In NFL locker rooms in the past two decades, teammate introductions have followed a similar pattern. Players have learned each other’s names, and then they’ve started talking about Kobe Bryant. “Do you know how many times I’ve argued about LeBron versus Kobe?” Chiefs linebacker Damien Wilson said at Super Bowl LIV media day. “Kobe is Batman and LeBron is Superman. It will never be the same. Never.”
Super Bowl week opened Monday with little talk of the Super Bowl. The death of Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash Sunday was discussed by nearly every player, coach, and executive present. Bryant was a main topic of conversation because he’s long been a main topic of conversation in football, a sport he never played but on which he had an outsize impact. Bryant was the focus of media day because football is just another corner of the universe he helped shape.
Few people outside the game—and few inside it—are revered like Bryant. He’s one of the most influential athletes to an entire generation of football players. Patrick Mahomes told reporters Monday that he watches videos of Kobe before his own games—not just of Bryant’s highlights, but of him talking about plays. George Kittle said that, along with his parents, Kobe is the reason he plays sports at all. He wore Bryant’s jersey no. 24 in high school. There isn’t a whole lot that can make the NFL’s self-obsession cycle grind to a halt, but Kobe is different.
Both teams found out about Bryant’s death while flying to Miami. The news spread quickly through their respective planes. Niners wide receiver Richie James said that he felt so off he passed out for the rest of the flight. Some 49ers told me they refused to believe it was true until they landed and saw corroborating reports. “Everyone wished it was fake news,” Chiefs defensive tackle Mike Pennel said. “It almost didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t.”
In NFL locker rooms, Bryant was an avatar for a relentless work ethic that transcends a single sport and appeals to the physical, frantic nature of football. Kobe would have been a great football player because of course he would have been. Instead, he inspired a generation of great players who adored how he approached the game. “Most of the conversation in [NFL] locker rooms are not around football, they are around basketball. It’s Kobe-LeBron, Kobe-Jordan, who did this, who did that,” Geoff Schwartz, who played eight years in the league, told me. “For all of us, the generation that grew up with Kobe as the guy, we missed out on Jordan’s years, and Kobe was the best player in the world. And even when LeBron came up, [the guy] was still Kobe. I think more because there was a competitive fire, and a lot of us know that feeling, of doing too much.”
The generation Schwartz describes includes 31-year-old Compton, California, native Richard Sherman, a friend of Bryant’s and a massive Lakers fan. “There are not enough words in my vocabulary to give him the respect and praise he deserves,” Sherman said of Bryant on Monday. The 49ers cornerback said he was sad for most of his time in Miami, until he thought about what Bryant would tell him about processing such a profound loss. “He would tell me to stop being a baby and man up and play it and do it in his honor and win this game for him, and that’s what we’re gonna try to do,” Sherman said. “I’m gonna go out there and try to play some dominating ball just like he wanted. The Mamba Mentality still lives on.”
The Mamba Mentality helps explain why Bryant was so beloved not only in the basketball community, but across all sports, from football to soccer to tennis. Sherman said that his most Mamba-esque moment came when he tore his Achilles as a member of the Seahawks in 2017. He saw Bryant tear his Achilles in 2013 and shoot a free throw afterward, and the image stuck with him. “I saw him do it. Once I tore mine. I knew I had to walk off. I had to be able to walk off,” Sherman said. “I can’t remember any generational talent going like this before his time in the way Kobe did. I think that’s what’s sad: He was going to be so much more than basketball. I think basketball was going to end up being a small part of who he was.”
Bryant leaves behind a legacy so colossal that it’s difficult to comprehend, from his role in the NBA world to his significance in Los Angeles to his 2003 rape case for which criminal charges were dropped and a civil settlement was later reached. He was equal parts myth and man, and his sudden passing has sparked discussions about every aspect of his life: his five titles, his 81-point game, his farewell tour, his mentorship of young athletes, and his role as a husband and father.
Bryant’s involvement with football happened in ways big and small. He spoke to the 2017 Eagles during their Super Bowl–winning season, and to the Browns and Patriots the following year. He talked to the Chargers about media training, and the 2018 Saints made “Mamba Mentality” a rallying cry. Mahomes has a particular type of genius in which he takes little pieces of his game from countless people, but he made clear that he takes a lot from Bryant. “I wasn’t lucky enough to get to meet Kobe, but the impact he made on my life, it was huge,” Mahomes said. “The way he was able to go about every single day when I was a kid, the work ethic, the intensity he had to be great every single day.” Mahomes said he watches YouTube videos of Bryant talking because of how “he put everything in perspective. On and off the field. With his kids. His business ventures and his play.”
Kobe was a fixture of this generation’s entire lives. The Lakers drafted Bryant in June 1996; Mecole Hardman, the Chiefs’ rookie wide receiver and second-round draft pick in 2019, was born in March 1998. As Kobe went from high school phenom to one of the preeminent faces in sports, NFL players—past, present, and future—have looked on in admiration.
“[Talking about Kobe] started in high school for a lot of guys,” Pennel said. “But I think that him having an impact on the black community, he was an icon. What he did for the community as a black father, a positive black icon, I think that’s what is discussed in the locker room. Guys are heartbroken and a lot of them have been talking about what he did off the court more than on it.”
Football resumes Sunday. Talk about football will resume later this week. And Bryant’s impact on a sport he didn’t play will continue. Sherman told reporters that he wants to win this Super Bowl for Bryant. Such is Kobe’s transcendence that many Chiefs players want to win it for him, too.