'The Wild Side:' How George Kittle and Travis Kelce harness the animal within
Like Ditka and Gonzalez and Gronk and Shockey, these two standards of the position today work hard... and play hard. You've got to be a little crazy to dominate as an NFL tight end.
Rob Gronkowski slipped into a time machine and relived it all. He was giddy with each story. The New England Patriots tight end wishes this stage of his life could’ve lasted forever. Because at his peak? Nobody lived the football dream quite like “Gronk.”
The kid who idolized Jeremy Shockey from Buffalo, N.Y., took such a work-hard, play-hard blueprint to a new level.
“You’re partying. You’re drinking. You’re throwing some back. You’re running people over,” Gronkowski said in The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football. “That’s just how you picture it, man. Just living it up like we were in a movie. Living that party life in the NFL, and also going out and playing in the games and dominating. I would definitely say in my younger 20s we were rocking out big time.”
He partied with musicians. Waka Flocka Flame will never forget the Gronk Cruise.
He shared the WWE ring with Mojo Rawley.
He twerked at music festivals.
He was able to sneak in a ton of hard partying before social media blurred the lines of private and public life.
“And I’m glad I got it in, man,” Gronkowski continued. “I didn’t want to sit here like, ‘Man, I didn’t live how I wanted to live in the NFL.’ I did it. That’s how I thought the NFL should be. Rocking out like a rock star off the field and on the field. There’s no regrets. I lived it up.”
The best tight ends through history are proficient in the alcohol department. It’s a rite of passage.
Gronk ripped through vodka-waters to stay hydrated, while also avoiding a beer gut. The ultimate win-win. A night of partying was essentially a prolonged workout because he never stopped dancing. He’s convinced that gyrating his limbs and hips nonstop helped fuel his football career. He was constantly burning calories. Not that his dancing was nearly as synchronized as he thought. (“Everyone said it looked like I was having a seizure and I thought I was killing it.”) His hero, Shockey, ordered vodka-sodas from his go-to spot in Miami Beach when we chatted. Showing off his missing knuckle, this tight end reveled more in the bar fights won over the years. Shockey assured he’s undefeated, too. While he’s too smart to sock someone in public today — litigation, etc. — Shockey is a legend in Brazil. Tony Gonzalez partied hard those first two years at the University of California. The man who founded the position itself, Mike Ditka, slugged opponents on the field and raised hell off it… to the point of near-destruction.
Then, there are the two players who’ve taken the position to a new level: Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and San Francisco’s George Kittle.
They’ll duel in another Super Bowl this Sunday night at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Kittle enjoyed “Loaded Coronas” back at the University of Iowa. Kelce was more apt to go wild inside the infamous off-campus house at 127 W. Nixon Street in Cincinnati, a “real-life ‘Animal House.’” Quarterback Zach Collaros recalls two Keystone Light-fueled drinking games above all else: “Wayne Brewski” and “Hockey.” (The latter chipped up all of their walls.)
No player embodies the sport itself like the NFL Tight End. You block 300-pound defensive ends. You run routes vs. 180-pound defensive backs. And to be the best of the very best, frankly, screws must be loose. It’s imperative that you possess an element of crazy. Tight ends themselves, Ditka to Kittle, do their best to define this quality in Blood and Guts. The greatest ever find a way to remain their authentic self, to come dangerously close to the line of self-destruction without ever crossing it.
Both Kelce and Kittle were in danger of disappearing from the sport for good in college. A decade ago, a game like this didn’t seem possible.
But like Gronk before them, they mastered that balance to tame the wild animal inside for good.
How did a college night out with Kittle compare to a night with Kelce?
Let’s start in Iowa City.
Former Hawkeyes star running back LeShun Daniels begins with a declaration: He refuses to say anything that’ll get Kittle in trouble. Initially, his memories are Rated-G. Daniels recalls their unique handshakes and touchdown celebrations and how Kittle always made people laugh, no, “crack up” inside the locker room. The tight end was a free spirit who’d brighten up everyone’s day with a “super contagious” personality.
But even Daniels cannot help himself.
A night out with Kittle was guaranteed to be a night you’d never forget.
Go Long is completely independent. No ads. No sponsors.
New readers: We’d love to welcome you to our community today:
“With George, he’s on the wild side,” Daniels says. “Even if you’ve never met him, you get the idea: This guy’s a little crazy. So if you do go out with him, to a bar, he’s probably going to be taking shots. He was definitely one of my favorite teammates to go out with. You knew that if you were out with him, you’d have a fantastic time.”
The go-to were those “Loaded Coronas.” That’s how they typically got the night started.
With Kittle leading the charge, guys would order bottles of Corona, take a few sips, and then pour in shots of tequila.
“And that was something we’d do on a consistent basis whenever we’d go out,” Daniels adds. “It sounds terrible. I don’t even know why we did it. Back then, it was fantastic.”
Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg wasn’t a drinker, but Kittle convinced him to join the boys a couple times.
He, too, bites his tongue at first and says the most wild stories cannot see the light of day.
“But,” VandeBerg adds, “he’s got a way of trying to get everybody on his level, I’ll put it that way. He’s a very generous drinker.”
When Kittle said it was time to do Irish Car Bombs… it was time to do Irish Car Bombs. Before VandeBerg could call an audible to something less intoxicating, there was the 255-pound tight end — much beefier those days — handing him a drink that looked like something obtained from a muddy ditch out back. VandeBerg found the concoction utterly disgusting. He had never consumed this combination of Guinness, Baileys and Jameson Irish Whiskey before. After two bombs, VandeBerg decided he had enough. With a “No, no, no, you and me! Let’s go!” Kittle tried to keep him around. It didn’t work.
VandeBerg headed home. Kittle’s night had only begun.
Elsewhere, in Cincinnati, Travis Kelce wasn’t the same bar hound. Nor was he getting overly creative with cocktails. Rather, Kelce and co. turned that off-campus house into a pigsty littered in beer cans. Two drinking games always got the night started. “Wayne Brewski” was straightforward enough. On the Nintendo 64 Wayne Gretzky hockey video game, Bearcat teammates played 2 on 2. If you scored a goal, the other team needed to chug beer until the next puck was dropped at the faceoff.
That might not seem too harmful… until you realize 13 or 14 goals were usually scored in what’s essentially a six-minute window. Collaros and Jason Kelce could light the lamp as teammates.
The best game, however, was “hockey.” Collaros can’t remember guys giving this one a fancy name. Everyone would gather ‘round the dining-room table and hold two fingers in front of a beer can to serve as a goalie. A quarter served as a pseudo puck. Whoever possessed this puck would give it a good spin and then yell out a player’s name before flicking the quarter at that player’s beer can for a goal.
Thirteen bucks for a 30 rack of Keystones kept the games flowing.
If Jason dominated “Wayne Brewski,” Travis won most games of “hockey.”
The tight end’s hand-eye coordination, Collaros adds, was unbelievable.
“You could either tap the quarter or you could smack it as hard as you want at somebody’s beer can who was blocking the beer can with their fingers,” Collaros explains. “And if they blocked it, it was fine. But if you hit the beer can, they’d have to drink it until the quarter was back up on the table. And if you put the quarter into the beer can, they had to chug the whole thing.”
If the rules remain a little hazy, the objective was not: Start the night with a good buzz. All of these quarter slap shots marked up the walls, broke windows and occasionally dinged a player directly in the face. Practice, however, made perfect. Eventually, these games resembled Bubble Hockey, Air Hockey, anything you’d see at the local arcade or bar.
Says Collaros: “Over time, you get pretty good at something you do over and over again, right?”
Players shared many more stories to The Athletic last month. When Travis was suspended a year for using marijuana — and teammates caught him smoking a joint in the basement — Jason was irate. Jason launched the top of a metal garbage can at Travis “like he was Oscar the Grouch,” Collaros recalled. And when Travis locked himself in the bathroom, Jason punched a massive hole through the wall. The house reeked of weed. He did not want his little brother screwing up again.
Of course, this is how so many tight end forefathers lived.
The key, all realize, is to work just as hard as you party.
Down in Coral Gables, Fla., one game-winning touchdown catch vs. Florida State changed the trajectory of Shockey’s life. Suddenly, he never had to pay for a drink. He was welcomed at any club he desired. Co-eds threw themselves (quite literally) at Shockey. Running back Jarrett Payton vividly remembers the stench of Bacardi Limon emanating off of Shockey in the huddle one practice. Drenched in sweat, the wild child was clearly coping with an all-time hangover. On to NYC, as a New York Giant, he lived on the back pages of the tabloids. The world saw Shockey dating models and partying with Derek Jeter, but all photographs captured by the paparazzi were merely a head-fake to the reality that Shockey was obsessed with football.
Whenever he did drink, Shockey felt a rush of guilt. He’d often wake up at 3 a.m. to do 100 pushups. He brought a “military mentality” to the sport. Maybe it seemed like he was distracted by women but Shockey pointed out that he never had a wife or a girlfriend because he believed that only brought unnecessary drama.
With the Saints, later in his career, Shockey told Reggie Bush the running back would be in the Hall of Fame if he wasn’t dating Kim Kardashian.
“It was very simple: Play football,” Shockey said. “Don’t have any of the headaches. It makes life very simple. I love kids. But you see it with a lot with guys out of college. They have a baby mama and have to pay, pay, pay. If they didn’t have this problem, how successful would they be? … I was good at getting girls. Ain’t nobody sleeping over and I ain’t going to your house. It ain’t like that. Sorry.
“I just feel like I had to be responsible for the whole locker room. So if I’m worried about this or a girl I got pregnant, how the f--k am I going to remember my plays? It’s impossible. Like I said, it was something that was always instilled in me. When I was 14, my Mom gave me a box of condoms and said if I wanted to have sex to use a condom. At 14! So, it’s very common sense.”
After a bad game, players knew where to find Shockey. He was loading 45-pound plates onto the squat rack.
He returned the sport to its bloody roots. When one kid threw a beer bottle at him back in high school, Shockey balled up a fist and broke his orbital bone, nose and jaw. That’s how he’d go on to treat NFL defenses, too. He played with merciless vengeance.
We all remember Gronkowski dancing his heart out after his Super Bowl XLVI loss his second pro season. The Patriots tight end unapologetically tore his shirt off and party-rocked with his brothers and the band LMFAO at a postgame party in Indianapolis. Most of the public was appalled. Ex-Patriot Rodney Harrison said Gronk would’ve gotten his head rung if he was his teammate. But, no, he did not rush to hire a full team of PR handlers. Apologize? All that night did was launch the “Summer of Gronk.” He gave approximately zero bleeps what anyone thought, posing nude for ESPN’s The Body Issue, joking that he’d like to take Tim Tebow’s virginity and enjoying the greatest house party of his life. He wouldn’t divulge details in our chat. Gronk only giggled and said the party became known as “Ratio,” an obvious reference to the number of men present vs. the number of women.
The “Gronk Cruise” soon became a source of unforgettable mayhem for all involved.
He was an instant TMZ celebrity. Broken forearm ‘n all, cameras captured Gronkowski body-slamming one of his brothers at a Vegas nightclub.
But after most ragers — early in the AM — Gronkowski made a point to work out just as hard. The brothers would hit play on an INSANITY workout and burn off the hangover with virtual trainer Shaun T.
This delicate balance is something Kittle and Kelce grew to understand, too. All you need to do is listen to Kelce atop any championship podium scream the Beastie Boys chorus: “You’ve gotta fight for your right to party!” Growing up, Kittle’s parents tried to say “No” as little as possible. His father, Bruce, more so gave his son “conditional yeses” to foster creativity. He viewed parenting as wide boundaries on a football field. If George could stay in the field of play, he was allowed to call any plays he wanted.
Both tight ends brought as much joy as they possibly could to the sport through college.
Kittle has always tried to live as if the 13-year-old version of himself would be proud of what he became.
“You always see a smile,” Daniels says. “Even when things aren’t going his way, he’s always finding ways to keep everybody’s spirits up: ‘Hey man, we still got this.’ At Iowa, he was super underrated as a leader. Over time, it’s obviously shown in the NFL that, yeah, this is a guy you really want to be able to follow. It helps when those guys are the best players on the team. But I think he’s super underrated as a leader.”
The best way Collaros can describe his tight end at Cincinnati is that we all have that one person in our lives we innately want to be around.
“He has a magnetic personality,” says the Winnipeg Blue Bomber who’s been named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2021 and 2022. “He’s a good person. He cares about people. And I think that lends his hand as well to leadership. It’s his authenticity, him being true to himself. It’s never an act. He’s obviously very good with the cameras on him, and now the cameras are on him all the time. So he’s funny and engaging, but he’s always just been somebody that people love to be around. Doesn’t matter if it’s a teammate or somebody in his class or even teachers. He had the gift of probably getting out of missing a class or something because he’s probably so polite and charming that he could do that.”
Bringing a colorful personality to such a serious game can lead to trouble.
Gronkowski realized he needed to temper his partying to extend his career. The more he drank, the more his muscles ached. He could feel his body breaking down into his late 20s and decided to dial back the debauchery. (“I love the game,” the tight end said, “and the game was starting to get taken away from me because of the off-the-field stuff.”) Gonzalez pointed to two turning points. At Cal, he soon realized how he performed on gameday was a reflection of how much partying he did the night before. Living in the dorms was a bad idea. If anyone was going out, he usually tagged along. One night, sitting atop the Berkeley Hills, it finally hit him: “Dude, wake the f--k up. Why are you wasting this opportunity?” He then molded himself into a 1997 first-round pick. But then, in Year 2 of the pros, an NFL-high 16 drops sent Gonzalez into isolation. In a state of “self-loathing,” he’d drink Jack and Cokes alone in his locked bedroom and blame everyone but himself.
To the extreme, in the 60s, Ditka could’ve lost his life.
Generations of football fans remember Ditka rampaging through NFL defenses with the Chicago Bears… or winning a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys… or leading those ’85 Bears to glory… or fighting with Will Ferrell in “Kicking and Screaming.” What’s long forgotten is his 1967 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Ditka has labeled this juncture of his life “purgatory on earth.” Living by himself in a downtown apartment, he drank every night. He’d wake up in strange places with zero clue how he even got there. There were no impromptu workouts through his hangovers, either. The next morning usually felt like a fog — Ditka couldn’t understand what was real and what wasn’t in this state.
The Eagles went 2-12. He wanted to quit the sport for good.
“It seemed to be the thing to do,” said Ditka, 54 years later from his golf course. “You think you’re a big-time football player — ‘I’m going to go get drunk.’ It could’ve been the end of it, really. … I was a mess.”
Tom Landry called and essentially saved Ditka’s life. He signed with the Cowboys, became the leader the team needed, won that ring and became synonymous with the sport itself.
The No. 1 reason Kelce and Kittle have been on a Canton trajectory their entire careers is that both conquered their demons much earlier than all the above.
Kittle might’ve been the Loaded Corona King, but he was a nonfactor as a player his first three seasons. He redshirted in 2012, and caught only six passes the next two seasons. One day, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz told the team the story of Pat Angerer, the linebacker who couldn’t crack the lineup until his junior year and then was drafted in the second round. This story stuck with Kittle. When Angerer then visited the team, Kittle made a point to ask him what changed. Angerer told him he stopped fighting people, stopped drinking in excess and dedicated himself to football.
No, Kittle wasn’t fighting anybody. But he could start picking his spots as a drinker. He stopped getting tipsy on weekdays.
Anxiety was also paralyzing his game. Play to play, Kittle was terrified of making mistakes in practice. So his final year at Iowa, Kittle met with a sports psychologist who gave him the idea of drawing a red button on his wrist tape. That way, he could hit “reset” after every play. Kittle said this fed his “f--t it mentality” as a blocker. Unlike Dallas Clark before him, he did not view Iowa’s strength coach, Chris Doyle, as a fatherly figure. They clashed. Kittle called the program “militaristic.” He pounded protein shakes to put on weight, but he was also lactose intolerant. Getting to 255 tore up his insides.
Clark might’ve loved those winter weightlifting sessions. Not Kittle. Dad reminded his son that nobody could take his joy away unless he let them.
That final collegiate season, Daniels saw a light bulb go off in the tight end’s mind.
As if Kittle suddenly realized he’s too strong and too fast for anyone to tackle him.
“Looking back at it,” Daniels adds, “it would’ve been great to get him more involved if we could have. But things didn’t work out that way. He knew he had that ability. Teammates around him knew he had that ability. So, seeing it in the NFL was no shock to us. I think it was one of those things where he got that wake-up call from the people around him who believed in him and saw the potential he had which allowed him to start taking the football portion of it a little more seriously. But he’s never let go of having fun and living life because, hey man, you only get so much time out here. Make the most out of everything you can.”
Kelce? He was suspended the entire 2010 college football season for failing that drug test. New coach Butch Jones was trying to set a tone at Cincinnati. With tears in his eyes, Jason asked coaches to let Travis back on the team and he earned his way into the lineup. The nation’s perception of weed has changed drastically the last 13 years but, even then, those close to Kelce know the suspension was the best thing for him. It forced Kelce to stare in the mirror and decide how much he loved football. Lifestyle changes were needed.
That year off, Kelce spent long nights chatting with people like Jeff Rotsky, his high school at Cleveland Heights. They’d talk until 2 a.m.
Jason was obviously the No. 1 life-saver, too.
Everything could’ve ended right there for the kid trying to transition from quarterback to tight end.
Instead, like Kittle, he realized this was his future. Kelce rejoined the team in 2011 and caught 44 passes for 722 yards with eight touchdowns in 2012. He had a lot of growing up to do. As one AFC scout told Bob McGinn before the draft: “I wouldn’t touch that guy. He’s a smart ass and he’s a dumb ass. Whatever ass you want to add belongs with his name.” Thinking back to this pivotal moment in Kelce’s life, Rotsky knows the suspension was needed. Years later, Kelce wrote his coach a Thank You note for his words of wisdom.
This is a football career that easily could’ve gone off the rails.
Instead of blaming his coaches for treating a relatively minor infraction so seriously, he got his act together.
“I’m sure it was a motivational tactic to get him to dedicate himself to the sport,” Collaros says. “He always loved football, any sport, anything with competition. But it’s a scary thing anytime you go through things like that. He was able to learn from that. Him having an older brother like Jason and a family like he has, I’m sure helped him there. But it always comes down to the individual, to the person. So you had to get him a ton of credit because a lot of people go the other way in situations like that when they feel the world’s against them or they’re being treated unfairly.
“Some guys just can’t kick whatever that vice is. It’s too important to them or whatever they’re trying to accomplish isn’t important enough.
“Travis — the individual — deserves a lot of the praise for that as well.”
In 2013, the Chiefs selected Kelce in third round (No. 63 overall). Nobody in NFL history has caught more passes in the playoffs than him. Last week, he left Jerry Rice in the dust. Kelce has made nine Pro Bowls, won two rings and eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards seven times. In 2017, the 49ers took Kittle in the fifth round (No. 146 overall). He has made five Pro Bowls, asserting himself as one of the sport’s menacing blockers in addition to three 1,000-yard seasons. They’ve threaded the elusive needle of lighting up defenses on Sunday while still having the time of their lives. Kittle doesn’t want anyone thinking he doesn’t drink anymore. He’s quite proud of his alcohol-related achievements.
Daniels assures Kittle never lost that “crazy energy” he saw at Iowa. VandeBerg calls him a “unique individual” who sincerely loves life. In the middle of summer conditioning — right when you felt ready to die — Kittle was the one cracking hilarious jokes. Tight ends need to trick themselves into thinking they’re more athletic than DBs and stronger than D-Ends. Maybe that’s why they’re a little off, the receiver wonders.
To Collaros, tight end is no different than any profession. The best of the best, the QB says, have “a little shit” to them — they’re confident. He points to Kelce kicking away Justin Tucker’s footballs and tossing his helmet before the AFC Championship Game.
“He’s locked in. It’s not an act,” Collaros says. “He’s kind of snapped himself into another mode there. All great players are able to do that and figure out ways to get themselves into that head space. He’s always had that, whether it’s been on the football field in workouts, pick-up basketball when we were younger, drinking games, video games. He’s got the competitive edge to him.”
A couple years ago, the Cincy gang was back in town for a golf outing and decided to visit their old house at 127 W. Nixon Street.
When they knocked, a fraternity kid answered. He couldn’t believe Travis Kelce was at his doorstep.
Kelce asked if they could check out the old place, the kid couldn’t welcome them in fast enough and… yikes. The former Bearcats were shocked to see that the house was somehow in worse condition than how they left it. Kelce didn’t know that was even possible. The college kid swatting quarters and smoking weed surely was not imagining a life with Taylor Swift back then.
Says Collaros: “We were just a bunch of guys that couldn’t do their own laundry living together.”
Life sure has changed for Kelce and Kittle.
One of them will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night, too.
Interested in more tight end stories from Shockey, Gronk and the gang? If you’d like to buy a signed copy of “Blood and Guts,” email me at email@example.com.
The book is also available on Amazon and everywhere books are sold.