An hour or so before kickoff on Sunday at Deutsche Bank Park, Chiefs superstar tight end Travis Kelce took his last warm-up catch and trotted toward the end zone stands.
He took off his gloves and handed them to two fans.
“I knew coming into it I wanted to make sure we gave the fans a great experience,” Kelce said after the Chiefs fended off the Dolphins 21-14 in just the second NFL regular-season game ever held in Germany. “That was part of it, making sure everybody got some souvenirs on the way.”
That was particularly tangible for one of the gloves’ recipients, 17-year-old Niklas Doeschl from Nuremberg. He was attending his first NFL game and described himself as in shock from Kelce’s gesture.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s like a dream.”
In fact, there was something beautifully surreal about this entire scene.
It had the vibe of an Olympics event, considering the hundreds of media covering it and the range of cultures and languages in the stadium. Somehow, all 50,023 were in stirring harmony singing “Country Roads” and “Sweet Caroline.”
It bore the magic of Chiefs fans from the U.S. experiencing a foreign environment juxtaposed with German fans watching a game that remains foreign even as it is rapidly becoming more familiar.
And it all coalesced through the Chiefs, and for a good late while the Dolphins, giving the fans that very experience to which Kelce referred — punctuated at game’s end by Patrick Mahomes running around the field engaging and high-fiving fans to the tune, happily enough, of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Imagine the ripples of that moment and this day weeks, months and years from now on those experiencing their first game … and witnessing the increasingly interstellar force that has emerged as the compelling face of the NFL and Kansas City.
I don’t know what it was like when The Beatles or Pele’ came to Kansas City in the 1960s, and maybe I’m exaggerating the thought. But knowing how Mahomes is revered here even entering the game and as the crowd roared for him Sunday, I found myself wondering if his cross-cultural appeal has some similar overtones.
“Chiefs Kingdom showed up,” Mahomes said.
But the reality is that whatever boundary that once entailed is now increasingly geometrically as the two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP and this team gain further international prominence.
When a reporter asked about the prospect of one day playing in Spain, Mahomes seemed ready to launch the global tour.
“I’m up for anything,” he said. “I’m always excited to get across the world and play football and show American football … to the rest of the world.”
As for what they showed Sunday, well, it wasn’t unlike a lot of Chiefs games this season as they’ve ambled toward a 7-2 record that matches the best record in the AFC but with ample room for worry because of some gear-grinding offense.
In a sense, they shared the full contemporary Chiefs experience:
Create some fear and loathing with a handful of curious calls or brutal mistakes, including in this case a Chris Jones penalty and Mecole Hardman again fielding a punt inside the 5-yard-line, and yet almost always salvage a victory … and increasingly thanks to defense.
Case in point Sunday:
The offense was utterly haphazard Sunday after taking a 14-0 first-half lead that soon mushroomed to 21-0 thanks to a jaw-dropping defensive touchdown after Trent McDuffie plowed the ball out of Tyreek Hill’s hands and Mike Edwards recovered and lateraled to Bryan Cook.
The unit managed 46 net yards in the second half and failed to convert a third and 1 (!) that could have put away the game.
Meanwhile, the defense provided its latest testimony that its first half of the season has been legitimate.
Albeit with a little help from Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa dropping a late fourth-and-10 snap from the Chiefs 31-yard line and inexplicably pouncing on it to end the play, the defense muzzled Miami to nearly 20 points below its NFL-best 33.9-point average entering the game.
It’s been a long time since the Chiefs had a defense so staunch at this point of the season (15.9 points a game). Between that and the reasonable hunch that the offense ultimately will flourish, Kelce said, “I really think this is probably the most complete team we’ve ever had.”
Also underscoring the day for the Chiefs and their fans: While a number of players greeted and embraced Hill before and after the game, no doubt it was sweet to have him eat about a year-and-a-half of trash-talk since the Chiefs traded him to Miami.
And the Hill vs. Chiefs element was a fine subplot to the most substantial international game played this late in a season: two teams that were 6-2 coming in and that could well meet again in the playoffs.
Even so, the day was mostly about a happening years in the making in terms of Chiefs planning and investment and decades in the sowing.
In some ways it culminated the vision of Lamar Hunt as far back as 1958, chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said Saturday night, to bring football to audiences that hadn’t been exposed to it.
Reflecting that view, the Chiefs and the Rams were the first NFL teams ever to play in Germany in a 1990 preseason game in Berlin that was the underpinning of a broader NFL initiative to grow the game internationally.
To some degree, that notion remains in its embryonic stages. But you could feel the gathering energy around Frankfurt this week, particularly at the Chiefs so-called “ChampionShip,” the hub of fan activity and entertainment where Hunt perceived more German voices than those of Americans on Saturday night.
And you could certainly measure it inside the stadium on Sunday. Linebacker Willie Gay was struck by the “all-in type fans” who were in tune to the game and the special feeling of “eyes on us” all over the world.
Whatever the ratio of U.S.-based fans to native Germans, the effect was the same.
“It felt like we picked up Arrowhead and dropped it over here in Frankfurt,” receiver Justin Watson said.
Albeit with some 27,000 or so fewer people in the stadium and more interlopers than usual, to say nothing of all the fresh Chiefs fans.
Still, it felt to the players like not only a highly pro-Chiefs crowd but also one that understood the game better than might be supposed from a game program featuring a page on “Die Grundlagen” — aka, “The Basics.”
That primer included dimensions of “the pitch,” how the teams move the ball (“The attacking team … moves the ball in a series of plays called downs”) and explanations of scoring.
“You could tell that they watch football, American football …” Mahomes said. “They really understand it.”
And that they got remembrances of all sorts out of this while giving as good as they got.
That helps explain why Kelce made a repeated point of saying how much he wants to come back to see a soccer game here “when you guys are cheering for your own” … and so he can “be a part of the chants you’ve got going.”
Just like he was part of the stuff that dreams are made of on Sunday.