CLEARWATER, Fla. — The latest reminder of what they'd accomplished came on a sunny patch of grass a few steps behind a batting cage. A murmur of excitement swelled through the crowd as the identity of the man in the No. 62 jersey became evident to all. A man in the bleachers yelled his name, and then another organized a chant. They spelled it, then shouted it, then broke into cheers and whistles, and, finally, Jason Kelce obliged them. He turned from his conversation, raised his hand, and forced a smile through his familiar brown beard.
What is the life of a champion like? It's like this, more or less, any venue where the public gathers becoming the potential site of another celebratory rally. On Monday morning, that site was a baseball diamond at the Carpenter Complex, where the Phillies were in the midst of their first full-squad workout of the spring. Kelce, who was already planning on being in Florida, reached out to the Phillies, and manager Gabe Kapler and the rest of the organization welcomed him with open arms.
It's a reception that has become the norm for the veteran center in the two weeks that have passed since he and his Eagles teammates stunned the Patriots in Super Bowl LII and brought the city of Philadelphia its first major sports championship in nine-plus years and its first NFL championship since 1960. While more visible stars such as Nick Foles and Malcolm Jenkins were tapped to represent the Eagles on the week-after talk-show circuit, it is Kelce whom civic history will remember as synonymous with that underdog team, his expletive-laden speech on the Art Museum steps catapulting him into a realm shared only by Chase Utley among post-Colonial Philadelphians.
"It's been pretty crazy, to say the least," Kelce said. "I don't think I expected that before the speech. It was just building up for a long time, and it kind of all just came out in that moment."
He'd learned the night before the parade that he'd be one of the players chosen to speak to the crowd that would fill the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at the terminus of the parade route. The thought of the words he would speak kept him awake, but as he rewound the season in his mind, he found himself settling on a theme. They were underdogs, after all, throughout the playoffs, but also farther than that, all the way up to the top, from the general manager-turned-errand-boy-turned-general manager-again to the coach whom the Eagles supposedly neither wanted nor needed.
"It wasn't all off the cuff," Kelce said. "This is stuff that had been brewing for a long time. The night before, I couldn't really sleep. I was kind of like up, just sitting there thinking. They had just told me I was going to talk, so I was like, what could I say? What should I say? That's when I really started thinking about all the different guys who had overcome things or been counted out and had rebounded well, and it was really from the top down. You saw it with everybody, and you started seeing that parallel with the city of Philadelphia and how much the city has struggled for this championship for a long time and how much they've been kind of down and out. It just all kind of blended together on the spot, I guess."
He is a legend now, a former Ohio schoolboy turned walk-on linebacker who spent seven years making Philadelphia his adopted home and now can't go anywhere in town without hearing his words shouted back at him.
Everybody wonders why we're so mean. Everybody wonders why the Philadelphia Eagles' fans aren't the nicest fans. If I don't eat breakfast, I'm f—ing pissed off! You know what I got to say to all those people who doubted us, all those people that counted us out, and everybody who said we couldn't get it done? What my man Jay Ajayi just said: F— you!
"I watched the tape afterwards, more so to see the reactions of Jeffrey Lurie and Howie [Roseman]," Kelce said. "I was very curious to see how they enjoyed it."
He is returning to normalcy as best he can. After the parade, he spent a week on the beach, and will soon return to Philadelphia to begin his work toward recovering from the season's physical dings. He will turn 31 next season, his eighth as a pro. When he addressed the Phillies before Monday's workout, he focused his message in part on the Eagles' ability to maintain a collective self-belief in the face of extreme external doubt. After watching a marathon practice, he caught up with Kapler one last time. They exchanged hugs and affirmations, and then went their separate ways.
"The media and everybody else do a good job of keeping it rolling, you know," Kelce said. "Now, I'm kind of happy that I won that thing, happy that we got that done, it's unbelievable, but you can't keep living with that your whole life. You've got to move on."