LAS VEGAS — When George Kittle was in college at Iowa, he saw a sports psychologist to help ease his mind about practice anxiety that was affecting his performance.
“I would let one play snowball into the next play so instead of having one mess-up I would have two,” the 49ers tight end said Thursday. “If I had two, then I’d have three, and all of a sudden I’d have a bad practice.”
The fix? Put a “reset button” on a wristband and push it after each play to remind Kittle to move on to the next one. Now it’s a red tattoo.
Travis Kelce admits he struggled with his confidence as a rookie tight end with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I used to lose sleep over the lack of success I had early on, whether it was drops or not being in the moment,” Kelce said.
Just look at them now, two good friends who developed into standard bearers for their position. Both men ooze positivity and charisma and have welcomed celebrity life rather than shunning it.
Kittle has never met a microphone he didn’t like. Kelce, whose girlfriend is pop star Taylor Swift, recently hosted Saturday Night Live and bombards the airwaves with television commercials for insurance and immunizations.
Travis and his brother Jason, a center for the Philadelphia Eagles also host a popular podcast called “New Heights.”
If the 49ers beat the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium, Kittle will be in the middle of it as a blocker, receiver, or both. If the Chiefs become the first repeat champion since the New England Patriots in 2004-05, go ahead and assume that at some point Kelce kept finding open areas despite a 49ers defense that spent a week devising plans to stop him.
Both were interesting prospects who were simply looking to make a team and contribute. Kittle was a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 and Kelce went in the third round four years earlier to the Chiefs.
Together, they along with former NFL tight end and Fox announcer Greg Olsen host Tight End University, a gathering of players at the position who meet each year in Nashville to exchange ideas and for the camaraderie of it.
They are each other’s biggest fans. Kittle marvels at the connection Kelce has with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“What Travis does the best in the NFL is read coverages. You see him and Patrick and connect on all the fun routes and it’s like, ‘Is that even a route or is he making it up?’” Kittle said. “He’ll immediately know where his hole is and where he needs to sit. There’s no one in the league that does it like him.”
Kittle caught 65 passes for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns and was named first-team All-Pro over Kelce, who had some uncharacteristic struggles early in the year but rallied to finish with 93 receptions for 984 yards and five touchdowns.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone in the game that’s playing at a high level like George Kittle, man,” Kelce said. “From running routes to blocking to what he can do with the ball in his hands, he catapults his team. That’s the energy in San Fran, George Kittle. It’s going to be an honor to go up against him and motivating to try and be better than him.”
Kelce isn’t in Kittle’s league as a dirty-work in-line tight end who can flatten a defensive end but has few peers as a receiver. He had a string of seven straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped this season but was at top form in the playoffs with 16 receptions for 191 yards and three touchdowns against Buffalo and Baltimore.
Those numbers give Kelce 156 receptions in 21 postseason games, surpassing the previous NFL record of 151 (in 29 games) by Jerry Rice.
Kelce’s ability to get into the clear with defenses prepared to stop him has flummoxed both opponents and fans for years, and it has to do with the connection he has with Mahomes.
John Lynch, the Hall of Fame safety and 49ers general manager, compared the way Mahomes and Kelce operated to how he interacted with linebacker Derrick Brooks after several years together. All it took was a look, and both men knew what was going to happen next.
“It’s really a thing of beauty to watch — the imagination that he has in his game,” Lynch said before the 49ers departed for Las Vegas.
Kelce said being on the same wavelength with his quarterback was borne of work and practice reps which over time became instinct.
“There are some things that don’t need to be said but at the same time there’s little bits of communications going on that can make sure we’re on the same page,” Kelce said. “It really depends on the scenario and I’ve been fortunate enough to grow in this offense.”
Which one is better? Kittle views it within the prism of the team.
“I’m the best at what I do, which is run block and do a lot of play-action stuff,” Kittle said. “There are a lot of really, really talented tight ends in the league I view as equals. But for what my team asks of me, I think I do it best.”
Head coaches Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid have put their tight ends in the best position to succeed, much like they’ve done with their quarterbacks Brock Purdy and Mahomes.
“Mark Andrews, what he does with the Ravens, I don’t know if I’d fit in that offense like he does,” Kittle said. “I don’t know if Travis fits in my offense. You’ve just got to be the best on your team and your quarterback will take care of you.”
Before getting down to business Sunday, Kittle and Kelce spent the week keeping reporters entertained. Kittle talked about his fondness for wrestling and alter egos, with one arm tattooed with good guys and one with bad guys. Kelce fielded questions about Swift, who is supposed to fly in from a show in Japan and make it in time for the game.
Kelce’s theory on the public fascination with Swift?
“I think it’s the values we stand for and who we are as people,” Kelce said. “We love to shine a light on others, shine a light on people that help and support us. On top of that, I feel we both have a love for life.”
KITTLE VS. KELCE
Kittle: 65 receptions, 1,020 yards, 6 touchdowns
Kelce: 93 receptions, 984 yards, 5 touchdowns
Kittle: 460 receptions, 6,274 yards, 37 touchdowns
Kelce: 907 receptions, 11,328 yards, 74 touchdowns
AGAINST EACH OTHER
(Chiefs are 3-0, including Super Bowl LIV)
Kittle: 15 receptions ,215 yards, 1 touchdown
Kelce: 20 receptions, 255 yards, 1 touchdown
Kittle: Two-time first-team All-Pro (2019, 2023), two-time second-team All-Pro (2018, 2022), five-time Pro Bowler
Kelce: Four-time first-team All-Pro (2016, 2018, 2020, 2022), three-time second-team All-Pro (2017, 2019, 2021), nine-time Pro Bowler