Fresh off his second Super Bowl victory, Patrick Mahomes is a sports phenomenon still in a state of becoming. Sure, he’s ubiquitous in those State Farm ads and has twice won the N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award. But this season will be only Mahomes’s sixth as the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, and he’ll be turning 28 next month—the beginning of his prime, if the careers of previous upper-echelon quarterbacks are anything to go by.
He remains something of a cipher in the public eye, more elusive as a person than either of the Manning brothers, Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady. It’s telling that the Chiefs player who was deemed worthy of hosting Saturday Night Live last March was not Mahomes but tight end Travis Kelce, six years his senior and already fully formed as a media-genic crossover star.
So it’s way too early for a conventional biography of Mahomes. Mark Dent and Rustin Dodd, two young journalists from the Kansas City area, know this. For their new book, Kingdom Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs, and How a Once Swingin’ Cow Town Chased the Ultimate Comeback, they have astutely taken a different tack.
Their strategy is to contextualize the still-developing story of Mahomes—a bi-racial player on the cusp of overseeing the N.F.L.’s first true dynasty since the Brady-era Patriots—within the larger, often racially troubled history of Kansas City itself.
The city’s foremost private developer, J. C. Nichols (1880–1950), was a widely influential man who did as much to promulgate suburban growth in the United States as William J. Levitt and Robert Moses did. He was also a ferocious segregationist who, like Levitt, believed in redlining, the practice of preventing Black people from owning or leasing homes in their neighborhoods via restrictive “covenants” that real-estate agents were forced to abide by.
Today, Mahomes and his family live in a Nichols subdivision called Sunset Hill, and Kansas City’s inner-city neighborhoods, long in decline due to white flight and institutional negligence, are enjoying something of a revival under the stewardship of Quinton Lucas, the city’s 40-year-old Black mayor. Is there a causal relationship between this social progress and the quality of football being played at Arrowhead Stadium?
Certainly it can’t hurt. The K.C. area was mad for its Chiefs even back in the 1990s, when Coach Marty Schottenheimer’s teams won consistently but never broke through for a championship. As Dent and Dodd note, since 1992, every Friday during football season in Greater Kansas City has been observed as Red Friday, a de facto holiday during which a pro-football city acts like a college town: everyone wears their red-team gear, municipal lights glow red, and an air of pep prevails.
But the authors’ intended fusion of civic and Mahomic narratives doesn’t quite come off. For one thing, they have chosen a cumbersome strategy of alternating between chapters devoted to Mahomes’s development and those devoted to the city’s history. Early in the book, especially, this is a momentum killer, as the Mahomes material—rich with detail about how his proficiency in baseball and basketball has informed his ability to make throws that other QB’s can’t—is much zippier than the big-picture stuff, which can be dull and overly explanatory to a glacial degree, sometimes literally. (“The long process of glaciation left a labyrinth of rivers and tributaries crisscrossing the continent. Two of those rivers—eventually named the Kansas and the Missouri—would meet in the middle.” Editor, where were you?)
Things improve as the decades advance and the alternating chapters become thematically closer to each other in content. The authors dryly note that while team founder Lamar Hunt “was never confused for a progressive,” he sought competitive advantages wherever he could find them.
This led to his hiring a man named Lloyd Wells. A hidden figure in the annals of the sport, Wells, pro football’s first full-time Black scout, facilitated an unprecedented influx of Black talent to the team from such H.B.C.U.’s as Grambling State, Morgan State, and Prairie View A&M, foremost among them the Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, a cog of the Chiefs team that won Super Bowl IV, in 1970.
Dent and Dodd are sweetly guileless writers, at times striking a gee-willikers tone more suited to a Y.A. audience; Kelce, we learn, “exuded a certain type of football player je ne sais quoi, an irresistible mix of energy and cool, the kind of person who wears designer outfits and has an encyclopedic knowledge of ’90s references.” At their best, the authors are companionable guides, describing Mahomes’s unusual speaking voice, for example, as “a strange brew of East Texas twang, rocky gravel, and Jim Henson Muppet.”
If there’s a through line to Kingdom Quarterback, it is, I guess, the notion that progress is something stumbled toward. Mahomes gutted out the last Super Bowl on a bum ankle, running 26 yards in the game’s final minutes to position his team for the winning score. Kansas City, run by a Black progressive in a state whose senior senator is the J6 fist pumper Josh Hawley, is on an upward swing, but with much work left to be done. This book, suitably, stumbles to achieve its noble intentions, not wholly succeeding but flashing promise.
David Kamp is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL and the author of several books, including The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution