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Patrick Mahomes Is Whatever You Want Him to Be

In his seven years in the league, he’s been all things to football. But in many ways, he’s still a Rorschach test: You can see what you want to in him.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few weeks before Kwanzaa time, it became clear to some steady viewers that the era of yelling, muttering, pleading, and big-cat-like growling had begun for Patrick Mahomes. After refs called back a last-ditch touchdown against the Buffalo Bills without preemptively warning Chiefs wideout Kadarius Toney that he was a full foot offside, the seventh-year quarterback prowled his sideline doing a bad Aaron Burr impersonation. Mahomes, a prodigious East Texas gunslinger if ever there was one, maybe kind of tried to bum-rush a line judge, and he most definitely murked his own helmet. A week later, after another Toney-induced change of fortune—this time against the remains of Bill Belichick and Co.—Mahomes hosted a little solo, open-air therapy session on a sideline bench. Just last month, having failed to capitalize on a hard-earned trip to the red zone in their wild-card matchup versus the Miami Dolphins, the quarterback spewed fire for a few seconds in the tundra. Not since Tom Brady commenced his pre-divorce war on league-issued Microsoft tablets have we had such a sustained renaissance of alpha-male angst and concentrated amateur psychology.

For most of the season, the thinking in more than a few football circles went not just that Kansas City’s offense had finally decayed, or that its rivals were seemingly ascendant, but that Mahomes (for really the first time in his graced career) was out of immediate paths back to the sport’s peak, and so, like any aristocratic heir, he was in a state of borderline tantrum. It took half a decade, three conference championships, and two titles, but something approximating futility was at last wrapping its tentacles around him. If you listened close enough—not just in Missouri, Los Angeles, or Bristol, Connecticut, but in schoolyards, break rooms, and watering holes across the country—what you heard was some combination of resignation, glee, and certainty that Mahomes had finally seen the writing on the wall for this season.

This, of course, aged like milk. On Sunday, he’s back in the Super Bowl.

Signs point to the fact that Pat is, verifiably, quite happy. “This never gets old,” was how he put it to maestro Andy Reid amid the confetti after they beat the Ravens in the AFC title game. (These comments seem to be as close as the normally reserved Mahomes will get to saying that “rumors” of his demise had been “greatly exaggerated,” until he’s holding another trophy.) Winning cures all, and stardom puts a mirror to it. A season of pesky concern, hyper-analysis, and beaucoup dustups is, for the moment, born anew in the enchanting light of glory. How we’ll remember it and him is still up for grabs. Mahomes has reached that level of achievement, fortune, and ubiquity where what we see in him can almost always be what we’d like to: the stories we’re most inclined to tell ourselves.

If you’re looking for a onetime underdog turned titan, there’s enough improbability in his come-up to suffice. In high school, Mahomes began his varsity football career lining up exclusively as a light-tackling safety, and he didn’t take over as starting QB until the third game of his junior year. In one deep dive, there’s a gem of an anecdote about a teenage Mahomes being invited to a low-level recruiting camp at the University of Texas: The twist is that he was instructed to take reps solely as a defensive back. Even after putting together a season and a half of gaudy statistics behind center in high school, Mahomes was just a three-star recruit when he signed with Texas Tech, and he ranked as just the 22nd-best quarterback prospect in his entire ESPN class.

When the Chiefs drafted him no. 10 in 2017, analyst Mel Kiper warned that the franchise was “going to have to rebuild his mechanics from the ground up.” One unnamed NFC personnel head said that Mahomes was a more “reckless” passer than Brett Favre—the league’s patron saint of picks. Another said of Mahomes, “He has no vision.” The NFL Draft Advisory Board, tasked with providing prospects with an estimate of their potential draft positioning, deemed Mahomes to be a second-rounder, at best.

Flip the picture around, though, and it starts to become just as easy to spot a messianic flamethrower in Mahomes, a folk legend with fables scattered all over the state. As a child, he took to throwing a baseball so easily that his MLB-pitching father had to move their training sessions from their backyard to an actual diamond. On the gridiron, Mahomes oozed the kind of sensational arm talent that made his own coach literally invoke the name of god in describing it. In his last high school season, he threw for over 4,600 yards and 50 touchdowns, and he did so in only 13 games. By college, Mahomes was regularly tossing 85-yard passes during warm-ups. (His coach at Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury, once said of Mahomes’s arm: “I never saw him strain, ever. Didn’t matter how far downfield.”) In Mahomes’s breakout game, a 66-59 loss to Oklahoma in 2016, he threw for a record-tying 734 yards. Even after he was drafted, in his redshirt first year with the Chiefs, their current general manager, Brett Veach, admitted his practices were so good that Mahomes had a growing “interdepartmental cult” after each showing.

As with all players who’ve reached airborne immortality, Pat is a product of circumstance: team-building mastery, the cruel physics of competition, injury luck, and temperament. Match another test subject with a similar scientist and a pair of Canton-bound safety valves, and maybe the results would look better than half bad. If you’re inclined to think Mahomes is the beneficiary of a specious defensive holding flag here or a missed pass interference call there, there are reams of film for you to connect whatever dots you want to on whatever walls you’ve got. An entire ecosystem had to align for him to exist in this form, at these heights.

It ain’t much of a task to see him as part of the long lineage of Black quarterbacks, both because the man has literally said it on multiple occasions and because even in his case—with his background, his ready-made marketability, and his ambiguously fair skin tone—the established order of the league still couldn’t help but whisper about his recklessness, his physicality, his lack of mental acumen; all of which are pitifully veiled synonyms for the words too and Black. “Take his first read away and what does he do?” a defensive play caller questioned, talking about the most effective per-game quarterback in the history of football after he’d won both an MVP and ring. “He runs, he scrambles and he plays streetball.” (This, too, Mahomes has addressed with far more grace than the league has ever deserved.)

Study his essential on-field tendencies, particularly in the biggest moments, and you’ll swear you’re staring at an outgrowth of the ascendant class of fairly mobile, highly accurate, big-armed pros that has taken the league by storm in the past decade and a half—those most ardent disciples of the Aaron Rodgers school of the touchdown-to-interception ratio. You’d be forgiven for making the case that Mahomes is best understood as a multisport kinetic revolutionary; a demigod of three-quarter arm angles, release-point trickery, and no-look passing. It took lining up behind center at Texas Tech for the outside world, including his own father, to start to see Pat as something other than a premier baseball prospect (he could’ve played college basketball too). Perhaps the most absurd, telling, and on-brand factoid in his athletic life is that when the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Mahomes to be their QB heir apparent, he’d applied himself solely to the sport of football for a single season.

The subtext of this rise, one that even his most ardent fans have to acknowledge, is that while it may have been cloaked in uncertainty, it began with an altitude advantage. How many children learn the value of pregame diligence by helping Alex Rodriguez hit off a tee for hours at a time? Which of his peers has a godfather with a 20-plus-year baseball career? Or a dad who’d honed the art of the high-90s fastball? For every moment along Mahomes’s winding path when his future looks uncertain or just plain wobbly, there is another moment, two, or three, when it looks like his trek to the athletic summit might not have really begun at the bottom of the mountain.

If you let him—which we all do, at one time or another—he’ll throw you in an immaculately spiraled loop. On the field, off it, and everywhere in between, Mahomes can’t help but be irrepressibly confounding, because anyone familiar with him, his game, or his story knows that each has long passed the point when it began to fit nearly any mold.

If there is a truest version of this colossal figure, it’s the one that’s the least inclined to be told. Of a little boy from the same county in Texas where his white mother and Black father were raised—a place twisted up in every thread of American promise and brutality: slavery, manifest destiny, sharecropping, lynching—thriving in comfort where less than a lifetime before he would’ve been blessed to simply survive. Of a young craftsman open to any form, tutor, or inspiration in a game that can’t quite kick the habit of lumping style with substance and lineage with worth. Of a burgeoning obsessive, a wunderkind with a folkloric arm and a photographic memory who had his obsessiveness molded by a likewise-obsessed father over thousands of hours in backyards, gyms, and various fields. The story of how Patrick Mahomes got from the loamy flatlands of East Texas to center stage in a 76,000-seat stadium in Kansas City—and now a 65,000-seat dome in Las Vegas—is harder, more routine, and no less profound than his shadow. It’s just that the shadow is so damn big.

This weekend, he’s a 2.5-point underdog, but the betting line appears on course to tighten. What he’ll do on the field is anyone’s guess, though his track record alone suggests it’ll leave a country’s worth of jaws agape. Pat might burnish his legend or fail to meet it: So little separates a ring-sizing date from a one-way ticket to the Yucatán Peninsula. The only sure thing on Sunday is that you’ll tune in to see him and see what you want.