The Big Gamble: Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes bet starting to pay off

KANSAS CITY -- The ball smacked against the bat of third baseman Robin Ventura and immediately shot high and deep into the sky. Patrick Mahomes II steadied himself instantly as he tracked the ball soaring above him in the vast outfield of Yankee Stadium, then trotted a few feet to his right. The New York Mets coaches had warned Mahomes' father, Patrick Sr., about the potential dangers involved in allowing a 5-year-old kid to shag fly balls during batting practice in a Major League ballpark, let alone one that was about to be the stage of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series between New York's crosstown rivals. The older Mahomes simply blew off the concerns, knowing full well his boy might learn a thing or two about testing his limits.

Young Patrick coasted toward the ball while Mets pitcher Mike Hampton followed behind him. His dad, a reliever with the Mets at the time, watched the action closely from his spot in the bullpen. It didn't take long for the father to see how talented the son would be. Patrick settled in under the fly ball, hoisted his gloved left hand into the air and made the catch look so easy that even the professionals standing nearby chuckled and shook their heads in disbelief.

Patrick Mahomes II made his father realize two things about his son that day. One was that he had rare natural gifts as a blossoming athlete. The other, which was far more crucial, was that the boy had no qualms about taking a chance. "It goes back to Patrick not being afraid of the moment," Patrick Sr. said. "Not being afraid to fail. He was determined, that was his goal and he was going to catch the ball."

It's been about 18 years since Mahomes startled the collection of people who witnessed that play, and little has changed for him when it comes to jaw-dropping talent and sky-high expectations. As he sat on a ledge inside Arrowhead Stadium in June, he quietly scanned the empty seats below him and pondered the electric atmospheres that would be part of his first season as the Kansas City Chiefs starting quarterback. The buildup surrounding the 22-year-old has been so immense that it's an understatement to say Mahomes already is an undisputed rock star in Kansas City. Given the combination of anticipation and elation that has followed his arrival, it's more appropriate to talk about him like he's the dude who created music.

Some of this collective giddiness centers around the fact that 34 years had passed since the Chiefs last drafted a quarterback in the first round before they selected Mahomes with the 10th overall pick in 2017. More of the excitement has to do with the kind of signal-caller Mahomes is. After decades of watching less-inspiring game managers run the Kansas City offense, Chiefs fans get to spend their Sundays worshiping a big-armed, free-wheeling gunslinger who once set an NCAA record by throwing for 734 yards in a college game. Even Chiefs coach Andy Reid has compared Mahomes to the king of swashbuckling signal-callers, Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre, whom Reid coached as an assistant with the Green Bay Packers two decades ago.

What's most noteworthy about all this hoopla is the way Mahomes has handled the hysteria so deftly. "You hear it," Mahomes said of the hype. "You hear it if you're on Twitter, or my dad might say something to me about it. But for me, it's just about enjoying the everyday grind of football life. I love being able to come in every single day and work out and watch film and practice with guys who are all striving for the same goal. For me, it's all about wanting to have success with the guys in that locker room with you."

It didn't take long for Mahomes to give the fans what they wanted. He delivered one of the most ballyhooed plays in franchise history in the second quarter of the Chiefs' victory over Atlanta in Week 2 of the preseason: a 69-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill right before halftime. What made the throw so stunning was how calmly he dropped back, then shifted a few steps in the pocket before unleashing the throw from his own 25-yard line. The play seemed so improbable that the three Falcons defensive backs who had been covering Hill slowed down right before Hill caught the ball on their 5-yard line . . . and scored on a pass that traveled nearly 70 yards in the air.

The Los Angeles Chargers learned Mahomes was the real thing as well in the Chiefs' 38-28 win on Sunday. He only had 27 attempts but completed 15 for 256 yards and became the fifth-youngest quarterback in NFL history -- eight days before his 23rd birthday -- to throw four touchdowns in a season opener. There wasn't one turnover in that performance, which included a laser over the middle that Hill turned into a 58-yard score and a perfectly lofted throw that landed in the hands of fullback Anthony Sherman for a 36-yard touchdown. As Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said of Mahomes after the game, "I think he has a chance to be a really, really awesome player."

The Chiefs already had a potent offense in 2017, when they ranked fifth in the league in total yards per game (375.4) and sixth in points per game (25.9) while featuring the league's highest-rated passer ( Alex Smith, who had a passer rating of 104.7). This year's unit should be even more dangerous. It boasts two 1,000-yard pass-catchers in Hill and Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce, the league's leading rusher from last season in Kareem Hunt and speedy wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who signed as a free agent in the offseason. Give that bunch a live-armed quarterback and it's easy to see what was apparent on Sunday: Kansas City could have the most dominant offense in the league.

Even Smith -- who was traded to Washington after enjoying the best season of his career -- has been startled by how gifted Mahomes is this early in his career. "He's a supernatural player," Smith said last month. "The stage is never too big for him. He's been that from the first day he walked into the building. You never got the best of him or saw him rattled when he made mistakes. That's important, because if you play long enough, you're going to do some things you regret."

Smith was most impressed by how adeptly Mahomes handles pressure. Reid saw that same combination of calm and confidence in his quarterback when he interviewed Mahomes prior to the 2017 draft. Reid is known for grilling prospective signal-callers, but Mahomes never cracked after talking Xs and Os for hours that day. In fact, when general manager Brett Veach, then the team's co-director of player personnel, peaked his head into Reid's office following that meeting, Reid just smiled and said, "You know, this kid is pretty smart."

Mahomes also has a knack for making things look easy. After he signed his contract last year, he hung out in the locker room as Veach gave his agents, Leigh Steinberg and Chris Cabott, a tour of the Chiefs' headquarters. When Veach finally made his way back to the locker room, he found Mahomes dribbling a basketball and chatting on his cell phone. Mahomes immediately looked over, sensed his party was ready to go and -- with the phone still pressed to his ear -- tossed the basketball into a hoop hanging on the wall nearly 20 feet away.

When Veach saw that, he looked at Cabott and said, "I think we're gonna be good here." At this year's NFL Scouting Combine, Veach raised eyebrows when he said Mahomes was " one of the best players I've ever seen," but he hasn't backed off on that statement. "[The media] kind of ran with that," Veach said. "I don't know if people thought I meant pro or college, but I meant it in regard to all the college quarterbacks that I've watched over the years. He's probably the best one I've ever seen, and I'm certainly standing by that. Some of the stuff he can do -- his tremendous vision, his toughness in the pocket, instincts and that rare arm strength -- I mean, he can do things I haven't seen before on tape."

Mahomes has long been accustomed to exciting people with his athletic potential. He grew up around the highest levels of sports, as he spent most of his summers hanging out in Major League clubhouses. His father played for six teams over the course of 11 seasons (between 1992 and 2003), and Mahomes eventually developed an impressive list of role models. If he wasn't watching Alex Rodriguez spending hours hitting off a tee, he was studying how meticulously Mike Piazza dissected tape of hitters or how Derek Jeter perfected his fielding habits.

Mahomes wasn't just enamored by what these future Hall-of-Famers did on the field. As his godfather, former Major League pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, said, "He learned about leadership, camaraderie, being in the same room and connecting with people from all over the world. He also learned what not to do."

Said Mahomes: "I always remembered those guys getting in extra work. They were the top guys in the game for a long time, and you saw how much work they actually put into it."

It appeared Mahomes was destined to follow in his father's footsteps as a professional baseball player, until an unexpected road block emerged when he started playing football at Whitehouse High School in Upper East Texas. He spent his freshman and sophomore years as a safety, and had to be talked out of quitting by his mother, Randi, because he wasn't allowed to play quarterback. After winning the signal-caller job as a junior, Mahomes tossed 46 touchdown passes in his first season under center. He was even more exciting as a senior, when he threw for 4,619 yards, rushed for 948 more, and scored 65 total touchdowns. He had thoroughly fallen in love with the sport.

The huge crowds on Friday nights, the obvious connection he felt while working alongside his longtime friends, the control he enjoyed while running a wide-open offense -- it all spoke to Mahomes in ways other sports, even baseball, never did. Eventually, he decided he would follow football as far as it could take him. But that meant turning his back on being a high pick in the Major League Baseball draft and potentially disappointing Patrick Sr., who thought his son had a better option in a sport where he'd already showcased his talents as an All-State pitcher, shortstop and outfielder.

"It wasn't that I pushed him toward baseball," Patrick Sr. said, "I just thought it would be an easier route." Added Mahomes, who was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 37th round of the 2014 MLB draft even after he made it clear he was focusing on football: "I knew I could go and play in the minors and play baseball and do those things. But at the same time, I really wanted to just expand on my knowledge and love for the game of football. It was a very risky move, but I mean, it was something that I needed to do."

Mahomes entered his freshman training camp at Texas Tech as a backup to Davis Webb. It also was the first time he realized he'd have to sit on the bench. When Webb sustained a shoulder injury during an early season game against Oklahoma State, Mahomes was so frazzled that he initially grabbed the wrong helmet as he prepared to warm up on the sideline. Once he entered the game, he fumbled the football and then threw an interception after picking it up, which was something Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury had never witnessed in his almost 20 years of playing and coaching.

Mahomes did throw a touchdown pass on one of the two throws he completed in that contest, but he also learned a valuable lesson: He couldn't survive on talent alone. "I don't think Patrick had ever [sat on the bench] at anything he tried," Kingsbury said. "And at that time, he didn't take the game-planning as seriously as he should have. When Davis went down in that game, Patrick had some plays where he embarrassed himself. After that was over, he vowed to never be in that position again."

Mahomes matured so quickly he finished his freshman season by throwing for at least 300 yards in Tech's final three games, including a 598-yard, six-touchdown effort in a 48-46 loss to Baylor. He quit the Texas Tech baseball team the next summer and dominated even more, compiling 9,705 passing yards, 77 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions over the next two years. By the time Mahomes announced he was foregoing his senior year to enter the 2017 draft, Veach was pushing hard for the Chiefs to select him. He'd scouted Mahomes since he was a sophomore, and he saw the intangibles as well as the natural talent, the fact that, as Kingsbury said, "Patrick loves that feeling when the lights come on, but he never separates himself from the team. He's still a humble person."

Veach lobbied his boss, John Dorsey, who was Kansas City's GM at the time. He urged Reid to buy in as well, which eventually happened after the coach saw the intelligence the quarterback possessed. "I thought [having a smart quarterback] was important from where we had worked our way with Alex," Reid said. "We had incorporated a lot of stuff, so it was important that whoever came in had the aptitude to be able to pick up all this information. We felt he could handle that. He picks things up very easy. He can spit things out very easy. Our plays have a tendency to have a lot of words, [and] I just saw he had enough gigabytes to work it out."

The Chiefs ultimately made a bold move to acquire Mahomes, as they traded their first- and third-round picks in 2017 and their 2018 first-round pick to Buffalo in order to move from the 27th overall selection to 10th. They also believed they had the ideal situation in which to nurture the young quarterback. Mahomes spent nearly the entire season serving an apprenticeship to Smith. He wowed his teammates in practice by throwing bullets on the scout-team offense and committed himself to learning everything possible from Smith and offensive quality control coach Mike Kafka, who was promoted to quarterbacks coach in the offseason.

"I learned how to be a professional quarterback," Mahomes said. "Alex had a ton of success, and I saw the everyday grind of making sure he's prepared ��� that nothing surprises him when the game came. It helped me take my studying and my habits to a different level of understanding what was needed to have success on the field."

Mahomes made the most of his one opportunity to show what he'd learned over the course of last year. The Chiefs had already sealed their second consecutive AFC West championship when they reached their season-finale against Denver, so Reid let Mahomes and several other backups play in that contest. Mahomes spent the entire week working with Kafka and Reid on the game plan, while Smith and then-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy focused on the playoffs. By the time Mahomes walked out of his final meeting with Reid on Friday afternoon, the head coach was so excited that he told his assistants, "We're going to kick their tails."

Mahomes completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards. He threw one interception, but he also led Kansas City on a game-winning drive in the final minute of that 27-24 win. Mahomes looked so good in his debut that Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib -- who faced Mahomes in what turned out to be his last game as a Bronco -- went on Vic Lombardi 's radio show in Denver two days later and gushed over the performance. As Talib, now a member of the Los Angeles Rams, told the host at the time, "I saw enough of Patrick Mahomes to think Alex Smith is going to be a free agent next year."

The wait to see Mahomes in a real game again had seemed eternal since that debut. The excitement increased when the Chiefs traded Smith to the Redskins in March. It grew even more when word spread Mahomes was organizing workouts with his receivers at various locations around Kansas City in the spring. Even the sighting of Mahomes at different events thrilled fans. Whether he was throwing out the first pitch at a Royals game, cheering wildly at a Sporting KC contest, or simply wearing jean shorts somewhere, the prevailing belief was that the man could do no wrong.

Of course, none of that will matter if Mahomes isn't ready to answer the question Hawkins posed to him when the quarterback was deciding about entering the NFL: Was the young signal-caller truly ready to lead men? "I want people to know that I'm going to leave every single thing on the field," Mahomes said. "I love this game, and I'm gonna try to win every single game, and I'm hoping that we come out with a lot of success."

Added Reid: "Everything is not going to be perfect, and we're not going to talk about him being Picasso the first year. It's going to take some time here to learn."

That all sounds great, but those people who've known Patrick Mahomes II for a long time also believe that his greatest strength is defying the odds. He's done it since he was a kid, and, as Sunday revealed, there are plenty of surprises still left in him.

"My boy is definitely going to make some mistakes this year," Mahomes Sr. said. "But he's also going to blow people away with some of the things he does. You can count on that."