KANSAS CITY, Mo. — LaTroy Hawkins recently recalled a time in 2008, when he was pitching for the Houston Astros, that President George W. Bush visited the clubhouse before a game.
Hawkins, a longtime major leaguer and the godfather of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, remembers looking over at one point to see a 12-year old Mahomes chatting up the president.
“You should have seen the way he handled himself with the president of the United States,” Hawkins said. “He wasn’t in awe of who he was. He was just having a conversation with the president, like he was old enough to vote or it was something that happened every day.
“He’s just always been a mature person.”
Mahomes didn’t receive a presidential visit on Saturday. But he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in his first season as a starter, one that began with Mahomes a mere 22 years old.
The second-year player guided the Chiefs to their first home playoff victory in their past seven tries when they beat the Indianapolis Colts in January, a streak that dated back to 1994. That win put the Chiefs in their first AFC Championship Game in 25 years.
There, they lost to the New England Patriots, but that was no fault of Mahomes’. The Chiefs scored 31 points in the second half to send the game into overtime, but Mahomes never got a chance in the extra period.
His playoffs were a continuation of a regular season that started with four touchdown passes in a Week 1 win over the Los Angeles Chargers and six the following week in a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Mahomes finished the season as the second player in NFL history to throw 50 touchdown passes and for more than 5,000 yards.
Beyond the playoffs, Mahomes put up big numbers in six prime-time games this season. Those close to Mahomes say big moments aren’t too much for him and that, in fact, he was made for them.
“It doesn’t seem like any moment has been too big for him, so I don’t know why that would change now,” tackle Mitchell Schwartz said as the Chiefs prepared to play the Colts in Mahomes’ first playoff game. “Pretty much everything that’s [been] thrown at him through the year, he’s handled really well. I think he gets more excited for these games than anything. I’ve never seen him be nervous or anxious or any of that. I think he’s always just ready and excited to show himself and really lead this team.
“He’s a different guy. He’s a special guy. He grew up around sports his whole life. … This is what he was kind of meant to do in a way. He just kind of knows this is the way things roll.”
Mahomes spent a significant portion of his childhood hanging around major league baseball clubhouses and professional players. His father, Pat, pitched in the big leagues for 11 seasons with six teams.
“As soon as he could walk, pretty much, I started taking him to the ballpark,” Mahomes’ father said. “He got to be a part of it. He got to dress in a uniform, go out on the field before the game. He was probably 5 years old and caught his first ball in batting practice off a big league bat.
“He’s always been a student of whatever game he was playing. He always wanted to learn. For him to get to be around me and around my teammates and see what we went through every day, that had a big influence on him. He learned how to act like a professional athlete, and he takes that with him now every day.”
Hanging around professional athletes at a young age certainly didn’t hold Mahomes’ development back. He recalled watching Alex Rodriguez, one of his father’s teammates with the Texas Rangers, practice long before a game would begin.
“My favorite player growing up was Alex Rodriguez,” Mahomes said. “I remember … how hard Alex worked. That really stuck with me. You see him hitting off the tee for hours, and you’re like, ‘Man, you’re hitting home runs every single game. Why are you hitting on the tee for two or three hours?’ That’s just stuff you see and you remember as a kid, and it sticks with you.”
But his prolonged exposure to professional athletes doesn’t explain everything. Mahomes just seems to be someone who thrives in high-stress situations.
Mahomes registered an NFL-high 76.5 Total QBR when under pressure this season, more than three times the league average of 22.6, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Some of the NFL’s best and most experienced quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers — had a QBR of under 40 when under pressure.
Mahomes thrived outside the pocket. There he threw 14 touchdown passes and for 996 yards, the most in both categories for any quarterback in the past 10 years.
The game seems to slow down for Mahomes in the heat of a moment in a way it doesn’t for most others.
“He’s able to decipher the defense and kind of know where his guys are,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You’ve got to put in the speed of the player and all those things. He’s able to get that all … calculated out in his brain. He’s got a knack for it.
“You heard this about Ted Williams, the baseball player, that he could read the stitches on the baseball. Certain guys have vision. They can see. [Mahomes] does have real good vision. … I haven’t seen a lot of guys do that. I was around [Brett] Favre, who did some amazing things that way, and Donovan [McNabb] and those guys. But not quite like [Mahomes].”
Many of the other young quarterbacks — Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky, Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson — faltered in the playoffs while Mahomes flourished. Even in the loss to the Patriots, Mahomes passed for 295 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
“They didn’t have 50 [touchdowns] and 5,000 yards,” Schwartz said.
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“He doesn’t get phased by anything. There’s nothing too high or too low. He’s pretty steady. It’s kind of a cool attribute. He plays with emotion, and he plays with passion. Usually when that happens, you see good and bad, high and low. When things go bad, you see he is frustrated with himself, but … he’s excited for the next opportunity to go better himself. That’s special from anyone, let alone someone so young.”
Two years ago, when Mahomes was deciding whether to leave college at Texas Tech with eligibility remaining to declare for the NFL draft, Hawkins sat him down to explain what the move would mean for a young quarterback.
“I wanted him to understand that he was going to be the young guy in the clubhouse, and he was going to have to lead grown men. Not college kids all his age, but grown men whose production determines whether they’re going to feed their families. I asked him whether he was ready to do that, whether he was ready to tell a nine-year veteran to shut up and quit complaining about not getting the ball and stop poisoning everything good that’s going on.
“He didn’t hesitate. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m ready to lead men.'”
Mahomes arrived in Kansas City as the backup to an established veteran in Alex Smith. He immediately understood his place in the locker room and tried his best to blend in with the surroundings, perhaps a tribute to a solid support system that includes his father, his mother, Randi, Hawkins and agents Leigh Steinberg and Chris Cabott.
The process of Mahomes becoming a locker room leader began almost immediately last year after the Chiefs traded Smith to Washington.
That process was seamless. It’s just something that Mahomes does.
“He’s been doing this since he was a 9-year-old shortstop on a 12-year-old team,” Hawkins said. “This is what he’s made for: to be in positions like this. The only time I’ve ever seen him lose his composure was in a college game after somebody hit him late. He thought it was a cheap shot. I’ve seen him talk some trash after that. But even in high school when everybody was coming at him because he was this great athlete, he just never got baited into that. He always just let his play do the talking.
“He’s never been in an environment when he didn’t thrive. He’s comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Where other people let the situations control them, he always controls the situation.”