After winning his first Super Bowl, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was supposed to have a straightforward summer: First sign a blockbuster new contract. Then prepare to repeat. But when a pandemic gave way to a protest movement that implicated the NFL, the game’s brightest star began to find his voice—and prove that he’s as adroit off the field as he is on it.
Patrick Mahomes calls right on time. When my phone rings, the area code flashes “Tyler, Texas,” where the young Kansas City Chiefs quarterback grew up. It’s early June and a pivotal point in an already momentous off-season. Whatever he might have expected as he walked off the field in February—a first-time Super Bowl winner, coronation complete, celebration on the horizon—was upended by a generational pandemic. And now, historic protests roil the country. Two weeks have passed since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the 24-year-old Mahomes is still trying to make sense of the moment.
Just a few days earlier, Mahomes had joined more than a dozen other Black NFL stars—Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Thomas, and Saquon Barkley among them—in a powerful 71-second video, calling on their employer to condemn racism. It shouldn’t have been a bold assertion. But, of course, it was. While nearly every big American corporation was addressing the significant work to be done on racial justice and equality, the NFL was being asked to address a particularly egregious track record. This is a league in which 70 percent of players are Black but only three coaches, two general managers, and zero majority owners are; a league in which the response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality was to promptly run him out of a job.
This time, though, the reaction was different. Less than a day after the players’ video, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell filmed a clip of his own, offering a point-by-point affirmation of the players’ requests. According to a report from ESPN, a key factor in his swift response was the participation of one young player in particular: Patrick Mahomes.
“I understand my platform,” Mahomes tells me. “I understand that my part in the video is a big part of it.” He was working out a new contract, and knew that speaking up might prompt some blowback that could negatively affect those talks. “I’m in the middle of negotiating my next contract, to hopefully be a Kansas City Chief for a long time, but I still thought this was important enough and this was something that had to be said. It wasn’t something I could sit back on and worry about my next contract, because I needed to use my platform to help. Sometimes it’s not about money. It’s not about fame. It’s about doing what’s right.”
Mahomes had spent a lot of time listening in recent days. He’d been on the phone—with other players; with members of his family, some of whom are police officers; with Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt; and with Goodell. His conversations left him feeling optimistic, particularly his discussions with Hunt and Goodell. “They, as much as us, want to do the right thing,” he says.
Though the extent of Goodell’s willingness to change remains to be seen, Mahomes sounds committed to a dialogue. During his chat with the commissioner, Mahomes says, Goodell was curious about the young quarterback’s perspective and about what he wanted to see and do going forward. Mahomes explained that he wants to draw attention to voter-registration efforts: “Helping young adults, but especially the Black community, get registered to vote. It’s the first step.” (Days later, Mahomes would announce that he’d be lending his support to LeBron James’s More Than a Vote organization, to boost voter-registration efforts and battle voter suppression.)
He also talked with Goodell about NFL teams hiring personnel tasked with helping players become more useful activists in their communities. “I remember talking about having maybe a social-justice officer that can point people in the right direction,” he says. “So whenever you wanna help out the community, you have someone that works with the team that can help.” He was encouraged. “It was a great conversation,” Mahomes says. “It lasted, like, 30 minutes to an hour.”
That Goodell would seek his counsel is indicative of just how enormous an influence Mahomes wields. If the NFL has always been an organization in which the players’ wishes, personalities, and voices are subordinated to the desires of the league’s (white) owners, Mahomes might be the fulcrum on which the balance of power could pivot, particularly at this moment.
In a summer of tumult and change, as even seasoned vets like Drew Brees are fumbling along, Patrick Mahomes is stepping up and looking for ways to utilize his new leadership role in the league.
Concrete proof that Mahomes has that type of juice came only a few weeks later, after he finalized that contract he’d been negotiating: a ten-year deal reportedly worth up to $503 million. It’s the most lucrative contract in the history of sports, and a deal made at a moment when coronavirus could have a dramatic financial impact on NFL revenue. “I couldn’t be happier that I’m going to be in Kansas City for a long, long time,” he told me via text after the news broke. “We are building something special.”
For all the unknowns that swirl in and around the NFL, one thing about its future seems rock solid: It will center on Patrick Mahomes, who, at 24, is already the face of the league. Last season, merchandise bearing his name or likeness (everything from jerseys to trading cards to bobbleheads) outsold that of every other player, including Tom Brady, who’d had a two-year hold on that particular popularity contest. That’s what happens when you manage to earn league MVP and Super Bowl MVP honors before you’ve rounded 25. During that MVP season, he threw for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, something that only Peyton Manning has done. Manning did it in his 15th season as a starter, Mahomes in his first. And now he’s the favorite to win MVP this season (whenever that might be).
The stats and accolades, though, crazy as they are, have nothing on the highlights—oh, man, the highlights! An endlessly loopable reel showcasing a fluid, kinetic, and improvisational style of play that overturns notions of what football, a clunky game of schemes and slow, grinding attrition, can be.
Think you have Mahomes dead cornered? He’ll run by you or pass around you—actually, maybe over you. Expect him to throw with his right hand (which would make sense: Mahomes is right-handed), and instead he’ll throw with his left. If people have traditionally been drawn to the NFL because of the violent car crashes on the field, Mahomes conjures something different—something more modern and perhaps hopeful. His is a playful, clever, graceful style that exploits cracks and opportunities that other players can’t even see—and just like Steph Curry in basketball, Mahomes ushers in a new sense of possibility.
He seems to delight in toying with expectations, even in the way he wins. In each of their three postseason games last season, the Chiefs trailed by at least 10 points—this includes a 24-point hole they got into against the Houston Texans and a 20–10 deficit they faced against the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Yet they won every game easily—by more than 10 points. The takeaway: Mahomes seems to be at his best when circumstances are at their worst. Travis Kelce, the Chiefs’ tight end and one of Mahomes’s favorite targets, says he “almost gets a little bit more excited when the play breaks down,” because that’s Mahomes’s “comfort zone.” Are you surprised, then, that in a summer of tumult and change, as even seasoned vets like Drew Brees are fumbling along, Patrick Mahomes is stepping up and looking for ways to utilize his new leadership role in the league? He’s reading the moment, gathering information, hunting for opportunity, his eyes up and his gaze downfield.
My first peek into Mahomes’s strange off-season came a month earlier, in May. By then, the obligations that follow winning a Super Bowl had largely been scrubbed or rescheduled because of the coronavirus, and Mahomes had hunkered down in Dallas with his girlfriend, Brittany Matthews.
They had originally planned to ride out the first couple of months of the off-season in an Airbnb and then buy a place in Texas next year, but then the virus hit, and with all that free time he got to thinking. He started poking around, found a home he liked, got a great deal, and figured, I’m just going to go ahead and get it. He and Brittany moved in about a week before Mahomes and I hopped on Zoom. When I reached him, he was sitting in his lofted study wearing a white T-shirt, his baby face and tousled hair giving him the look of a freshly roused teenager. The shelves were still bare. “I have really nothing but a computer in here,” he said through the computer. They were just getting settled. But already it was an improvement from the off-season that followed his rookie year, when the couple stayed in the upstairs guest bedroom at Brittany’s dad’s house to save a little money.
Even though those financial concerns have evaporated in a $503 million poof! the coronavirus created an entirely new set of problems. What if he lost a year when he was playing at historic levels and somehow still getting better, when his popularity was at an all-time high? What would that feel like? What would he do with all that time?
“I have zero idea,” he said. “Literally no idea.”
It was an anxious moment, and yet when Mahomes tells me this, he seems relatively unbothered. His pandemic routine keeps him steady. Though he flourishes in chaos on the field, off it Mahomes adheres to a strict regimen. He’s up at 7 a.m., often with no alarm. He flips on TV, usually ESPN—where occasionally he’ll find that he’s the topic of discussion—drinks his coffee, then drinks a pre-workout supplement concoction, in that order. At 9 a.m., a workout: an hour for arms, an hour and a half for legs. Then he eats lunch, after which some days he has a virtual meeting with teammates and coaches or he plays video games. Only in this narrow noon-to-2 p.m. window, though. He doesn’t “want to get lost in playing video games all day.” During the season he swears them off.
He’s become an avid golfer, and 3 p.m. is tee time, if COVID-19 restrictions allow him to play. If not, that’s when he hits the Peloton, using the screen name 2PM, a nod to his fascination with time and a reference to his full name, Patrick Mahomes II. He’s as fierce on a stationary bike as he is on the field. “I’m so damn competitive that I kill myself,” he tells me. “I see the leaderboard, and I see that, like, Brian from North Carolina is catching me, and I’m like: ‘There’s no way.’” Better, he’s found, to ride alone, where he opts for 30-minute scenic routes, riding to sunsets. By 5 p.m. he’s hanging out with Brittany and their two dogs. Then dinner and TV. Bedtime is 9:30, 10 at the latest.