When Patrick Mahomes was a junior quarterback at Texas Tech, he sprained the AC joint in his right (throwing) shoulder in a home game against Kansas. The injury came on a Thursday night in late September, in the fourth game of the season, on a 32-yard scramble that ended with Mahomes’ shoulder being slammed to the turf by a Kansas defensive end. It was severe enough that Mahomes left the game early.
His father, former MLB pitcher Pat Mahomes, publicly confirmed surgery wasn’t necessary, but the Texas Tech staff figured he’d miss at least a week, maybe more. When Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury was asked if he had a reason to be optimistic, he didn’t have the most reassuring answer. “Because I didn’t see the trainer jump off the side of the stadium,” he said.
And yet, nine days later, Mahomes was back on the field, completing 45 of 62 passes for 504 yards in a 44-38 road loss at Kansas State. The quarterback played through shoulder pain for the rest of the season, his last at Texas Tech, yet he piled up 41 touchdowns, impressed NFL scouts and threw for 734 yards on 88 passing attempts in a loss to Oklahoma — a game in which he also broke a bone in his left wrist. The wrist ailment? That was no problem, either. The next week, Mahomes was right back on the field, leading the Red Raiders to a victory over TCU. Years later, some former Texas Tech teammates didn’t even know the wrist was hurt.
On This Date in 2016: Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes put on a show when Oklahoma and Texas Tech scored a combined 125 points in a single game. pic.twitter.com/OrUvG7GQUu
— ESPN (@espn) October 22, 2018
“I think he’s wired differently,” said Zach Kittley, who was Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator in 2016. “I think the way he’s built, his body can’t take a lot of wear and tear. But unless he’s got a bone sticking out of his leg, he’s going to play.”
In five seasons as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, Mahomes has proven to possess extraordinarily rare abilities on the football field. But perhaps his most overlooked talent — one that dates back to his high school days in Whitehouse, Texas — is his ability to come back from and excel through injuries. Former coaches credit his ability to tolerate pain. Teammates praise his innate toughness and competitive fire. Friends marvel at his unusual brand of athleticism and body composition, a genetic makeup that seems to include flexible joints, loose ligaments and remarkable healing powers, which have been honed over years of work with a personal trainer.
“He’s pushing through right now,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
“He’s a dog,” receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said.
“I have no idea,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “But I want whatever he’s taking.”
Eight days after suffering a high ankle sprain against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC divisional round, Mahomes will try to conjure those powers of restoration once more Sunday, when he’s expected to play against the No. 3 seed Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship Game. Mahomes has already twice overcome injuries to reach the Super Bowl, recovering from a dislocated kneecap in 2019 and playing through turf toe in the 2020 playoffs. But if he is to lead the Chiefs to a third Super Bowl in the past four years, it might require his most resilient act yet.
“A lot of greats have done it,” Mahomes said this week. “I think it’s just about being a competitor. You want to be out there, especially in these games.”
Mahomes’ ability to survive a nearly catastrophic injury was already part of his growing legend before Sunday. In 2019, he famously wanted to play just one week after dislocating his kneecap against the Broncos. He settled for a mere 23-day break, missing just two games.
But his feats of durability began in high school, when he suffered an apparent foot injury that surfaced the summer before his senior year. Mahomes spent the football season managing the issue, occasionally sitting out practice while still starring each Friday night. But it wasn’t until basketball season that Whitehouse’s coaches came to appreciate his ability to withstand pain. Mahomes already had a football scholarship offer from Texas Tech and interest from MLB teams. And when district basketball play started in January, Mahomes reaggravated the foot injury.
“I remember our trainer telling me, like, ‘We probably need to sit him for like a week and see how it is,’” said Brent Kelley, then the basketball coach at Whitehouse. “He wasn’t having any of that. He was like, ‘No, I’m playing.’”
Mahomes nursed the injury for the rest of the season, occasionally wearing a boot around school. But he didn’t miss any games. Whitehouse won nine in a row. Mahomes won district MVP honors.
“I just remember sometimes that season,” Kelley said, “we’re in a timeout, and he’s just literally grabbing his foot. You can tell he’s in pain, and I don’t know if he’s gonna get off the bench after this timeout or not, but he always got up and got back out there. It was really him just gutting it out.”
Part of Mahomes’ ability to play through injury, former coaches theorize, is an immense level of pain tolerance. Regarding his current injury, well, he already survived one high ankle sprain in 2019 without missing a game. And when Mahomes sustained a turf toe injury against the Cleveland Browns in the divisional round of the 2020 playoffs, he could barely walk without extreme discomfort. It was, in his words, “the toughest injury” he has dealt with. “I remember I was having to curl my toes when I walked,” he said this week. (He also made it through the NFL’s concussion protocol the same week.) Just seven days later, however, he started and was 29-of-38 for 325 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-20 victory over the Bills in the AFC Championship Game. Two weeks later, however, a decimated offensive line and fearsome Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass rush got the better of Mahomes and the Chiefs, though he still threw for 275 yards.
Another element of his exceptional recovery ability stems from a 6-foot-2 frame that is surprisingly pliable. When Mahomes was in the fourth grade, he started working out with Bobby Stroupe, a local trainer near his home in Texas. Even then, Stroupe recognized Mahomes as a unique athlete among his peers. He was not the fastest, nor could he jump the highest, but he had a preternatural ability to control his body.
“Any kind of crawl patterns,” Stroupe said in an interview earlier this season. “Twisting, rotating, chopping, striking, swinging — he was definitely at the top.”
Nearly two decades later, Stroupe remains part of Mahomes’ inner circle. On most Mondays during the season, they engage in a workout regimen that includes 12 squat positions, 16 lunge positions, 20 movement patterns and a full-on gymnastics routine, which Stroupe likens to “motorcycle maintenance.”
“What we’re trying to do is constantly check different ranges of motion,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to remind certain tissues that, ‘Hey, I need resiliency in this position. I need range of motion in this position.’”
Mahomes’ flexibility was on display earlier this season in a victory over the Buccaneers. In one of his patented off-script scrambles, Mahomes evaded a Bucs pass rusher, moved to his right, spun once to shed another would-be tackler near the goal line, then flipped a touchdown pass to Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The play was mesmerizing, but perhaps the most impressive thing on the replay was the elasticity of Mahomes’ right ankle, which was twisted underneath the body of Tampa Bay safety Keanu Neal.
Mahomes was not as fortunate last Saturday when Jacksonville linebacker Arden Key landed on the outside of his right ankle. But just days after the injury — one that often keeps NFL players out for weeks — Mahomes has been a full participant at practice. He has likened the challenge to a mental one, and Stroupe says his top client is at his best when a “problem-solving component” is involved.
“We do a lot of things, kind of preventative stuff,” Mahomes said. “You can’t prevent all injuries. But you can prepare your body the best way possible.”
For Mahomes, the preparation continues this week and the challenge is simple: He will try to find a way to feel healthy enough Sunday to execute the Chiefs’ game plan.
“All you can do is just mentally prepare yourself and your body throughout the week, and then, like I said, you get to game day,” he said. “You just have to focus on the game. That’s what I’ll try to do.”
(Top photo: Steve Roberts / USA Today)