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Kingdom Comeback: The Chiefs’ Seven-Year Journey to a Super Bowl Title

The coach arrived in Kansas City grieving the death of a son, tasked with saving a franchise in unfathomable crisis. The loyal GM followed him and found the quarterback who would change everything. And on Sunday, with yet another come-from-behind victory, Andy Reid finally finished what he needed to do—lift the Lombardi Trophy—for everyone but himself.

Three thousand miles from Miami, in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles where Andy Reid grew up, 50 or so of his childhood friends gathered on Sunday for a Super Bowl party. The day marked an equally somber and joyous occasion, and the living room showed both. On the mantle near the television the group had placed a wooden urn, similar in size to a football, with a gold-plated plaque. Atop the box of ashes, they placed a Kansas City Chiefs hat.

“Win the Super Bowl for Tony,” they told one another, hoping Reid could deliver for their late friend.

Across the country, the Chiefs coach paced back and forth during what most everyone else saw as a career-defining championship game, the only one he’d never won as a head coach. Now it was past the point of considering all that had led him to the sideline at Hard Rock Stadium. He couldn’t worry about everything he’d lost—not Super Bowl XXXIX and not the 14 playoff games; not the most painful loss of all, his son Garrett, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2012. He couldn’t consider the move to Kansas City and the way that his history and the Chiefs’ history—always successful but always, ultimately, tortured—had intertwined.

His friends in L.A. knew this all, though, as they dined on ribs and cheeseburgers, two of Andy’s favorites. They knew who he was coaching for. They knew who wasn’t around to see it. And they knew—everybody knew—the one player who could deliver him to the place he’d never been, atop the NFL universe, Lombardi Trophy in his meaty hands. As the national anthem played and the fireworks exploded, they saw the game and they saw the urn and they all brought up the same name: Patrick.

* * *

Chiefs Super Bowl Sports Illustrated cover

Five hours later, in Miami Gardens, Patrick Mahomes sauntered up to a lectern in a white tent across from Hard Rock Stadium. The clock ticked toward 11 p.m. He was still wearing his shoulder pads, his playbook wristband and his white uniform pants, grass-stained down the right flank from the four sacks he took or from one of the nine plays on which he scampered to extend drives.

Here was the 24-year-old who’d seized the MVP honor in the final 7:13 of Super Bowl LIV. Mahomes had turned stunning comebacks into routine affairs all January, erasing double-digit deficits against the Texans in the divisional round and against the Titans in the AFC championship. But neither of those teams had bottled and bludgeoned him like the 49ers had. With more than half of the final quarter elapsed—having ended consecutive drives with interceptions, staring at a 10-point deficit—Mahomes faced both a third-and-15 from his own 35 and an angsty fan base that was wondering whether his late-game magic had finally worn off.

SI PRESENTS: Celebrate the Chiefs' Super Bowl victory with a special commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated

The Chiefs called a play they’d deployed last season, against the Patriots in the playoffs. For most of Sunday, Mahomes would explain later, the 49ers’ defense had been playing a robber coverage, where the safety came down to “rob” K.C.’s deep crossing routes. On this down, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce stutter-stepped before crossing the field. Meanwhile, Tyreek Hill ran what they call a Detroit route: Lined up in the slot, he faked a post and, when he hit the hash mark, cut back outside. As he turned back out toward the corner, San Francisco’s DBs lost track of him. Pass rushers clobbered Mahomes on that play, but he managed to heave a 44-yard pass, the high-arcing throw allowing Hill plenty of time to settle under it at the 49ers’ 21. The pass changed everything.

The Chiefs would score three touchdowns in the next six minutes. On the last one, running back Damien Williams looked for a first down, only to find open space, bounding up the left sideline and into the end zone. The scoreboard read 31-20. Mahomes had pulled off his fifth double-digit comeback this season, and his third in the playoffs, an NFL first.

Andy Reid after Super Bowl LIV

Chaos ensued, with Reid at the center: the orange-Gatorade bath; the long embrace with his quarterback; his son Britt, a Chiefs linebackers coach, fishing Andy’s fallen hat off the confetti-coated grass and returning it to his father’s head.

Back at the press conference, Mahomes focused on what the title signified for his coach, the guy who arrives at 3 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 11 that night. “I don’t think he sleeps,” Mahomes said as his mom, Randi, nodded along behind him.

It all felt a bit like a movie-cliché press conference, with reporters screaming questions at Mahomes, cameras flashing all around him. Meanwhile, his younger sister, Mia, leaned on the railing and yawned; her brother had long ago made the impossible seem routine. On the dais, Patrick said he’d set two goals when he became the Chiefs’ starter: Bring the Lamar Hunt trophy, named after his team’s founder, back to Kansas City; and win Andy Reid his first Super Bowl. The QB had accomplished both, but he pointed the credit back toward his beloved coach.

“He’s one of the best of all time,” Mahomes said.

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On the first day of December in 2012—before Reid came to Kansas City, back when Mahomes was still in high school—Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli was pulling into his team’s facility for a staff Bible study when he noticed a Bentley parked awkwardly in the fire lane near the entrance. One of his players, a 25-year-old linebacker named Jovan Belcher, was exiting the car. He was crying and holding onto a gun.

As Pioli approached, Belcher screamed about how he’d just killed “her”—his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their infant daughter. He’d come to thank Pioli and then to kill himself. Eventually he cocked the gun and, as police sirens sounded in the distance, dropped to his knees and shot himself in the head.

“An unimaginable event,” Pioli says. “No one can be prepared to understand that, to navigate through it, around it, over it.”

The Chiefs played the next day, registering only their second win in a season so miserable that fans had resorted to wearing paper bags over their heads. Change was imminent, but owner Clark Hunt had more to consider than just football. “I was looking for experience, maturity [in a coach],” he says, “and coming off the Belcher tragedy we needed someone who could build relationships in the building.” The best coach available that offseason happened to possess all these traits.

A month later, a K.C. contingent met with Reid at a private airport near Philadelphia for a nine-hour marathon interview. Pioli (who would leave the organization soon after) says they knew right away they’d found the one coach who made sense at a time when nothing else did. “For the healing and recovery that had to happen for the team and the franchise and the city,” he says, “Andy was the only person for the job.”

First Hunt had to make sure Reid could handle his own emotional unrest. After 14 years in Philadelphia, Reid’s closest friends were urging him to take a year off. Five months earlier, Garrett Reid—Little Red to Andy’s Big Red—had died at age 29, during training camp, where he was an assistant. “[Addiction] is a disease, and it's a tough thing to overcome,” Reid says now. “It doesn't matter what religion, what race; doesn't matter how much money you make. Sometimes it doesn't work.”

Reid buried his son, then poured himself back into film analysis, and when Philadelphia fired him after that 4-12 season, he met with the Chiefs two days later. Hunt began the interview alone with Reid, in a conference room with the blinds closed. He needed to know whether the coach was ready, and the coach said yes. Looking back, Britt says that “taking a year off and sitting around thinking about something tragic” wouldn’t have done his father any good.

“I think he feared the emptiness of that,” says Joe Banner, the Eagles’ former president and a longtime Reid confidant.

Midway through that interview, Reid’s agent sent home the Cardinals’ team plane, which was waiting on the tarmac, queued up for a meeting. There started the path to Reid’s first championship as a head coach. “It probably was a good healing process for me and for the Chiefs,” he says. “They had gone through some things. I went through some things. It was a good match.”

* * *

The son of a Hollywood set designer, Reid channels his artistic creativity through intricate play designs in legendary white-board sessions. In one such conference earlier this season he added a fifth receiver to an established pattern and came up with an easy-to-remember code name for the wild play: Dr. Octopus, a nod to Spider-Man’s multi-appendaged nemesis.

The Chiefs dialed up this call once this season, for a modest gain, but that’s not why Reid brought up the play in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl LIV. He was talking about how the process of moving forward in Kansas City would add meaning to every game. “Dr. Octopus, he’s got all those legs,” Reid said, motioning with his fingers. “I was thinking of how many things were involved in that year. Losing my son. . . the things that happened here. … Yeah, there are a lot of legs to this.”

After Reid arrived, the Chiefs built their Super Bowl roster in usual ways (through the draft and free-agency) and in unusual, riskier ones, adding players with serious issues, sometimes with criminal backgrounds. Past and present colleagues remain careful when discussing Reid’s approach to the matter; they don’t want to excuse any abhorrent behavior, but they say Reid believes in second chances, that he thinks he can help.

Take Hill, who made that momentum-shifting 44-yard catch and who last spring was the subject of a child-abuse investigation involving his young son. (A district attorney declined to press charges against Hill or the boy’s mother, even though he stated, “We believe a crime has occurred.” Hill denied any wrongdoing.) He was also recorded in March telling the mother of three of his children, “You need to be terrified of me b----.” Hill had already fallen to the Chiefs in the fifth round in the 2016 draft after pleading guilty to physically abusing the same woman while they were students at Oklahoma State.

While the Hill investigation was ongoing last spring, the Chiefs acquired pass rusher Frank Clark, who recorded a critical fourth-down, fourth-quarter sack of Jimmy Garoppolo in Miami, from the Seahawks. Clark was dismissed from the Michigan football team after being arrested on domestic violence charges against his girlfriend. (Those charges were reduced to fourth-degree persistent disorderly conduct.)

The Chiefs said they relied last summer on personal experience with Hill in deciding to keep him on their team and sign him to a contract extension. They leaned on their research—dating back to the 2015 draft and including conversations with members of the Seahawks’ front office—in trading for Clark and also signing him to an extension. Those additions seemed to suggest a pattern, that the coach would take chances on players where other teams might have passed, like when Reid signed free-agent Michael Vick in 2009, after the former Falcons QB went to prison for his role in a dog-fighting ring.

There’s no easy way to address these issues, but they remain part of the Chiefs’ story. It’s possible to distinguish between addiction and violent acts while acknowledging Reid’s empathy for human beings. It’s also possible to find those signings problematic, or related primarily to winning football games.

In Philadelphia, Reid cited the second chances given to his sons (Britt also struggled with addiction) as factors in the Vick signing. “It might have something to do with understanding people, if they really put their mind to it to change, maybe they can do that,” Reid says now. “Maybe they can put it out there and give it another picture, something better.”

Soon after Garrett’s death, Brett Veach, who had ascended from Reid’s assistant to an Eagles scouting gig, watched from his apartment as Reid coached his last game for Philadelphia, a road loss to the Giants. Afterward, Veach climbed in his car and drove to the facility to wait for the team buses. “I didn't want [Reid] to be in the office by himself,” he says. He texted: “Coach, I’m here for you. Just let me know.”

Chiefs GM Brett Veach

Chiefs GM Brett Veach

Eventually Reid summoned Veach to his office. The coach knew his run in Philly had ended, but here he was dissecting the game, lamenting missed opportunities and points left on the field. Finally he asked Veach for a favor: “There's some stuff … can you help me carry it out to my car?”

As the two trudged out into the cold December night, Veach told the man who brought him into the NFL, “Coach, I don't know what's going to happen in the coming weeks, but just know that wherever you go, if you want me around, I'll go.”

Said Reid, “I'm going to take you up on that.”

SI PRESENTS: Celebrate the Chiefs' Super Bowl victory with a special commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated

* * *

Veach went with Reid to Kansas City, helping assemble a playoff roster as he climbed the ranks to general manager, minus the piece they needed most. Then they found it the old-fashioned way, through intense film review.

From their bunker in the spring of 2016, Veach and the personnel staff under then-GM John Dorsey began to evaluate college quarterbacks, working from juniors to sophomores, where a certain Texas Tech passer’s highlights jumped off the screen. Reid stopped by one afternoon, asking Veach, “What are you up to?”

“Coach,” he replied, “I’m watching the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs a year from now.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Reid chuckled.

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