Millions of heartbroken fans Travis Kelce arrives in Vegas with a battered body and a tapestry of war wounds after a brutal season with the Chiefs… but victory with Taylor Swift in the stands would be the ending that cements his place as an all-time great

Chris Jones perched a tablet on top of his locker and clicked play. The defensive tackle had just spent a few hours on his day job: marshalling the Chiefs’ defensive line. Now it was time for his part-time role.

Jones began his set as locker-room DJ and, before long, he had turned on the smoke machine too – Jones puffed on a thick cigar as he joined several teammates and staff for an impromptu photoshoot to celebrate victory over the Baltimore Ravens – and a fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years.

Cameras soon caught an intruder: Travis Kelce, stripped down to his underwear, entered stage right. He and Jones shook hands and bumped chests.

A few minutes later, however Kelce stood alone outside his locker. It was pretty bare: his cell phone, his clothes and a few cans of drink… his body, on the other hand? A mess. Cuts and scratches and grazes and nicks and those dark circles – the unmistakable scars of cupping therapy.

The Chiefs celebrations continued even after Kelce was led into a side room and on to a massage table. There, he sat quietly as, nearby, staff emptied the locker room and teammates headed to the after party. Through those double doors, medics tended to Kelce’s tapestry of war wounds.

Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce has endured a punishing year - both on and off the field

Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce has endured a punishing year – both on and off the field

His performances in the postseason have helped take the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl

His performances in the postseason have helped take the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl

Kelce's relationship with pop sensation Taylor Swift has also dominated the NFL this season

Kelce’s relationship with pop sensation Taylor Swift has also dominated the NFL this season

Those close to the tight end have described the NFL as Kelce’s ‘side hustle’. He has so many commitments and makes so much money away from the field, after all. Last Sunday, however, his body painted a different picture. It was a bloody illustration that, after all he has won and all he has earned, the 34-year-old still pays full price for football. A reminder that preparing his 6ft 5ins, 250lb frame for the toll of any given Sunday is a full-time job.

He undergoes cupping, dry needling, occlusion therapy and a pregame diet of anti-inflammatories. Still injuries linger, still Kelce  ‘feels every single’ one of his 10 surgeries.

He has gone under the knife before but this year, more than ever, he has found himself under the microscope, too. He has played through the pain before but this year, more than ever, he has had to play through pressure, too.

There were some who wondered, as the Chiefs began to wobble and Kelce went seven matches without a touchdown, whether it was all starting to tell. Whether the circus that came with dating Taylor Swift was following him on to the field. Whether, at 34, Father Time had come knocking at last.

‘This year it was just a little bit different,’ Kelce admitted recently. ‘We were just off a tick here and there. Guys pointed at the wide receiver room, they pointed at how old my a** is getting…’

Kelce's body carried the scars of battle as the Chiefs celebrated victory over the Ravens

Kelce’s body carried the scars of battle as the Chiefs celebrated victory over the Ravens

Earlier, he caught 11 passes for 116 yards and a TD to help Kansas City reach the Super Bowl

Earlier, he caught 11 passes for 116 yards and a TD to help Kansas City reach the Super Bowl

But then, in the space of seven days, Kelce flipped the script. In Buffalo and then in Baltimore, the Chiefs star provided a devastating reminder of his enduring talents. He broke several NFL records and then he posed another question: should Kelce win a third Super Bowl in Las Vegas, have there been many better at doing what he does?

‘I just tried to create this ultimate tight end,’ Kelce told ESPN recently. ‘I’ve taken bits and pieces from all the guys that have been mentioned (among the greats).’

Such as Tony Gonzalez. ‘I’ve taken a lot from his game.’ Same goes for Rob Gronkowski. And Antonio Gates – ‘(he) has fuelled me with confidence,’ Kelce says. So, to be talked about in the same breath? ‘It’s an absolute honor,’ Kelce admits. But only right.

Gronk won four Super Bowls – including three as part of the Patriots dynasty of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, while Gonzalez caught for 15,127 receiving yards – more than any tight end in history.

But Kelce is writing his own chapter in the NFL record books: against the Bills, he and Mahomes surpassed Brady and Gronkowski by combining for their 16th postseason touchdown – more than anyone else.

Then against the Ravens, Kelce moved past Jerry Rice into uncharted waters: now no one has more than his 156 postseason receptions.

Only the legendary 49ers receiver can beat Kelce’s 1,810 playoff yards (2,245) and 19 postseason receiving touchdowns (22). Only ex-Patriots WR Julian Edelman can match the tight end’s streak of five-plus receptions in 13 consecutive playoff games.

Rob Gronkowski

Tony Gonzalez

Rob Gronkowski (L) and Tony Gonzalez (R) are considered among the greatest ever tight ends

‘We had to become that team that has that grit and that fire… that finds ways to win,’ he said

To think there were fears that the Ravens defense – the best in the league this regularseason – would swallow the visitors. Instead? Mahomes and Kelce combined 11 times and the Chiefs are back where they belong: in the Super Bowl.

‘When the lights get brighter, he plays better. That’s the true mark of a champion, and that’s what he is,’ the quarterback said of Kelce. Normal service resumed, then? Not quite. The Chiefs still have Mahomes and Kelce. They are still moulded by Andy Reid. But they have changed from the team that reached three of the previous four Super Bowls.

‘It’s just a different world man,’ Kelce said. So, once it became clear they were no longer blowing out opponents, the Chiefs had no choice but to change. To embrace the role of villains.

‘We had to become that team that has that grit and that fire… that finds ways to win,’ he said. That goes for Kelce, too. For much of his season, the tight end has had to grind and claw his way through games. He has battled pain, of course. He has taken flak for his performances, his mid-season trip to see Swift perform in Argentina… and the endless commercials.

He has struggled for motivation, too: ‘Especially after 11 years, getting excited for a random game in f***ing November when you know you’re about to wax this f***ing team, it’s hard to f***ing get it going,’ Kelce admitted last week. ‘And this year it was harder than ever because we weren’t winning those games.’

The NFL star has become a commerical powerhouse, fronting numerous ads and campaigns

The NFL star has become a commerical powerhouse, fronting numerous ads and campaigns

Kelce's tempers boiled over during the Chiefs' home defeat by the Raiders on Christmas Day

Kelce’s tempers boiled over during the Chiefs’ home defeat by the Raiders on Christmas Day

His frustrations boiled over at times, most vividly on Christmas Day, when the Chiefs imploded against the Raiders. With Swift in the stands, Kelce threw his helmet and clashed with coach Reid.

‘Trav faced a lot of criticism, and that’s the nature of this business,’ brother Jason Kelce told DailyMail.com. ‘But offensively they’ve continued to get better and they’ve gotten better across the board… Trav is sharing in that success.’

Like never before, Kelce’s fortunes have undulated under a ‘magnifying glass’.

‘Obviously I’ve never dated anyone with that kind of aura about them…. I’ve never dealt with it,’ he told the WSJ in November. ‘The scrutiny she gets, how much she has a magnifying glass on her, every single day – paparazzi outside her house, outside every restaurant she goes to, after every flight she gets off.’

Kelce insisted he would not ‘run away’ from the added attention that comes with dating Swift – and his own podcast hitting New Heights. ‘From having the paparazzi following me every single day into work, to everybody having my name on their talk show, every single day, whether it’s sports, whether it’s not sports, It’s just been a crazy, crazy ride I could have never anticipated,’ he says.

‘I had to take a step back and really see how I was portraying myself to the world,’ he conceded recently.

¿Obviously I¿ve never dated anyone with that kind of aura about them,' he said about Swift

‘Obviously I’ve never dated anyone with that kind of aura about them,’ he said about Swift

The tight end celebrates after helping Kansas City to victory in the AFC Championship Game

The tight end celebrates after helping Kansas City to victory in the AFC Championship Game

‘People can perceive what they want, but I wanted to make sure that the guys – the men and women in this building – knew that I was 100 percent focused on this team and getting this team to where we are.’

After games, Kelce likes to deflate with friends from his early days. He tends to watch the same movies and the same TV shows. This season could still have an ending he has seen a couple of times before. Over recent months, however, Kelce and the Chiefs have survived plot twists no one could have prepared for.

‘It’s just (about) persevering through that,’ the tight end has said. And, according to his mom, Kelce is happier than in ‘a long time’.

Sure, those scratches and scars won’t disappear – Kelce is said to play through far greater pain than many players. Fortunately he tends to enjoy rewards like few others, too.

‘Every single year is different and there have been years I’ve had to battle through things that frankly were a little bit more serious and a little bit more frustrating than what I had to go through this year. But this year I think the fact that we weren’t winning piled up on how I was feeling physically and you can catch yourself in a darker room I guess,’ Kelce said recently.

‘We’re finally getting the juices going, finally playing our best ball at the right time and how can you not get excited about that?’ How can you not f***ing wake up every single day knowing you’ve got a chance to go and get this thing? It’s the best feeling in the world.’

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