From Kelce to Gronk: the unstoppable rise of the party-bro tight end

<span>Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

When it comes to staffing the tight end position, NFL teams definitely have a type. A standout player combines ox-like strength with deer-like speed and hops. He excels at blocking and catching. He seems like the kind of guy who would judge another man by his calf size, or babble on about his crypto killing when he’s not swilling beer upside down from a keg. With his shirt off. You know the type: A real bro.

This weekend’s Super Bowl pits two of the league’s best tight ends against each other. On one side there’s Philadelphia’s Dallas Goedert – a labradoodle of a man with charisma and retrieving knack for days. On the other, there’s Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, a probable Hall of Fame who is the standard-bearer in stats and swagger. It’s no surprise that either man could be the x-factor in this matchup, nor is it a coincidence that either man could reasonably be described as a bro.

I’m talking about the kind of guy who may call you “bro” repeatedly in conversation, regardless of whether you in fact identify as male. He wears his baseball cap backwards, turns handshakes into arm wrestles, thinks Dane Cook is hilarious. I’m talking about the very specific brand of fratty white dude who has become the quarterback’s best, well, bro. A list of the league’s top tight ends reads like a Greek Week roll call. Besides Kelce and Goedert, there’s San Francisco’s George Kittle, Baltimore’s Mark Andrews and Arizona’s Zach Ertz – a key figure in the Eagles’ last Super Bowl run. In a league that’s more than 70% non-white, a Black tight end like Cleveland’s David Njoku is something of an outlier. But even he exhibits bro tendencies from time to time, like bleaching half his dreadlocks and hosting news conferences while shirtless.

Related: Rob Gronkowski played the goofball but few can doubt his greatness

Of course, some seasoned football watchers won’t see anything unusual in the homogenization of the tight end; the offensive line skews white, after all, so it only figures that the skill player most often slotted in with them would too. But it wasn’t always thus. Back in the day, the NFL’s star tight end weren’t bros. They were brothers. They were guys like Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow – rare talents who didn’t just have the guts to run patterns in the middle of the field, but also the grit to make the catch and survive bone-crunching hits from defenders time and again.

Before Shannon Sharpe became a professional pundit, he was a brilliant tight end – John Elway’s port in a storm through two Super Bowl titles in Denver before, in the final stage of his career, he dragged the Baltimore Ravens passing offense to another championship in 2001. By that time Tony Gonzalez had emerged as a perennial All Pro, one who had scouts canvasing the country for undersized, lightly used college basketball players. Famously, the San Diego Chargers took a flier on a nomadic power forward named Antonio Gates – and all he did was rewrite the team’s record books while leading an offensive revolution from the most unlikely position on the field.

So how did tight end go from a relatively inconsequential position to one where some of the biggest stars in the NFL operate?

For a start, the overwhelming public pressure to make football safer forced the NFL to scrub the most punishing hits from the game and step up its enforcement of illegal contact penalties. Accorded that head start, passing offenses redoubled their attacks on the middle of the field. In 2001, before the crackdown on illegal contact, there were only four tight ends among the league’s Top 50 pass catchers. But this year? There were 10, with Kelce’s 110 catches third among all receivers. Just above him in second place with nine more catches was big-play wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who left the Chiefs last year for the Miami Dolphins. Most figured that taking away Patrick Mahomes’s top receiver would hurt the Chiefs quarterback. But with Kelce, he hasn’t missed a beat.

In short order, the tight end emerged as a matchup nightmare – too big for a defensive back to bring down, and too quick for a linebacker to catch. For some offenses, a double team on the tight end was easily defeated by throwing to the open man. For New Orleans’s Jimmy Graham, another hardcourt hustler turned tight end, it was an invitation to throw the ball to a height only his leaping 6ft 7in frame could reach. For a time Graham was football’s most unstoppable weapon, an NBA small forward in cleats. And then Rob Gronkowski came along.

At 6ft 6in, Gronk was nearly as tall as Graham. Unlike Graham, who was mostly deployed as a receiver, Gronk was also an asset as a blocker and took immense pride in his work. And on the many occasions he caught passes from Tom Brady, teams knew that even if they brought at least two men to bring him down he might still carry them into the end zone like seaweed to the shore.

Why most premium tight ends now are white is a riddle wrapped in Riddell. But the most likely explanation is because the NFL is a copycat league, and there isn’t a sport on the planet that can rival its stubborn history of blatant typecasting – especially by race. Because the likes of Gronk and Kelce are such superb players, scouts look for guys who look like them. The stereotype can work in reverse: the last white cornerback in the NFL, Jason Sehorn, retired in 2003 despite there being no shortage of fast white guys at other positions. The stereotype inverts, too: non-white players were considered too dumb to play middle linebacker before Mike Singletary, Junior Seau and the like thoroughly laid waste to that myth.

Why Gronk, Kelce, Kittle et al have become such big off-field stars – despite the fact that tight ends are still not as valued on the field as star wide receivers, quarterbacks or pass rushers – is less of a mystery. As more Black quarterbacks take over as the face of their franchises, the bro tight end has become the player whose real chemistry may well be with large sections of white football fans. And advertisers value players who look like their audience. So Kelce gets his own reality show, Kittle promotes superhero films and Gronk (who is far shrewder than his frat boy persona suggests) has hawked everything from energy drinks to insurance to his own party cruises.

But Gronk wasn’t some football first, but rather the latest in a long line of wildchild tight ends that extends from Jeremy Shockey to Mike Ditka – the ur-tight end. The bros in this year’s Super Bowl likewise aren’t strangers to a good time either. After pipping Cincinnati in the AFC championship game, Kelce let loose his inner WWE wrestler while calling out Cincinnati’s mayor for redubbing Arrowhead Stadium “Burrowhead” – a not-so-sly reference to Joe Burrow’s run of recent success on the Chiefs’ home field. “Know your role and shut your mouth, you jabroni,” he shouted – on national television.

Where Kelce brims with bravado, Goedert comes off like Scooby Doo while obsessing about sandwiches in a commercial for the Delaware valley’s premier convenience store. Before he was Jalen Hurts’s security blanket, Goedert cruised South Dakota parades aboard a unicycle to entertain the masses. Even at 260lbs, he claims he could still pedal a 6ft unicycle, although it would take some leaning on a truck to help him get going. “It’s like riding a bike,” he once joked.

Maybe there isn’t anything unusual about the bro tight end seeming like the NFL’s version of the Guy Yelling in the Club meme. At the end of the day, he’s exciting, he’s approachable – he’s fun! What’s more, he makes a brutal game feel warm and cuddly. Don’t be surprised if on Sunday he turns out to be the life of the Super Bowl party.