For just a second, Travis Kelce cracked under pressure of a new world of fame

Is Travis Kelce out of his natural born mind?

That was the question on millions of lips when CBS cameras caught the Kansas City star screaming in Andy Reid’s face and bodychecking the Chiefs coach on the sideline, to the point of staggering the 65-year-old. Kelce looked upset about Reid’s decision to take him off the field in the second quarter of Sunday’s Super Bowl as the Chiefs drove towards the San Francisco 49ers’ goalline. Right when the Chiefs were poised to score, running back Isiah Pacheco coughed up the ball, and San Francisco recovered to preserve a 3-0 lead.

Reactions to Kelce’s outburst came swift and strong. “Hey kids, don’t ever mix your 7th COVID Booster with Bud Light,” the conservative commentator Benny Johnson wrote on X, nodding at Kelce’s endorsement relationships with Pfizer and Anheuser-Busch’s politically charged beer brand. “What a disgrace this guy is.”

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“If that was me, I would’ve been kicked out of the league,” tweeted Philadelphia Eagles receiver AJ Brown, suggesting racial bias may have been at play in the referees’ decision not to eject Kelce from the game.

No doubt if it had been Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb, Pittsburgh’s George Pickens or another Black receiver unloading on his coach like that, the prevailing narrative would be much different. But Kelce’s white privilege along with his standing as the very best at his position affords him great latitude; it makes him passionate, not overly aggressive. CBS’s Tony Romo was quick to downplay the incident, calmly explaining that Kelce just wanted back in the game to help his team win – and, sure enough, he was back on the field for Kansas City’s next possession.

Once the Chiefs beat the Niners 25-22 in overtime, the temper tantrum was water under the bridge. After the game Reid jokingly flagged Kelce for cheap-shotting him. “He was emotional today,” Reid said. “I’ve got five kids, and I know how that goes. The part that I love is that he loves to play the game, and he wants to help his team win.”

The two made amends during the game too, with Kelce hugging Reid on the sideline later in the first-half. After the game, Kelce would say of his outburst: “I was just telling him how much I love him.” But he won’t be able to play coy once the audio from the NFL Films mic he was wearing for the game gets out.

It would have been nice to hear Kelce publicly apologize to Reid for disrespecting him so prominently. Instead, Kelce went on about their special relationship. “I’ve got the greatest coach this game has ever seen,” he said. “He’s one of the best leaders of men I’ve ever seen in my life. I owe my entire career to that guy and how to control my emotions.”

Still: one couldn’t help getting the sense that this was more than Kelce’s fiery competitive streak flaring up. He’s in a totally different league now, after all. This time last year, he was merely a famous NFL player. Now, for a few weeks at least, it’s no exaggeration to say that he has become one of the most famous men in the world. Whereas in the past, he only had his professional legacy to consider while playing in Super Bowls, now he is Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, and she had flown halfway around the world to cheer him on, bringing her army of fans along and tens of millions more eyes on the game as a result. Before Swift could settle into her luxury suite with an entourage that included Kelce’s brother, Jason, actor Blake Lively and the rapper Ice Spice, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell turned up to welcome her. There was even (unfounded) speculation that Kelce might propose to Swift after the game. That’s a lot of pressure, enough to make Kelce crack up.

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In a pregame speech, Kelce moved teammates to tears when he said he wanted “this one more than I’ve ever wanted a Super Bowl in my life.” And while Kelce surely was referring to the prospect of winning the NFL’s first back-to-back championship in two decades and cementing the Chiefs’ place among the league’s great dynasties, there’s no question he wanted to ride off in the sunset with the pop superstar, too.

Kelce initially struggled against a Niners defense that was dialed in to stop him, netting just one catch for a yard in the first half. Watching him blow up on Reid, it was hard not to be reminded of David Beckham kicking out at Diego Simeone in the 1998 World Cup as the strain of his public relationship with Posh Spice reached a fever pitch.

But then Patrick Mahomes took over the game late in the second half and began connecting with Kelce for big plays. Two Kelce grabs late in the fourth quarter helped the Chiefs tie the game at 13-13. Facing third down and seven from the Niners 33 with 16 seconds left, Kelce legged out a short pass for 22 yards, reaching a top speed of 19.68 mph – his fastest speed as a ball carrier over the past seven seasons, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

That outburst, which forced overtime – and is striking for a player who, at 34, is supposed to be declining physically - led to more social media snarking about how Swift has made him faster and the NFL richer since taking an interest. On the Chiefs’ final drive, Mahomes found Kelce for a short gain that he stretched for seven yards that set up the quarterback’s game-winning toss to Mecole Hardman a play later. Altogether, Kelce finished with 93 yards on nine catches, giving him an even bigger lead over Jerry Rice on the all-time postseason receptions list.

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On the podium after the game, Kelce reprised his wrestling heel persona, shrugging off talk of retirement, stoking enthusiasm for a third straight title run and closing with hoarse renditions of Fight For Your Right and Viva Las Vegas – as if Usher hadn’t just crushed the half-time show. “The goal has always been to get three,” he roared. “But we couldn’t get here without getting the two and having the target on our back all year. The men that we just won this thing with, family forever, baby; I couldn’t be more proud of you guys.”

But Kelce’s revue seemed hackneyed – even for Sin City – in light of recent events. In the end, it must have come as a relief that he was able to walk off the field under a confetti shower with Swift on his arm – the two singing You Belong With Me to each other at the Chiefs’ Super Bowl afterparty. But if the tide had turned the other way – if, say, the officials had decided to eject Kelce for his outburst at Reid – we’d be saying it was the tight end, not the Niners, who had lost it.