ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Helmet in hand and fellow tight end Deon Yelder at his side, Travis Kelce ambled down the green-carpeted hill to the practice fields at Missouri Western on Wednesday morning.
He's been on plenty of fields this offseason, but this time was different.
This time, the hat he'd been wearing on the field at OTAs and minicamp in Kansas City was gone. He was sporting a red No. 87 practice jersey and cleats instead of the sweats and sneakers he usually wore throughout his spring on the sideline.
Less than five months removed from a cleanup surgery on his left ankle that's bothered him for nearly three years, Kelce participated in his first team practice since the season ended.
"Man, it's just good to get a sweat, take the visor off and put a helmet on, get out there and start running around," he said. "As the role that I had in the offseason, being a player-coach, it's a lot easier to be on the field leading by example than to just talk about it.
"It doesn't matter how much credibility you've got on your resume or what you've done in the past, until you go out there and you really go through the motions, you show the effort, you show the excitement to be out there with the guys, it's just never the same. Today was a good day to go out there."
Kelce wasn't the only one excited about his return to the practice field.
When he reached the bottom of the hill and began to walk across white-lined grass, Kelce was enveloped by Patrick Mahomes. The quarterback playfully leaped on his teammate's back, hanging there for a few seconds before sliding off and shaking Kelce's hand.
"Having Kelce back out there is going to be fun," Mahomes said a day earlier.
Mahomes went right to one of his favorite targets when the team began 7-on-7 drills during Wednesday's practice. His first pass went to Kelce, and later in 11-on-11 work, Mahomes opened the new drill in the same way.
"He did a nice job," coach Andy Reid said. "We were easing him back in. But I thought he moved around well. I didn't see anything lingering for the surgery."
Having Kelce out there was more than just fun for Mahomes, it was also beneficial for the younger corps of tight ends vying for a roster spot. Though the Chiefs have depth with eight tight ends on the roster, Kelce is the most experienced at the position by a significant margin. His return to practice bolsters the group as he helps bring along younger players like rookie John Lovett.
"They've got somebody with Kelce that's been there to talk to and see how it's done," Reid said. "Kelce is good with sharing that stuff."
There wasn't one moment or one injury during the previous season that led to Kelce's decision to have the ankle surgery this offseason. Instead, it was an accumulation of ankle rolls and weakness over the last couple of seasons that took a toll.
"I wouldn't say it bothered me to the point that it hindered my game, it's just something that was nagging really Monday and Tuesday was where it really got me the most," he said. "And then sometimes here and there in practice, I'd roll my ankle just because of how loose the joint was."
Though Kelce's surgery was relatively minor — a procedure performed to tighten the ligaments and stabilize the joints associated with the ankle — his recovery wasn't swift. Kelce was unable to run for three months, something that challenged and frustrated the Pro Bowl tight end.
"That was the hardest thing, to get through that soreness, and I'm still getting through the soreness and fatigue and all that stuff," Kelce said. "But just building the muscles back to what they used to be, now that the ankle is as stable as it needs to be."
Kelce's ankle already passed one major test.
The tight end recently took a trip to Turks and Caicos with some of his teammates, including Mahomes. As the group ran routes in the sand, catching passes from Mahomes, Kelce awkwardly stepped in the uneven and ever-shifting sand.
But the pain that would've been instantaneous a year ago never came.
"Last year or two years ago, that thing would've just rolled out and I would've been sitting watching guys catch routes on the beach instead of actually getting out there and doing it myself," Kelce said.
And now, after an offseason of doing plenty of route-watching, he'll have even more opportunities to run the routes himself.