The Summer of Showtime
The time is 11:03 a.m. when the scheming-est chunk of what must be the biggest Wednesday crowd in Chiefs training camp history starts a purposeful chant:
The chant is part appreciation, part lure. Today is the quarterbacks’ scheduled time to sign autographs, and Kansas City has not had a more sought-after autograph than Patrick Mahomes since, what, George Brett in 1985? Paul Rudd after Anchorman? Never?
Search “Mahomes autographed jersey” on eBay and as of Wednesday afternoon the first item is listed for $903 (but with free shipping!). This part of the crowd is a mix of wide-eyed kids, others coached up by their dads (“Get low — go under arms,” the one in front of me told his young boys), middle-aged men with the familiar tells of dealers, and some of us just here for the scene.
“Hey!” a fan named Mark Morgan yells to his two younger sons. “You’re stepping into a danger zone now! They’re gonna step all over your little tail!”
Which position groups will sign on which days is posted somewhat subtly on the Chiefs’ website, and that’s the only reason anyone around here can see for this type of crowd. Midweek, and practice was delayed by a borderline biblical rain. Most years, this would be a crowd of a thousand at the most. The previous practice, maybe 3,000 or so fans showed up.
Today, more than 6,500.
Mahomes has changed everything except the humidity in Kansas City, and now he’s doing it in St. Joe, too. Before this year, the largest estimated crowd for a non-stadium practice was 6,100. Wednesday was at least the fifth (out of 10) to surpass that.
By 8:30, police were directing traffic to a parking lot rarely if ever used because everything else was stuffed already. I told that story to Karen Cosgrove, who drove up from Lee’s Summit, and she one-upped me — it took her 45 minutes to get from the exit off Highway 36 to park. On normal days, that should take five minutes. Ten, tops.
Keith and Chanel Gravely brought their kids up from Shawnee, the date chosen specifically because Mahomes would be signing. Eight of the 13 people I asked said the same thing. Far from scientific, but still.
The Gravely boys already have Mahomes’ autograph, actually. They came up two years ago — Mahomes’ rookie camp — and scored Mahomes’ and Alex Smith’s signatures on the same ball. I asked how the crowd that day compares to today. Keith laughed.
“Twenty-five percent,” he said. “At the most.”
Their boys stood close. The older one will be a sophomore and plays quarterback for his high school. I asked the parents how they think this will go. The question hung in the air a few seconds while they inventoried the crowd. Depending on how you counted it, we stood 10 rows deep in a jam-packed mass of humanity.
“You like their chances?” Keith asked.
“Uh-huh,” Chanel said. “I really do.”
The crowd is apparently well-studied, because the biggest cluster is toward the inside edge of the northern field. That’s where the autographs usually begin. You never know how long they last, so it’s best to get in while you can.
In front of me, a dad teaches his kids the proper technique to present their Mahomes jerseys for an autograph — tight and clean folds, with either the “1” or the “5” on top.
More than half the people in view, it seems, are in jerseys. That’s not unusual, but for years the jerseys you spotted in crowds of Chiefs fans have been something like a list of stars who wasted their primes on losing teams (Jamaal Charles) or reminders of bad ideas (Matt Cassel).
There is still some of that — here’s to you, Guy In Peyton Hillis Jersey — but at least half of the jerseys in view have Mahomes’ name on the back. I’m the only person on the hill in a blue shirt. The rest is red. One random guy wore a Rams hat, but he’s outnumbered by people in Mahomes’ Texas Tech jersey (three) and those in both a Mahomes Chiefs jersey and a wig (two).
As Mahomes approached, a couple kids squealed and the crowd tightened into place. Grown men boxed out with footballs still secured in cardboard, which must make for nice resale items.
Small boys and girls took parental encouragement and nudged as close as possible. Parents lifted their kids onto shoulders, and adults waved cereal boxes and mini-helmets and large framed pictures.
Mahomes picked a different starting spot than usual, and the stomping of feet to chase him could be heard underneath the screams of Mahomes’ name.
“Colby!” someone yelled to a friend holding up a homemade sign.
“It’s not working!” Colby yelled back.
Mahomes is only in his second year as a starter, but he has this part of stardom down. He smiled the entire time, laughed politely and kept shuffling left to right, slowly but steadily. A mix of holding firm and subtle martial art defined the middle of the scrum, everyone positioning their items as close as possible. For Mahomes, it must’ve felt a little like drinking from a fire hydrant.
Last week when he signed, people pushed so far and hard that the barriers bulged beyond the point of safety. Mahomes had to move down the line, but the same thing happened again. He moved once more, and another bulge.
By now, Mahomes is keenly aware of the risks his presence brings to otherwise rational decisions, so he’s taken to helping the security guards do their jobs.
“Back up, back up, back up,” he said at one point, maintaining the smile.
At 11:08 the bullhorn blares again, which is Mahomes’ cue, and he’s gone. Five minutes and what must’ve been dozens of autographs. It’s over in what feels like a flash to those who woke up early and stood for hours. Kicker Harrison Butker and long-snapper James Winchester were among those still signing, but the show was done.
“That sucks,” a 20-something man said. “Didn’t even get close.”
“I didn’t get it, dang it,” another young man said to someone on the phone. “Mahomes could’ve touched my face. That’s how close I was.”
I see the Gravelys, and they were skunked as well. Morgan’s kids failed with the autographs but succeeded in not getting their little tails stomped.
“Better safe than sorry,” their dad said.
Rodney Miller got what he came for, on a jersey he said he’ll frame and keep. He’s one of the relative few, and that’s more a function of the size of the crowd than the number of signatures.
His strategy is both simple and possible only with dedication and planning. He arrived early, went straight to the fence and skipped coffee this morning so he wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom.
“I stood my ground and put it out as far as I could, but there ain’t a trick,” he said. “Got lucky, I guess.”
With that, the crowd thinned. And since you’ve made it all the way to the end, here’s a tip: Mahomes has signed every day after practice.