Patrick Mahomes revolutionized his position in an instant. From the moment he took over as the Chiefs starter, zigging, zagging, threading such impossible needles, it was clear that we'd never seen anyone play quarterback with this unfathomable blend of a muzzleloader-like arm, daring improvisation and smarts beyond his years.
Watching a Chiefs game is a thrill like no other because with Mahomes out there, no play, ever, is dead.
In his first season as a starter, he had the NFL's third-ever 50-passing-touchdown season and won MVP. This season, through injuries, he's been nearly as good.
So…how is this even possible? Where did this come from?
Those close to Mahomes—teammates, friends, coaches—have the answers to those questions. The stories they tell, though, might surprise. They're not of a quarterback who was scientifically devised on how to drop, look and throw through a pre-orchestrated sequence of quarterback camps.
They're of a quarterback who eviscerated opponents in pingpong and dropped jaws on the basketball court, shaping his skill set through other sports as much as through football. Of a man who has forged professionalism and humility out of being mocked as "chubby" in college. Of a teammate who somehow inspired most in a 66-10 loss in college.
The legend of Patrick Mahomes does not begin with Start No. 1 at Arrowhead Stadium. This is the story of the roots of the ridiculousness, in the words of those who knew him best.
A kid who "makes the impossible look normal"
As the son of a major league pitcher, Mahomes grew up in dugouts. But, according to his godfather, LaTroy Hawkins, a former Twins teammate of Mahomes' father, Pat Sr., Mahomes wasn't "eating all the candy and the gum...running around causing chaos" like most kids would in that environment. He was studying. Everyone. And the result, when it came time to compete himself, was prodigious.
From youth sports…
Hawkins: "A lot of times, the teams I was on, they didn't like the kids to be on the field, but Patrick was allowed to be on the field because, hell, he could catch a major league pop-up. The ball wasn't going to hit him in his face when he was knee-high to a grasshopper. He can handle his own."
Coleman Patterson, longtime Mahomes friend and youth sports teammate: "In baseball, he was hitting the cover off of the ball at a young age."
Hawkins: "He'd learn something and take it to his little league team. Learn something and go take it to his travel ball team. He was gifted like that. … He had a key to the box that a lot of people don't have, and he really took advantage of it.
"He was playing on the 10- to 12-year-old team as an eight-year-old, starting at shortstop. He was throwing a baseball and shooting a basketball before he could damn-near walk."
On to high school and college…
Nic Shimonek, Mahomes' backup QB at Texas Tech: "I have two ways to classify an elite athlete. One is being extremely fast and explosive. A guy like Tyreek Hill. But then there are athletes like Pat who are not fast and explosive but they're good at everything. If he wanted to play baseball, he could be in the major leagues right now. If he wanted to play basketball—and he was a couple inches taller—he probably could've."
Patterson: "He used to swing a wood bat when he was in high school, in certain tournaments, and still hit bombs. I remember one time he went up for an at-bat. He said, 'I'm going to go up there and hit lefty.' He went up there, hit lefty, and hit a bomb. Like seriously? … He makes the impossible look normal.
"He has a glove like Cal Ripken Jr., no doubt. He's going to get any ball in the infield. And then he has a bat like [Aaron] Judge. You could literally always count on him. I can only recall him striking out a couple times in my life, and that was in college. … I don't even think he struck out against Kopech. We faced Michael Kopech our senior year."
To recreational sports, like pingpong…
Hawkins: "I remember, maybe his sophomore year [in high school], he had to fly out of the airport here in Dallas, and I'm probably about 30 miles, so he'd spend the night at my house. We were sitting there watching TV and I said, 'Hey, you play pingpong?' He said, 'Yeah, I play a little bit. I'm OK.' When I got to the table, he released the beast.
"He can handle anything you throw back to him. Reflexes. Hand-eye coordination. It's pretty damn impressive. I've seen some really good pingpong players. … I put him up there with like LaMonte Wade Jr., a kid who plays for the Twins right now—his mom plays competitive pingpong and he's a really good pingpong player. I put Patrick up there with him.
"He could finesse you, and he could just bully you on the table. Slamming and serving like 10 feet away from the damn table. Making the ball curve. It's a humble experience playing against him."
Shimonek: "He returns everything. So that's how he'd beat me. I'd try to play offense and crush some balls. And he's standing back there like 10 feet behind the table just returning everything."
And whiffle ball...
Jah'Shawn Johnson, former Texas Tech DB: "We had a huge whiffle ball game in the middle of the field in our dorm. ... He was pitching for the other team, throwing all this junk with the whiffle ball. It was moving so much. It was like, 'All right, Pat, you're cheating now.'
"I remember Pat hit a home run. It was, like, super far. Nobody else hit the ball that far. It was like, 'Oh my goodness.' It went over all these buildings.
The game was over because, after that swing, there was no ball.
"Yeah. He knocked the crap out of it."
Patterson: "At Hollytree, a course we grew up playing on where his mom works in Tyler, he was on the 10th hole, and there were some people on the green, and I would say he was about 310 yards away. He carried it over the trees and hit the top of a golf cart. The people on the green were all upset, and when they realized who it was, they were like, 'Oh, Patrick, it's just fine!'"
And, even, axe-throwing?
Patterson: "In Nashville, we did this axe-throwing thing. It's a big bull's-eye. A piece of wood. He lost the first game, and you could tell he got so upset. He didn't lose another one. … He came back and won the whole thing and got a little trophy. It's like him rookie year versus the Broncos: We've got to go down and score. I'm going to have to lead our team to victory. He puts this serious mode on, where, Boom, I know what I have to do and I will do it no matter what. Because I know I can do it. It's that focus."
Doing on the court "what you see on the football field"
Mahomes can't play pickup basketball anymore—not since a video of him went viral and Chiefs general manager Brett Veach called Mahomes' agent to say that was “a big no-no.” But the game's impact on the football player Mahomes became is clear. Everyone around him comes back to it, always. Because it is a sport of unbridled creativity, it's where many saw the early traces of what Mahomes would become as a QB.
Hawkins: "We always talk about baseball and football, but he was a better basketball player than either of those."
Adam Cook, Mahomes' high school football coach: "At one point, we thought basketball was what he wanted to do."
Patterson: "He was so dominant in basketball. He wasn't the fastest but knew how to use his body and could shoot from anywhere."
Hawkins: "We know he's crazy athletic, but Patrick moves slow and BAM! he's gone. Moves slow and BAM! he's gone. He didn't talk trash. He's not a trash-talker. He's one of those guys —Just look at the scoreboard. His game, he'll take you down low and post you up or he'll bust a jumper in your face. Shoot the three. He did everything in high school. He was going to get his 25 a night regardless. I don't care who's guarding him."
Patterson: "Beating teams in basketball 70-3. … There were certain schools that just got it every single year we played 'em."
Cook: "He could shoot the ball, but what you see on the football field is what he was good at—creating those open shots for people. There were things he could do where he would draw double-teams and triple-teams and be able to kick it out. Get 'em going one way and throw it across his body over across the court."
Hawkins: "It's understanding where everybody else is on the court. He has an anticipation for what they're going to do, so he can counter, and the worst thing you could do to him is talk trash to him. All you did was sign your death certificate. … I'm about to slice and dice you in the kindest way possible."
Brent Kelley, Mahomes' high school basketball coach: "He was so smart. If he wasn't shooting it well, he'd get you in the post and just control his body. Make you do something—draw a foul, get to the free-throw line. Late in games, we'd get the ball in his hands. He played point guard. Sometimes, he'd be the 4. So he was versatile. Great passer. Unselfish. But also, I think he averaged 19 that year. One game in the playoffs, we won 54-45, and he scored 37 of the 54."
Two plays, specifically, come up. First, the dunk.
Patterson: "He dunked on a kid and got called for a charge. It was the rival high school. Fred Ross, Tyus Bowser, Greg Ward, they had some NFL kids. He cocked it back on a fast break and just dunked on this dude. That was freakish."
Greg Ward, Eagles wide receiver: "All I know is Pat dunked on a guy. That's all I know. I don't know if I would've called that if I was the ref. It was sick. That's all I know.
"I didn't think he was going to do it. It happened quick."
Hawkins: "He jumped into his chest and dunked on him. And they called a charge. I was like, 'Whoa.' I'll never forget. The gym erupted. I mean, it was some kind of special."
And second, the pass.
Kelley: "The first game I coached him in, he made this pass—he's kind of falling down, gets a rebound and throws it the length of the floor and hits a guy in stride for a layup. … I didn't know anybody could do that. I actually found the clip and sent it to Pat. He kind of just slings it—not like a granny toss, but kind of sidearms it—and hits our point guard about three-quarters way down the court. That was against Texas High. They got beat in the football playoffs the Friday before. So literally he practiced Monday and played Tuesday, and that was the first game."
How in college "he took it to a different level"
Mahomes translated his natural athleticism and basketball mentality into 11,252 yards and 93 touchdown passes over three seasons at Texas Tech. He also learned about the work ethic that goes into becoming a professional athlete—with, uh, some friendly ribbing in the locker room.
Da’Leon Ward, former Texas Tech running back: "He's not tall. He's not built. We used to call him chubby."
Demarcus Felton, former Texas Tech RB: "We always picked on him about his weight."
D. Ward: "We didn't care in college. We'd call him chubby."
Shimonek: "I might've said something to him if there was a heated match of pingpong going on. Talking a little smack to him. People definitely said that for sure."
Felton: "We'd talk to him about his weight and tell him to stop eating all them cheeseburgers and do some extra laps—do some running. He always had that fat-boy jog that he could never get rid of. The fat-boy jog. Just trotting. Barely moving. He does it in games all the time, when they score and he's jogging off the field. You'll always see it."
Any unkind words about his physique, of course, didn't hold him back.
Hawkins: "You can look chubby and still be strong as hell. … He developed good throwing mechanics from a baseball standpoint at a very young age, so biomechanically, he was already ahead of everybody else, just because of his dad being a pitcher."
Patterson: "The things that people think are freakish now, that was stuff you'd see in basketball. These crazy throws, that was stuff you'd see him do in baseball."
Shimonek: "I'm not a scientist, but I'm going to say that his arm strength has a lot to do with growing up on a baseball field and being out there just throwing the ball as far as he can when he was six, seven years old on a daily basis."
And he picked it up in the weight room eventually, too.
Johnson: "He's actually really, really strong. He's definitely stronger than he looks. I mean, it's a solid-type build. He went into [his last offseason at Tech] working out with Nic Shimonek. The whole offseason. He took it to a different level after that."
Shimonek: "I remember [then-Tech coach Kliff] Kingsbury coming up to me, saying, 'Hey, if you can just get him to [have] some of your work ethic and drag him up to the facility on Saturday morning, if you can carry him along as far as off-the-field stuff, this kid has a chance to go in the top 10 in the draft.' And I remember thinking, 'That's good for both of us. That means Pat's going top 10, and that means Pat's also leaving so I may have a chance to play.'"
Away from the game, Mahomes was also leaving behind some of the vulnerabilities of his childhood.
Shimonek: "He told me a story once that he got chased when he was a little kid on his bicycle by the neighborhood dog and that scarred him for a long time.
"He used to be insanely intimidated by dogs. Any dogs. … My roommate in college had a French bulldog. And even with the French bulldog, Pat would come over to my house and be very skittish. He'd try to get the French bulldog to quit jumping on his leg. ... Sitting on the couch like, 'Can you get your dog, please?' He didn't want anything to do with it.
"Now, he has a pit bull and an Italian mastiff, and he and his girlfriend are posting pictures and videos all the time of him just cuddling on the couch."
Not that he's gotten rid of all his childlike impulses.
Hawkins: "I think it's the most asinine thing ever that he puts ketchup on everything. ... Putting ketchup on a $70 steak blows my mind. But, hey, to each his own."
A quarterback who "was never put in a box"
Mash it all together, and you get a quarterback like none we've ever seen.
Shimonek: "Man, that's why I was so frustrated when Giannis won Best Male Athlete at the ESPYs, because there's not another person on the planet—maybe Kyler Murray—who can do the things that [Mahomes] can do across all sports. ... You've got videos of Patrick hitting a golf ball like 400 yards, and you've got videos of him on the basketball court playing pickup basketball and breaking somebody's ankles. He can do a little bit of everything. Obviously you know what he could've done in baseball because of his dad and his godfather. He is one of a kind."
Hawkins: "His playmaking ability—his mental approach to the quarterback position—was never put in a box. Like going to these quarterback camps as a young kid and, You need to be like Peyton Manning or You need to be like Aaron Rodgers. No.
"A lot of kids get coached so hard, so early. Somebody dictates to you what type of quarterback you are. He dictated to everybody else what type of quarterback he was going to be. He made everybody else adjust to him."
Unlike so many others, from high school to college to the pros, Mahomes always had the benefit of a coach encouraging his freelancing ways at QB. And all the way along, he rewarded them, changing the position one feat at a time.
Johnson: "We played him my junior year of high school in the first round of the playoffs. … He was still doing the things he's doing now, just at a beginner level. It was definitely extraordinary for high school.
"The whole week during practice, one of my best friends was the scout team quarterback for us. ... He was a mobile quarterback just like Pat. So we go through that week with him, and he's scrambling around the whole practice. They didn't even have plays on the script. They'd just run around, like backyard football. "
Cook: "Our offense was us running the two-minute drill pretty much the whole entire game."
Johnson: "We get out here and play Pat, and there was a play right before halftime where he rolled all the way out to the right and reversed field and rolled all the way out left and chucked the ball probably 50 yards down the field to [now-Chargers receiver] Dylan Cantrell and scored a Hail Mary touchdown. They didn't look back after that.
"I actually fell down right in front of Dylan, maybe five yards in front of Dylan, as he caught it. I was so mad. I was like, 'There is no way that's even possible!'"
Cook: "My wife used to say his song is the old '80s song, 'Can't break my stride.' She said she'd think about that song every time that I see him run: 'Nobody going to break my stride. Nobody going to hold me down. I have to keep on moving.' And that joker just keeps on moving. He finds a way."
G. Ward: "You couldn't stop him. Improvising, man. His arm was always strong. He always had accuracy. It was crazy. The things he's doing now? He's been doing that."
Felton: "He'd get into the game and turn into a different animal. He's uncontrollable at that point."
Hawkins: "His mind and his athleticism. Those two things make him special. He has a photographic memory. Once he sees it, he never forgets it.
"We were at a game in Texas Tech. … He threw a pick. And I saw the guy there. His dad saw the guy there. So after the game, we're like, 'What did you see right there?' He said, 'They disguised the defense, and when I threw it, I knew I was in trouble.' He said, 'That right there? I put that in my hard drive. That's been locked away. That won't ever happen again.' I'm sitting there shaking my head like, 'OK. There you have it. The man has spoken.'
"He was learning and processing everything and putting it on his internal hard drive and—in the heat of the moment, right at the snap, being able to process that—like, That's not it, that's not it, nope, nope, nope…boom."
Cook: "A play was never dead when Patrick was in. I feel that's why coach [Andy] Reid and him have such a great chemistry. Early on, Coach Reid encouraged him to try to make some of those throws. If he was someone else, they might not encourage the no-look.
"I'm sure there's times when Coach Reid gets on him but, man, what a great relationship to watch those two."
Amazing with "a flick of the wrist"
One trick that never even entered his mind through high school? The no-look pass. That idea came from Shimonek. After transferring from Iowa to Texas Tech, he spent a full year on the scout team and wanted to stand out. One play, with three receivers to his right, the furthest inside ran a little bubble screen with the middle receiver pretending to block for three yards before then running a short slant across the middle. Shimonek looked toward the bubble, toward the sidelines, with his body completely turned and then—by accident—threw the slant for a completion without looking. Then he did it again, and again, a couple times every week.
Mahomes noticed. Mahomes was never the same again.
Shimonek: "Pat's extremely competitive. And he's seeing it, thinking, 'S--t, that actually kind of worked.' So the next couple days in practice, I'll be damned if he [doesn't go] out there and complete one. So now, I'm just like, 'OK, you couldn't let me have my one thing!?' It started snowballing into a I'm going to one-up you-type of situation. Pat would make a 15-yard no-look pass, and then I'd make a 20-yard no-look pass, and then obviously he has taken it to the extreme at this point. ...
"Coach Kingsbury would have those little nets with the squares on 'em, and we'd play PIG or HORSE. And we'd start implementing the no-look pass at the squares and then we'd try to match each other."
It was just for practice. Until it wasn't.
Shimonek: "Whenever you can do it at the right moment, the defense doesn't have a chance. They just have no idea where you're going with it. If you go to the last drive [against Oklahoma State in 2016], we're down by seven and obviously need a touchdown to tie it, and it was 3rd-and-20…and he rolls out to the right and throws a no-look across the middle for like 25 yards.
"We go down and score, with not too much time left, and then we miss the extra point so we end up losing. I remember thinking during the game, 'Oh, s--t, he just threw a no-look pass on 3rd-and-20.'"
D. Ward: "Behind the back. No look. It'd be like a 10-yard pass and he'd throw it behind his back. Through the legs! Like a basketball pass through the legs with a football. It's crazy. And complete it! That's what's crazy. In 11-on-11."
Felton: "The same sidearm throw everybody sees now? When we were in practice, it was just a play-action play. All he did was a flick of the wrist, and the ball went nearly 60 yards to the end zone for a completion. And then he did the same thing in the game. It was kind of like a baseball throw."
D. Ward: "I'm pretty sure he could throw the ball 100 yards. The whole football field."
Johnson: "I can remember a throw where I was...between [a receiver] and Pat. It was pretty tight coverage, and Pat just throws it sidearmed, almost right at the ground, where only I could catch it. It's like, How could he do this? With so much speed behind it? And power?"
D. Ward: "I don't even know what comes to mind for you to put the ball through your legs as a pass. Who thinks of stuff like that? It's crazy. He'll probably do the behind-the-back one [in the NFL]. I'm pretty sure he's going to pull one of those out."
Shimonek: "If he's in a situation where he's getting wrapped up and his arms are constricted and he doesn't have a choice but to throw, like, flip it behind his back, I'm not going to endorse it. But if he does it and he completes it, I'm not going to be surprised."
Fenton: "Left-handed passes? Yes. He did the left-handed plenty of times."
Hawkins: "When you have a good athlete and a smart guy at the quarterback position? And who has a great internal clock? Special things are going to happen. Head's up, eyes downfield and directing traffic sometimes. And I think the coolest thing is knowing he can throw in any position his body so damn well pleases. And the confidence and arm strength to be able to get it there. That's impressive."
D. Ward: "I want to see him throw that thing 100. I've been telling people he can do it."
"Right out there ready to go," through anything
The 2019 season has been taxing, physically. Mahomes dinged his ankle in Week 1 and dislocated his kneecap in Week 7. But, no, those around him haven't heard much about the pain because that's just Mahomes. After trainers popped his kneecap back into place, he didn't want to be taken off on a cart because he didn't want teammates to see him like that.
This tough-as-nails attitude is nothing new. His last year of high school, he played through a broken foot. One trainer back at Whitehouse High thinks it was a Jones fracture, an injury that keeps pros shelved for months.
Cook: "He pretty much played all three sports with a broke foot. Got it taken care of at the end of the seasons. So when it bothered him really bad, he would come in and they'd put him in a boot.
"Patrick never complained, never said anything. Never said, 'I can't do this.' He never tried to get out of a drill. He was going to be there and try to go through what he could. The boot helped take some pressure off of that and allowed him to walk better during that time. But when the ball was rolled out or it was time to throw out the first pitch or do the tipoff, that joker was right out there ready to go."
Patterson: "It's like now. He got hurt Week 1 with that ankle. … But, man, it's, 'I can do it. The team's counting on me, and I know I can do it.'
"That just shows who he is—he literally is going to lay it all out on the line."
Cook: "I thought about Brett Favre and all the things he fought through. The thing that drove him to that was he just wanted to be on the field and wanted to play. Patrick possesses that exact same desire and that drive."
On to Texas Tech, Mahomes was often running for his life and busted up his shoulder. That didn't stop him.
Shimonek: "One thing that stands out for me: Iowa State. We were up in Ames, Iowa, and it's like 15 degrees. It's insanely cold. And I think he was just coming back from being injured the week before. He separated his shoulder during the game, and then he ends up going back to get a shot and comes back in.
"We were losing the game by like four touchdowns. It was probably the worst game we ever played, and he was injured, and it was 10 degrees, but he still wanted to be out there."
Felton: "Everybody was cold and more worried about the cold than the game. He just kept fighting, and it inspired us to keep fighting with him."
Shimonek: "He goes down and could've gotten up and walked off, because it was a shoulder injury. But he knew it was 10 or 15 degrees so I needed to warm up. So he stays on the ground just to give me a little time to grab a ball and start throwing. And I ended up finishing the drive, and he went to the locker room and came back out and was like, 'I'm going to give it a go.'"
Felton: "It was bad. … Wind blowing. Everybody was cold. Shivering. Trying to stay warm."
Shimonek: "We were already losing. We probably weren't going to make a bowl game. He already knew he was going to get a chance to get drafted that following spring. For him to go back into the game was pretty remarkable. Especially when you see these guys not even playing in their bowl game. And he's out there in Ames, Iowa, in November still giving it everything he has.
"I know he was in an extreme amount of pain. And then that next week ... he threw for like 500 yards or something. He was supposed to be out a few weeks."
Felton: "He could've easily said, 'I'm going to sit this one out.'"
Shimonek: "There's probably so many things we don't even know about and that I don't even know about, as close as I am to him. He just legitimately enjoys being out there."
He's not done "changing the game"
To many NFL fans, the shine on Mahomes may already be dimming, replaced by the blinding glow of likely MVP successor Lamar Jackson. But Mahomes is still gunning spirals through triple coverage. Still putting up stats, with a QBR that trails only Jackson’s and with 2,983 yards, 20 touchdowns and only two picks in 10 games. Still dizzying defenses with 3rd-and-18 scrambles like this.
Still making us all wonder what he'll do next.
Patterson: "Kids in high school and junior high now are modeling their game after him. There's going to be some freaks who come in the next wave, and part of that is going to be because of him."
Shimonek: "I've been comparing him to Steph Curry. Steph completely changed the way the game was played from a strategic standpoint. There's been guys who've run around and made plays before, but I think Patrick will be able to change the game entirely strategically—from an offensive perspective and from a defensive perspective.
"It's going to change the strategy, because you're going to have to get defensive ends who can go 4.4, 4.5. You're going to have to get these linebackers who can cover an insane amount of ground."
D. Ward: "He can be the greatest. He'll be a Tom Brady-, Aaron Rodgers-, Drew Brees-type of guy. He looks like Aaron Rodgers out there, but he can do it younger and better than Rodgers right now."
Cook: "It's exciting to see the NFL game change to where it's not so much the West Coast offense where you're going to 1, 2, 3 hitch and throw it over here; you're standing in there and you're taking a shot. … Now with your RPOs, you've got Tyreek Hill in there to take the top off of everything, which opens everything up for Travis [Kelce] across the middle. … It's not that timing stuff. It's that stuff that develops late. Patrick's bought some time.
"Those same things you see him doing there? That's what he did with his high school players each and every week. And the same way he has a special relationship with those wide receivers, he had with his high school receivers here."
Patterson: "When you play with a guy like Pat who's so electric and can motivate so many others in so many ways to do things you just don't think you can do. You hear Mecole Hardman talk how a play's never dead. It's truly never dead. You could be 40, 50 yards downfield, and he'll throw a bullet to you on a line."
Shimonek: "He is a once-in-a-generation talent, to say the least."
G. Ward: "He's the total package. He's changing the game."
Johnson: "He can be the best ever. Honestly."
Patterson: "Hopefully he'll win some Super Bowls. Maybe seven so he'll have one more than Tom."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.