MIAMI – Back at Whitehouse High School in Texas, the football team had a motto: “Keep Swinging.”
The message was simple. It didn’t matter if a player was deep in offseason conditioning, the heat of a summer practice or trailing late in the fourth quarter ... just keep going, keep pushing, keep swinging.
As a symbol, the coaches bought a sledgehammer. Each week, a player would earn the honor of charging out of the locker room and onto the field carrying that sledgehammer.
Patrick Mahomes was a three-year starter at Whitehouse High – a safety as a sophomore, a gunslinging quarterback as a junior and senior. He played in 36 games, the last two dozen as the team’s unquestioned star and often captain.
Yet each time it was Mahomes’ turn to carry the sledgehammer, an act virtually every player jumped at doing, he would tell the coaches to choose someone else. He was the best player on the team, but he didn’t need the recognition.
“He just knew, ‘That’s for the other guys, I get enough attention,’” said head coach Adam Cook.
Instead, Mahomes wanted it to go to someone who needed a boost, or worked particularly hard in practice, or for whom that might be the peak of their athletic career. He even wanted managers to carry it.
“It wasn’t until late in his senior year when he finally did it,” Cook said. “And that’s because we made him. He didn’t care. Patrick just always wanted it to be about the team.”
Patrick Mahomes plays in the biggest game of his life Sunday, his Kansas City Chiefs squaring off with the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. The Chiefs have no gimmicks like the sledgehammer. This is pro football, not high school.
Yet you talk to anyone around the Chiefs and they’ll echo the stories of his high school coaches, this is a quiet, but a completely committed leader.
At 24, Mahomes is the best player in football and the budding face of the league. He has been a starter for just two seasons, yet was named league MVP last year and got the Chiefs here in his second.
San Francisco’s chance of winning rests almost exclusively on stopping Mahomes. If he has a big game, Kansas City is virtually assured victory.
Yet all week Mahomes has acted very little like the center of the football universe. He’s mostly prepared for the game and calmly answered questions during media sessions. He has said little of note.
“Just excited,” he kept saying this week. “Just excited for the opportunity.”
Maybe that’s easier to do when you’ve become a star, but he wasn’t truly one back in high school.
Certainly everyone in Whitehouse, a city of about 8,000 tucked into the woods and lakes of East Texas, knew him. Yet he was hardly a big deal across the state, let alone country. He played three sports (basketball, baseball and football) because he loved to compete alongside his childhood friends. That limited his football recruiting. He was most often rated as just a three-star recruit.
That continued even as he racked up eye-popping stats on the field – he’d throw for 8,458 yards and 96 touchdowns in his career while rushing for 1,198 and 21 more scores. Texas Tech, where’d he play for three seasons, was the only Big 12 school to offer him a scholarship.
It certainly would have been understandable if, as a teenager, he’d tried to draw attention to himself or seek media coverage. Instead, he’d spend his time with local reporters talking up teammates. And after touchdowns, there weren’t elaborate look-at-me celebrations.
“There would be a play where he’d make an incredible throw or he’d scramble around and make a big run for a touchdown and he’d come off the field saying to his teammates, ‘great catch’ or ‘great block,’” said Brad Cook, who was Whitehouse’s offensive coordinator Mahomes’ senior season. “He’d say that even if most of the reason the play was successful was because of his throw or his ability to elude tackles.
“It didn’t matter to Patrick,” Brad Cook continued. “He wanted to lift up his teammates. It was all about the team and he figured that if he could improve their confidence then the team would play better. I also think he knew he was good. He was very confident in that, but he didn’t need to talk about his performance. He knew his play would speak for itself, so all he did was talk about the other guys.”
Adam Cook, the head coach, would marvel when Mahomes would stick his head into his office before practice and tell him that some sophomore could use some praise that day. Or when he’d mention it was a teammate’s birthday.
“He was always about the team, always about his teammates, always about the other person,” Adam Cook said. “He’d have a great practice and he’d be looking around to see who was struggling and might need some help. When we’d take the field pregame, he always went last. He wanted the other guys to get the cheers. He was a natural leader.”
Then and now, it’s no different. Patrick Mahomes, leading from behind, pushing his guys to bigger and better things. That’s how he was raised. That’s who he is.
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