ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – As tight end Travis Kelce walked down the hill and onto the practice fields at Missouri Western, the crowd that turned up at sunrise for Saturday's practice gave him a round of applause.
After spending all of last season on injured reserve and dealing with a knee injury that many though could jeopardize his playing career, Kelce finally showed a glimpse of his potential in the Chiefs' preseason opener. The athletic Kelce got loose over the middle, hauled in a pass and then out-ran the entire Bengals secondary on what turned into a 69-yard touchdown reception.
It was exactly the kind of play the Chiefs envisioned Kelce making when he was chosen in the third round out of Cincinnati. And it was why the fans Saturday were cheering him on.
"I think everyone is extremely happy for Travis. The guy's been through a lot," quarterback Alex Smith said. "It's been a long time since he's seen some action, but everyone can verify, the guy never leaves the facility.
"This offseason, OTAs, training camp, he's been there rehabbing, putting in extensive hours trying to get healthy, and it was a good step to see him out there in preseason."
Tight ends figure prominently in coach Andy Reid's spread offense, just as they do throughout the league these days. Their ability to stretch the field helps take pressure off wide receivers such as Dwayne Bowe, and it loosens up defenses for running back Jamaal Charles.
The problem is that while starting tight end Anthony Fasano is dependable, he's also better at run blocking than receiving. So when Kelce hurt his knee last season and required microfracture surgery, it deprived the Chiefs of their best down-field option off the line of scrimmage.
"With Travis being back, and the emergence of Demetrius Harris and Richard Gordon is in the mix, these guys are athletic and they compete," offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said, "and they give us that explosiveness at the tight end position. They allow us to do more two- and three-tight end sets on the field, so we're excited to see what comes out."
Kelce certainly arrived in Kansas City with a pass-catching pedigree. He caught 45 passes for more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns his senior season with the Bearcats. And that production sent him climbing up draft boards, even though he carried along some character questions – he was suspended his entire sophomore season for a violation of team rules.
He insisted on draft night that those issues were in the past, and so far Kelce has been a model teammate. When he could have sulked about his injury, he instead redoubled his efforts to get back on the field. When the Chiefs were headed to the playoffs without him, Kelce became their biggest cheerleader, enjoying the ride the best that he could.
Of course, nothing can replace being in the thick of the action.
"It was the worst," Kelce said Thursday night. "Just knowing that I finally made it to where I wanted to be in life and still not be able to get out there, it hurt pretty bad. But last year is last year and I'm focused on this year."
He got off to a good start against Cincinnati. Kelce finished with a pair of catches in limited time, and never showed any signs of the injury that derailed him last season.
"He showed a little speed at the end, I mean, heck, he was pulling away from secondary players," Reid said. "That wasn't just a linebacker. I was impressed with that. He did some in-line blocking, some line-of-scrimmage blocking, which I thought he did a good job of."