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Jason Kelce ‘leads the orchestra’: 12 years of stories on the Eagles’ offensive line

Philadelphia knows Jason Kelce.

As the center enters his 12th season since he earned a starting job as a sixth-round rookie in 2011, Kelce is a beloved, familiar figure. Eagles fans know about the player with uncommon athleticism, the leader with surprising oratory skills and the fun-loving personality with a not-so-hidden temper.

But what is the view like from those next to him on the line of scrimmage? In his 159 games, Kelce has started next to 28 different players. This is their perspective on the Eagles’ most interesting man.

“Offensive-line play made sense to me. I never was really a good SAT guy. I’m really slow at reading, so I don’t do good with timed tests. … But one thing I’ve always been really good at, and I still remember a teacher telling me when I was in second grade, I’ve always been really good with puzzles and patterns. I’ve always been really good with, like, spatial awareness and being able to pick out little itty-bitty differences in things. That’s, I think, more applicable for a football player than some other intellectual test.” – Jason Kelce

Halapoulivaati Vaitai, tackle, 24 starts with Kelce: I’ll tell you what, man, this guy Kelc, he’s a tough son of a bitch.

Jason Peters, tackle, 120 starts: You gotta understand the center is the director of the band. Once he makes his call, everybody else knows the deal.

Andrew Gardner, guard, 11 starts: You want a center to be smart, right? You want a center to be locked into the game and kind of be that O-line coach on the field. I always felt like Kelce did a great job of getting us into the right plays or the right calls, getting everybody on the same page.

Kyle DeVan, guard, four starts: I got claimed off waivers (at the start of the season) in 2011. When I got there, obviously I met with Coach (Andy) Reid and (offensive-line coach) Howard (Mudd) and talked about what they had. … Howard sat down and he goes, “Kyle, we got this young kid from Cincinnati.” … And he was like, “Kyle, I’m telling ya, I think he’s the next Jeff Saturday.”

Evan Mathis, guard, 43 starts: He was extremely intelligent, gave max effort and had incredible feet. In his first training camp, Howard Mudd was quickly impressed with him, which allowed Kelce to immediately take on increasing amounts of responsibility. The more you asked of Jason, the more he delivered.

Winston Justice, tackle, one start: Howard really liked athletic linemen. … His style of coaching catered toward the offensive linemen that were more athletic, and you didn’t have to be overly big, either. … He fit the mold for Howard. So it was almost the perfect time, perfect place.

Isaac Seumalo, guard, 46 starts: His athleticism is unreal, unmatched out there. I mean, this dude is running with receivers, running backs. He plays with such a reckless abandon. He’s willing to throw his body anywhere, do anything.

Gardner: He’d be able to beat people with position, get up under their pads and stuff, but then he was probably the best athlete I played with at the center position. I mean, he went to college and played linebacker. And he played center like that.

DeVan: I was next to him in his very first game, and you talk about a guy that’s ready to jump out of a cannon. I was like, “Hey, you gotta calm down a little bit. Like, I need you to be there for me. I don’t need you to be there too quickly.” So he was learning how to control his body and play within the game. … He was fuckin’ running everywhere.

Gardner: There were plenty of times we’re double-teaming somebody and I’ve got (the defender) stood up and I’m just waiting that half a tick for that explosion to come in from the side.

Mathis: He’s the type that would rarely make the same mistake twice. If he ever did anything subpar, learning from and correcting that would be a high priority for him.

DeVan: When we started running outside zone and then started running some pin-pull stuff, you see him run, you see him react. I was like, “Holy shit. This is it.”

Justice: You know some people it just takes longer to read a book? It might take some people a month to read a book, but for some people they can go through a book in a weekend, you know? He could go through the offense — he couldn’t do it in a weekend, but he grasped the offense. For someone, it might take two years to really grasp it. He did it during camp.

Peters: He wanted to learn. He wanted to be great. He listened to everybody and just took it in. He would just play at a tempo that a defensive player wouldn’t match the whole game. So he would just dominate ’em.

Dennis Kelly, tackle, four starts: He’s the smartest football player I’ve ever played with.

Mathis: His ability to see the entire defense and calculate what that meant for everyone involved is absolutely unparalleled. His mind does not hesitate, nor does it forget.

Lane Johnson, tackle, 115 starts: He leads the orchestra with all his calls. Really, he identifies fronts and makes it easy for everybody else.

Peters: Almost every game there’d be a funky defense they would jump into, and he would know exactly. He would tell Carson (Wentz) or (Michael) Vick, whoever was back in the backfield, to check it or go to this play or do this. We would go to a good play, and it would pop.

Matt Tobin, tackle, 16 starts: Everybody playing with Jason — both Jasons (Kelce and Peters) when I was there — you could learn, just like a sponge soaking up anything they talked about in meetings, anything they talked about on the field. Just like, “Hey, he’s leaning up on his toes during the snaps. You know he’s coming.” He would always see little stuff that nobody else would. Once he would say it, you’d see it.

Vaitai: I will never forget this. There is a blitz that the Giants did out of this even front where they blitz everybody in the middle in every gap. Every single gap.

My rookie year, there was a game we played against the Giants. It was the fourth quarter. And we got down to the goal line. I was like, “Oh, I’m expecting this Swindle” — that’s what we called it, a Swindle blitz. But Kelce’s like, “It’s not Swindle. It’s not an even front. They’re in an over front.” We ran the play, and the next day we came back and (offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland) was like, “How’d you know? How’d you know it was not Swindle?” And he’s like, “Stout, you told me they do it out of an even front, not an over front.” And I was like, “Wow.”

The little details that Kelc pays attention to, you can’t get this guy. You can’t fool this guy. He’s gonna pick it up. And the fact that he did it in real games, I don’t know if I could do that as a center. For him to do that and snap the ball and be able to block, lot of respect. I will never forget that day or that game. Because I definitely thought they were gonna bring that blitz, but it was just a bluff.

Mathis: There was rarely anyone in the room that had a better idea overall of what was going on schematically than Jason. Sometimes that meant he could challenge things that needed challenging or helping others out to see something that would be helpful to them. Sometimes that also meant that there were some very mundane meetings that made it make more sense for him to play on his phone to give his mind a break.

Vaitai: It was like two brothers. Stout’s the big brother, Kelce’s like the little brother. It’s not like a father-son (relationship) because they’re always going back at each other. They’re going back and forth trying to get the protection right, asking questions. Stout’s like, “We gotta do the protection this way.” And Kelce’s like, “I don’t like it.” Kelce’s like, “That doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem like it goes with the play or the concept.” With Kelce and Stout, they’re always watching film together. And I’ve noticed that Kelce wants to be perfect. He just wants to win. That’s his thing.

Peters: There’s been times when he and Kelce, they’d go toe to toe on a play. But Stout would always win that battle. (Kelce) would just get up and leave.

Gardner: I like to consider myself a guy who was mentally into the game and on top of it, but the two of them were generally working on another level than the rest of the room. To me, to really have a good center, that’s the way you want it to be.

Kelce snaps the ball to quarterback Jalen Hurts during a game last September. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

“The cafeteria and the locker room is the only reason I’m still playing football.” – Jason Kelce 

Gardner: He’s one of my favorite teammates I’ve played with.

Vaitai: Kelce’s one of those guys, he’s a leader. He’ll take any guy under his wing.

Tobin: It wasn’t always the right way, but it was the Jason Kelce way of leading, right? It’s the only way he knew how. It might have had anger involved at times, it might not have.

Kelly: He’s a great singer. I don’t know if you guys have heard him sing. He can really belt out some tunes. I believe he can play guitar. I remember in Philly just thinking this guy is super talented at everything he does.

Gardner: He did a good job of making guys feel welcome like a good leader should. And ultimately, if you’re in that room, you’re there to help us win.

Kelly: Always was very welcoming to me, was very inclusive.

Peters: It was always like that. Whoever came in, we embraced them. We weren’t all together every year. My second year, Kelce came in and won a starting job, and from that day we were just always tight. From Todd Herremans to Jamaal (Jackson), Shawn Andrews, Stacy Andrews. We were always tight.

DeVan: The rookie dinner (in 2011) was pretty awesome. We had Danny Watkins, Jason Kelce and Julian Vandervelde. I think I probably had about $1,000 worth of food. We went to some steakhouse. I mean, I had a $100 Philly cheesesteak. I was like, “This is the craziest thing ever.” I’m eating this cheesesteak with wagyu beef and it’s $100. I probably had at least one of those. I probably had — Louis XIII (cognac) was big on rookie dinners. I probably had two or three of those. Yeah, that was a good time. … In the grand scheme of things, Kelce should have split the bill (with Watkins) because I think he made a lot more money. If we had known then, I would have ordered more and made Kelce pay for it.

Kelly: If you’re a younger player and you come in next to a really good player, he tells you what to do, you got it. But I vividly remember him being like, “What do you wanna do on this play?” against Washington. … Maybe I’m overthinking it, but it was one of those, like, OK, he trusts me enough to at least ask for what I wanted to do.

Vaitai: He definitely pushed me. He was like, “If you wanna play in this league, you need to play like a starter.” And that stuck with me for a long time.

Seumalo: In the O-line room, he’s the epitome and the guy that we all follow. In the O-line room, there’s no big egos. Everybody kind of jokes on each other. It’s a testament to when I first got here, Kelce and JP and Lane (Johnson) and (Brandon) Brooks keeping the room as light as possible because the demand on our job is so great.

Kelce wears bubble wrap on top of the Guardian cap on his helmet during training camp. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

Johnson: One of our favorite movies is “Kingpin.” We like Bill Murray and Woody Harrelson in that movie (and we’ll quote it back and forth).

“Why don’t you wash that perfume off before coming back to our table?” That’s one of them. And then he’ll go, “Didn’t I tell you to call me ‘Ernie’ or ‘Big Ern?’”

Peters: One time, we were waiting on him in the offensive team meeting room, and we’re sitting in there like, “Where Kelce at?” … And when he walked in, he had no shirt on, no socks, some open-toed sandals with a backstrap. And he walked in and reached into the fridge — there was a refrigerator in the front of the room — and everybody was like, “Oh my god.” He went to the refrigerator, bent over and sat down like it was just totally normal. It was like, “Kelce is crazy.”

Tobin: My most vivid memory of Jason Kelce is in the weight room. … He got all upset because people weren’t lifting hard. He meant well. But, the chalk boxes or whatever, he kicked it or punted it. And the whole weight room was clouded with white chalk. And he came over to me and was like, “Tobes, what the fuck am I doing?”

Johnson: Hell, we’ve all pissed off each other. We’ve all said some things. We get personal. … Nothing’s off limits.

I’ve seen him want to fight everybody in the whole fuckin’ building before. … There’s just certain triggers he has that can just piss him off.

Gardner: The dude did have a switch that would flip sometimes, just all the way redline. And I saw that happen in games, and he’d have to pull it back. Because you can’t be all the way redline and then make all the calls, right? But I mean, hey, football is a great place to be when you’re feeling that way. It’s the perfect outlet for all that anger.

Johnson: I think before I was here, Jason Babin and them spray-painted, I think, dicks on his car or something. And then he went to every room and, “Who the fuck did this?” And went into every room and was just threatening to fight everybody.

Mathis: Kelce saw it and came flying in the building at Lehigh where there was a special teams meeting going on. He was absolutely livid at the thought of the disrespect and about blew down the closed door where a special teams meeting was happening. He scared everyone in the room and some hid under tables thinking his elbow hitting the door was a gunshot. The reason the story is so memorable is that everyone in the know about the prank was scared to come forward.

Johnson: There was an incident when Chip (Kelly) was here. We were in the indoor (practice bubble) doing a walk-through, and I hid his helmet underneath the buckets. And they blew the whistle to (start) the walk-through and he couldn’t find his helmet and he knew I was the culprit behind it. He ran up to me to try to kick me in the balls. He missed and hit my knee and had to go get an MRI on his foot because his foot was hurting.

He missed the rest of the walk-through. Chip was like, “What the fuck just happened?” And Stout’s going, “I don’t know!” because nobody saw it.

Mathis: I think that his temper is directly correlated with his quick thinking and decision-making. There’s little hesitation in him quickly calculating what he wants to do or feel in any situation.

Johnson: Hell yeah, it helps him. I feel like every good player has something, not “off” to him, but something that sets him apart. Whereas, you know, (Brian Dawkins) had that Weapon X alter ego shit. Kelce’s got his temper, I’ve got my problems, JP, everybody’s just different. (Terrell Owens) had his different issues. But yeah, I think it goes down to his anger and his willpower. I think his willpower outweighs everything.

On occasion, Kelce does have some issues keeping his temper in check, as in this game last season against the Raiders. He was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

“Nothing in the world will take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press on’ has solved and will always solve the problems of the human race.” – Calvin Coolidge (– Jason Kelce) 

Matt Pryor, guard, 11 starts: The O-line and tight ends and running backs, before every game on Saturday nights, we would get together. And Stout would choose a player that week and ask them to talk. And whenever Kelce is talking, he’s a very emotional dude. He’s very passionate about everything. And he would give the same speech every year, but you would always feel that passion and emotion through that same speech.

Johnson: Kelc usually gives the same speech every year and gets emotional and choked up. He’ll start laughing and coughing, it takes him about 10 minutes to start.

Vaitai: Like, if you keep thinking about the bad things or if you keep … having a negative mind, you’re gonna be down the whole time. You’re gonna be depressed. You’re gonna be miserable. If you just like shrug it off, just keep pressing on, just keep going. Life keeps going. As Stout says every time, the sun still rises every morning. Life keeps going. I married that with “Press on.” In the O-line room in Philly, there’s a picture of “Press on.” That’s the first thing you see when you walk in. Just the quote in big letters: “Press on,” all green. It’s actually pretty cool.

Seumalo: That’s his motto, man. That’s what he lives by. I think everybody kind of knew that about him. The actions kind of told us what he was, but the source and the quote and how much motivation it gives him, it just all kind of clicked and it makes a lot of sense.

Vaitai: That stuck with me for a long time. Not on the football field but off the field: back at home, family or anything. He was always saying if there’s any problem, man, just take a step back, take a deep breath and just keep pressing on. Remember what you’re trying to achieve, what goals you’re trying to achieve.

Pryor: Essentially, the story’s about the difference between a coward and a hero. It summed up to where the hero, though he may be afraid, he has the courage to step up and become that hero no matter what adversity he’s facing. I kind of feel like that fit him as a player, coming in undersized and people doubted his ability to play, and him being the player he is today.

Vaitai: His Super Bowl parade speech? I will never forget that moment.

Tobin: I would just say in that speech, singling out individual players, his care for these guys he’s talking about, he loves. He believed in them before, when everybody else talks crap about them. He believed in them and he knew that they were capable. Like myself. He believed in me. He was one of the guys that was always pushing for me to be playing next to him.

Johnson: I just saw him with the Mummers costume and me and him were standing side by side and I saw him drinking a shit-ton of beers and everything was blurry to me.

Vaitai: That whole morning, we had a bite to eat and then we got on the bus and started drinking beer. And I’ll tell you what, man, this guy can chug some beer. This guy can chug it. Man. I’ve never seen someone who can chug some beer and grab another one from a fan. That was a great day. It was cold. And it was even better when he made the speech. He spoke from the heart. He said he didn’t even write anything down. He spoke from the heart. You could tell how passionate he was.

Peters: I was actually right behind him. Like, directly right behind him. I had an idea he was about to do it because he told me. … He was like, “Man, I got a good one. Watch this.” I’m like, “OK.” So when he started, I’m like, “Where you going with this?” And he just kept going. I was like, “Wow.”

Justice: You have a guy who came in, wasn’t a high draft pick, he worked himself up. He’s like a blue-collar star. I think that resonates with Philly. They like people that really work hard. They get knocked down, but they get back up. I think that really embodies what Kelce brings to the game.

Tobin: I played with Tom Brady. I played with Russell Wilson. I played with a lot of guys. And (Kelce) is just unbelievable. He’s just as good of a leader, if not better, than anybody I played with. Or even that coached.

Johnson: Most of all, he’s a good friend. He’s a person you can talk to whenever shit hits the fan. What I respect the most about Kelce is that one year I felt like they were trying to run him out of town and how he responded since then to become a Hall of Fame player. I think that says more about him than anything, how he responds to adversity, and he’s overcome little stuff in his career and just became the leader he has.

Seumalo: Big shoes to fill. Personally, I’m glad he’s coming back, and I think everybody shares the same sentiment.

Justice: I did remember this quote he said. He said, “Man, I just want to work and get a house on the lake. That’s what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna work and get a house on the lake.” I was like, “That’s an awesome goal.” I’m pretty sure he can get that house on the lake now. Maybe he could upgrade to a beach. Or his own lake.

(Top photo: Bill Streicher / USA Today)

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