’ve been asked many times, why did I choose football, what drew me to the game? And I never have an answer that gets it right.

The best way I can explain it is, what draws you to your favorite song, your favorite book? It’s what it makes you feel. The seriousness of it. The intensity of it.

Stepping on the field was the most alive and free I had ever felt. There was a visceral feeling with football unlike any other sport. The hairs on my arms would stand up. I could hit somebody, run around like a crazed lunatic, and then get told, “Good job.”

I love football. Whether it was in my back yard with my brother, on the playground with my friends, or suiting up on Friday nights at Cleveland Heights High School. I loved everything about it.

Although I hadn’t met him yet, Jeff Stoutland often shares a quote his father would tell him: “More often than not, the easy way is the wrong way.”

Football was hard. Much harder than any sport I had ever played, physically and mentally.

In most other sports, I was bigger, faster, strong than everyone else. On the football field, those traits were matched. On the lacrosse field, I felt like LeBron James. On the football field, I was Billy Hoyle.

I loved the challenge that football was. The joy of winning, the anxiety of defeat. The anxiety of the unknown, and the camaraderie of my teammates.

I’d like to thank my high school football coaches Mike Jones, Damion Creel, Kahari Hicks, and Gary Wroblewski. Coach Wrobo, you know who you are. My hockey coaches Kurt Gunther, Steve Bogas, and Eddie Babcox, and my lacrosse coaches, Felipe Quintana and Ben Beckman. I’d also like to thank my band teacher, Brett Baker.

All of you taught me countless lessons and put up with a very young, rambunctious kid that was full of immaturity, stupidity, and cockiness. I would without question not be where I am today without your efforts with me, and the countless other children you served in my brother and I’s home town, Cleveland Heights.

From Cleveland Heights, I entered the University of Cincinnati as a walk-on. As a linebacker, I had no idea what to expect, but scenes from Rudy would often race in my mind.

It became apparent immediately that walk-ons would have to fight harder for their opportunities than the rest of the team. I had no stars, no investment from the team or the coaches. I’d have to earn everything.

And that’s good. Because I had no clue what hard work was yet. Knowing that I had to earn my respect every day made me committed like never before.

In my first college weightlifting session, graduate assistant Jordan Roth put me through the hardest weightlifting session I had ever been through. At the end of it, he said if I could walk around the perimeter of the weight room holding my hands above my head, I could leave. And if I couldn’t hold my hands above my head, I’d have to stay and clean the whole weight room. I found out later that cleaning the weight room was something I would get used to.

That entire year I consider a blessing. Dantonio ran a tough program. The weight room was even tougher, and I redefined in my mind what working hard actually was.

They pushed me into areas of fatigue I didn’t know I had. And for that experience, I am forever grateful to all of them.

After redshirting my first year, Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati for Michigan State, and we hired up-and-coming head coach from central Michigan, Brian Kelly. This turned out to be the biggest turning point in my career.

Not because of Brian. He was great, and we enjoyed tremendous success together. But because he brought with him strength coach Paul Longo.

Two weeks into winter workouts, Paul whispered to be in the middle of warmups, “You’d make a great center.”

I shrugged it off. Offensive line? Never in a million years did I think I’d play that position.

Paul was different. As opposed to working guys into the ground, his motto was, “Work smarter, not harder.” His main goal was to improve us as athletes and make us stronger, faster, more explosive. He didn’t care about anything else.

Once during a conditioning drill, I saw a teammate struggling to keep up during a run, so I slowed down to encourage him, and he yelled at me. He said, “You run this exercise the best you can. Lead from the front — it’s my job to take care of the back.”

Paul moved me to offensive line that spring, and it ended up being the single greatest move that ever happened to me as a football player.

There are too many people to thank from my times in Cincinnati, so I’d like to limit it to coaches Paul Longo, Jeff Quinn, Brian Kelly, Mark Dantonio, strength coaches Tim Swanger, Dave Andrews, coach Kerry Coombs, coach Butch Jones, as well as athletic trainer Bob Mangine and orthopedic doctor Angelo Colosimo. Of course, all of my teammates and friends, university support staff — all of you made my time there something I wouldn’t trade for the world. Some of the most enjoyable years of my life.

After my senior year ended, it became apparent the NFL would be an opportunity, although few teams had interest in a lineman that weighed 280 pounds. Lucky for me, the Eagles had just hired Howard Mudd, a legendary coach who valued offensive linemen for their athleticism more than their size.

Having watched and emulated Jeff Saturday in my own game, it all felt too perfect when the Eagles selected me in the sixth round. Immediately after being drafted, my agent Jason Bernstein said, “You have no idea how perfect this is. You’re going to fit in great in Philadelphia. This is your kind of town.”

Thirteen seasons in Philadelphia, and I look back on a career filled with ups and downs.

I’d like to thank the four head coaches I played for — Andy Reid, Chip Kelly Doug Pederson, and Nick Sirianni. I consider myself lucky to have played for each of you.

I’d like to thank Jeffrey Lurie for his dedication to building an organization that values its employees as people and gives them the resources necessary to thrive. I’ve only had one boss, so I don’t know much to compare it to, but Jeffrey always made it a point to show his appreciation and love for his players on and, more importantly, off the field.

I’d like to thank Howie Roseman for drafting me and for always working hard to improve our team, even from the other side of the building that one year. Whether it be coaches, players, salary cap, or the numerous other things you control, you work tirelessly and calculatedly to improve this organization.

I’d like to thank Big Dom DiSandro, truly the life force of this organization. No one gives more time and energy to this team. At the drop of a hat, Dom is by your side. My family and I give our sincerest thank yous for always treating us with dignity and assistance.

There are so many teammates, coaches, support staff, trainers, equipment and cafeteria workers — you guys have no idea the amount of people in this building it takes to assist our players and me. I’d like to thank you all by name, but we’d be here far too long for anyone to continue listening.

So, instead, I will share memories, if that’s all right with you all. When I look back down the road, I’m sure there are things I will forget. But these are some of things I’m sure I won’t.

I won’t forget the call I got from Andy Reid on draft day, and my father rushing into the room with tears streaming down his face as his son’s dreams had just been realized. It had just been announced on TV I had been drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.

And I won’t forget two years later, that same man, and my brother receiving a call, and him being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs, this time the tears streaming down both my father and I’s face as my brother had realized his own.

I won’t forget the first time I saw Jason Peters do a one-on-one pass set with Trent Cole, and being amazed at the speed, balance and power I just witnessed. It reminded me, or looked like, a grizzly bear wrestling a panther. It was so impressive, it made me question if I was good enough to play in this league. I watched the next couple guys go and thought, “OK, I can do this.”

I won’t forget Thirsty Thursdays at 879, a bar owned by Brent Celek and Todd Herremans that stayed open a whole six months because nobody paid for a drink. Poor business practices indeed. That bar may have closed quickly, but the friendships it forged remain open to this day.

I won’t forget my second training camp, walking downstairs in my Lehigh dorm to paramedics rushing in, and coach Dave Culley’s look on his face. It made the expression like he had seen a ghost a whole lot clearer. I asked if I could help. He said, ‘No, just go to practice.’ We found out later at practice that Garrett Reid had passed away. Only a few hours after that, Andy addressed the team. It was the most intense moment I’ve ever shared with a group of men. The outpouring of support and love for my friend and the Reid family at the funeral soon after was truly remarkable.

I won’t forget Chip Kelly’s first game as Eagles head coach against the Washington Redskins. We ran close to 50 plays in the first half. We were so tired, but it didn’t matter because they couldn’t stop us. The NFL had never seen something like this before, and I remember all of us thinking after that game, “This is going to change the NFL.”

I won’t forget walking out onto a snowless field for warmups against the Detroit Lions, and then walking out of the tunnel to a blizzard. The Lions and white jerseys blended into the snow so well, I could not see the secondary of the defense, and the second half was all LeSean McCoy. He somehow figured out how to cut on a dime that day, and, man, it was incredible to watch. It was probably the most fun game of football I’ve ever been in. It felt like we were all kids again that day, just playing in the back yard.

I won’t forget finding in the 2017 Rams game that Carson Wentz had tore his ACL. The whole team had an uneasy feeling in the locker room, all of us questioning what this would mean — until Malcolm Jenkins addressed the team. He gave a very typical Malcolm speech, invoking confidence in who we were, and breaking it down with his patented, “We all we got, and we all we need.”

I won’t forget Nick Foles having the game of his life on the biggest stage possible. And the biggest d— on the team going up to Doug Pederson and asking for the Philly Special, and Doug Pederson having the biggest balls in the stadium to say, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And Brandon Graham finding a way to stop Tom Brady once — literally, once — and the way the ball hung in the air on that last Hail Mary, and how it felt like an eternity. Just looking, no sound registering, completely engulfed in the moment. When it finally landed, running onto the field, looking for a flag — anything that would mean it was over. We had done it.

I won’t forget the parade, and what it meant to the city of Philadelphia. The joy it brought our community, and the closure it gave to so many. The stories from fans that had been waiting generations for that moment fulfilled that triumph to another level. On the route, I remember meeting a woman with ashes of a dead relative whom she had promised wouldn’t miss the parade if the Eagles had ever won it. A speech that had written itself, and one that had symbolized what we had all lived as players, as a team, and as a city. That wasn’t my speech, it was Philadelphia’s.

I won’t forget my mother becoming mom of the NFL, a representative for all moms out there who have sacrificed so much for their children.

I won’t forget Nick Sirianni sending me kegs of beer to convince me to keep playing these last few years. He knows the key to my heart.

I won’t forget making the playoffs in his first season, the Super Bowl in his next, and the immense heartbreak at the collapse of this last season. And although last season truly sucked, I wouldn’t trade any of my time with you, or those teams, for the world. Everything happens for a reason, and I’ve truly enjoyed my time with you, coach. Sometimes, the flowers get knocked back a bit, but the roots remain, and I can’t wait to watch what re-blossoms this next season.

I won’t forget falling short to the Chiefs. This is where it’s going to go off the rails.

I won’t forget falling short to the Chiefs, and the conflicting feeling of immense heartbreak I had selfishly for myself and my teammates, and at the same time the amount of pride I had that my brother had climbed the mountaintop once again.

We have a small family, no cousins, one aunt and one uncle. It was really my brother and I our whole lives. We did almost everything together — competed, fought, laughed, cried, and learned from each other. We invented games, imagined ourselves as star players of that time. We’d envision making plays day after day on Coleridge Road. We won countless Super Bowls in our minds before every leaving the house.

And when we weren’t playing, we were at the other one’s games, but seated in a lawn chair, or a bench, a Capri Sun in our hand that mom had packed, cheering during the game, and waiting outside afterward to celebrate a victory together, or offer encouragement after a defeat. There is no chance I would be here without the bond Travis and I share. It made me stronger, tougher, smarter, and it taught me the values of cooperation, loyalty, patience, and understanding. It’s only too poetic I found my career being fulfilled in the City of Brotherly Love. I knew that relationship all too well.

Some people struggle to play in this city. They can’t handle the boos, the media, or our fans. I consider it a great blessing to play in the most passionate sports town in America. The sense of urgency in this city to win has pushed our organization, has pushed it to take chances, fix problems, and work tirelessly in an effort to win.

At times, you hate it as an athlete — especially those new to our city. But when you’ve been through it enough, you learn to appreciate it. No one celebrates their own like the City of Philadelphia. Athletes become demigods in this city, even ones whose deeds spanned decades before.

The Eagles are the number one ticket in town, the most talked-about thing at nearly every moment. With that amount of attention, you better be ready to overcome the lows that will happen, and be ready to persevere in the face of the criticism.

Yes, they will let you know when you are not performing well — every time. But they will also love you if you show effort, aggression, desire, the will to fight. They will love you in this city if you love it the way you love your brother. You will be loved by going above and beyond to show that you care, because they care. They’ve been caring for generations in this town about this team, and they aren’t about to accept a bunch of excuses and soft-ass nonsense representing the name on the front of the jersey, something they’ve invested their entire lives in.

If you don’t like what the fans and media are saying as a player, it’s very easy: Love them, treat them like your brothers, and go out and play your balls off. Wear your heart on your sleeve, and I guarantee you change those narratives.

I remember seeing Zach Ertz shy away from a block one game against Vontaze Burfict and the Cincinnati Bengals. Rightfully so, the fans ripped him apart, crushing him for doing it. The next week, the first catch I saw Zach Ertz snag, he ran after the catch like I had never seen. It took three guys to bring him down, and I heard the Linc erupt with cheers for his effort. Today, you won’t find a single Philadelphian with a bad word to say about Zach Ertz and the legacy he left behind.

As players, you write the narratives. The fans and media, for the most part, it’s occasionally different, only write what you give them. If you go above and beyond in this city, you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams.

I saw firsthand the wrath of the Eagles fans in the 2016 Eagles season, and rightfully so. I had an awful start to that season where I was often overpowered, had many holding penalties that cost our team, and looked like one of the worst centers in the league. I was wanted out of town by nearly everyone, and it wasn’t just the fans that wanted me gone. It was nearly everyone in this organization.

That offseason, I heard trade rumors galore, and speculation I’d be cut. I imagine if the Eagles had received a trade offer for a brand new set of washing machines, they may have pulled the trigger.

Now, if I was in charge, I would have pulled the trigger. There’s only one person in this building who still wanted me, and it’s he who I have to thank most for the career I’ve had. And that’s Jeff Stoutland.

No one has been more influential or meaningful to my success on the field in my career than Stout. I think one of the greatest things a human being can give another is belief. This world, life, they can be hard. They can challenge yourself to points of self-doubt, and that is a dangerous place to be.

But I am lucky. My whole life, I have been surrounded by people that have believed in me. My father, my mother, my brother, Paul, Howard Mudd, and in my darkest hours in Philadelphia, Stout was the one who believed in me. He was adamant my problems could be fixed with proper technique, fundamentals, and work. And work we did.

That offseason at training camp, I focused on using my hands better, playing with leverage, proper footwork, and prepared with an edge to prove to myself that I was good enough.

The following season in 2017, I enjoyed the finest season of my 13-year career — not only as a player, but as a team. And it meant more because of the struggles and work we had been through.

Without him, I doubt any of this would have been possible, or that I’d still be here. Since that offseason, I have amassed six All-Pros, five Pro Bowls, and am recognized by some as one of the best centers to ever play the game.

I am very proud, knowing what I once was, and the legacy I have left behind. And the man we can all thank is Jeff Stoutland.

Second Stout quote of the evening: “No man is an island. We must draw our strengths from others.”

I’d like to thank my teammates — my other brothers. Oh, how I’ve drawn my strengths from you all. I was fortunate to play with great players — some of the best this league has to offer. But it was really off the field, just sitting in the cafeteria with my teammates breaking bread and talking about life that were some of the most meaningful times I spent in my career.

The NFL is truly like no other place, and at the same time, represents America as a whole like no other. Fat offensive linemen from Cleveland play on the same field as skinny wide receivers from Louisiana and kickers from Chicago. Tight ends from Stanford play next to tackles from Kilgore Community College. Defensive ends from inner city Detroit play next to defensive tackles from Yazoo City, Mississippi. Six-foot-nine Jordan Mailata plays the same sport as four-foot-eight Darren Sproles.

The melting pot of geographic location, economic background, race, body type, personality and athletic traits of an NFL locker room is truly remarkable. And we all rely on each other and respect one another and each of our differences because we know we’re stronger together.

I will always cherish this brotherhood, the relationships it fostered, and how unique an experience it has been to enjoy the field with you all. Coming to work every day with a group of men who are driven to be the best in the world at what they do is an environment that will surely be hard to replicate.

I won’t forget the Eagles Christmas party in 2014, and heading out afterwards with a bunch of my teammates to Buffalo Billiards, where my life would change forever. That night, I’d meet my future wife.

I still remember the moment she walked through the door. The first instance is burned in my retina. It was like she glided through the opening, an aura around her. Then she started talking, and I thought, “Man, is this what love feels like?”

She was beautiful and smart. Serious, yet playful. I knew it right away. I think it’s no coincidence I have enjoyed my best years of my career with Kylie by my side. Every accolade I have ever received has come with her in my life. She has brought the best out of me through love, devotion, support, honesty, intelligence, and, of course, a swift kick in the ass from time to time.

She has also given me three beautiful girls, and a life that increasingly brings me more fulfillment off the field than it does on. We’ve had a great run, Ky.

I am a product of my upbringing. I think one of the best things a person can be in this world is a father. A father who is present, loving, devoted just might be the greatest gift a child could ask for in our society. And I have a damn good one.

My father believed in me more than anyone. He believed in my brother. And whenever my own insecurities would arise, or self-doubt would come in, he would stifle them with the warm embrace of belief, unwavering love and belief.

My father worked in the steel industry in Cleveland for the majority of his life. I remember him taking me into a plant one time and standing in awe of the molten steel, and watching a giant ladle containing a bunch of it hover over our heads just feet away. The heat radiated when the molten steel was in sight, and I remember thinking how amazing my father’s work was.

He was the man, and continues to be the man and father I strive to be.

My mother was part of a generation of females that was largely the first of their families to go to college. When deciding to go to college, her own father said he disagreed with the idea, telling her instead she should become a secretary, or be a wife. In fact, the only thing that convinced him into letting her go to college was my grandmother’s insistence that my mother would find an educated man to settle down with, and that would mean more money for the family.

Mom took the opportunity to go to college and graduated from the Ohio University, worked in banking for over 40 years, climbing the corporate ladder from teller to a VP, and was largely the breadwinner for our family. I like to think I got my toughness, aggression and lunch pail mentality from my father, and from my mother I learned the all-too-important lesson of never letting anyone tell you what you can’t do.

So, this all brings us here to today, where I announce that I am retiring from the NFL after 13 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.

And today, I must admit, I am officially overrated. Vastly overrated. But f—, it took a lot of hard work and determination getting here. I have been the underdog my entire career, and I mean this when I say it: I wish I still was.

Few things gave me more joy than proving someone wrong. My mother used to tell people, and still says to this day, if you want Jason to do something, all you have to do is tell him he can’t. And that was true in more ways than I care to admit.

I relish doubters. They fuel the fire within. I suspect that comes from an upbringing where my parents would tell me, “Jason, you can do, you can be, anything in this world that you want do, as long as you put your mind to it, and work hard to achieve it.”

So, whenever I was faced with doubt in my career — be it from fans, from coaches, from my own teammates — the American dream would burn from deep inside my bones.

Which leads to my last Jeff Stoutland quote: “Hungry dogs run faster.”

Thank you, Philadelphia, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for letting me represent this city, and allowing me into your homes every Sunday. It has truly been a privilege. You have all been so good to me and my family.

Growing up in Cleveland, I watched all of my favorite athletes leave the city. Hell, a whole team left the city.

It has always been a goal of mine to play my whole career in one city, and I couldn’t have dreamt of a better one, and a better fit, if I tried. I don’t know what’s next, but I look forward to the new challenges and opportunities that await, and I know that I carry with me the lessons from my time here, and that forever, we shall all share the bond of being Philadelphians.

That’s all I got.

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