49ers’ George Kittle managing to thrive in Travis Kelce’s super shadow

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LAS VEGAS — Travis Kelce might be the biggest celebrity on either team at this year’s Super Bowl. He’s undoubtedly the most famous tight end in the world.

Just don’t call him the best tight end. That honor, he said last week, belongs to George Kittle.

Although to be honest, it’s a compliment that even Kittle didn’t sound like he believed.

“Anything that he says nice about you, it feels great,” the San Francisco 49ers tight end said on Monday night. “He’s a fantastic football player. A first-ballot Hall of Famer.”

And the 30-year-old Kittle … is not. At least not yet. He’ll also probably never enjoy the kind of Taylor Swift-induced fame that the 34-year-old Kelce has harnessed this season. The mob of reporters and cameras around Kelce’s podium at Super Bowl LVIII Opening Night inside Allegiant Stadium was easily twice the size of the throng that surrounded Kittle later in the night.

Not that Kittle was bothered. Nor did he seem to mind all the questions he got about his Kansas City Chiefs counterpart. Kittle was flattered by anyone who wanted to make a comparison, even though there really isn’t one in terms of career accomplishments.

“Any time you’re compared to Travis Kelce, it’s a good thing,” Kittle insisted. “Travis is a guy who I watched since I was in college. When I ended up trading jerseys with him (after a game in 2018), I was kind of like, ‘This is one of the coolest games of my life.’ I’m a huge fan of Travis Kelce. The fact that I’ve become friends with him, peers with him, run ‘Tight End U’ with him, it’s been awesome. He’s someone I’ve looked up to. I’ve looked up to his game and watched so much of his film.”

That’s understandable considering Kelce is the gold standard — not just in terms of superstardom, but because of his play on the field. He has averaged 90 catches for 1,133 yards over the past 10 seasons and caught a remarkable 74 touchdowns. He missed two games this season and still caught 93 passes for 984 yards, though that did stop his streak of seven straight years with at least 1,000 yards receiving.

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Kittle, in his seven NFL seasons, has topped 1,000 yards just three times and has yet to catch 90 passes. But he is the better blocker of the two, and if he was used differently in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, some believe he would put up equal receiving numbers, too.

But he’s fine with the role he has in San Francisco, even if it does put him on a tier somewhere below his good friend.

“We both love football, and we’re both pretty good at what we do,” Kittle said. “Me and Travis both play tight end, but we play it differently. And we love it. There’s different aspects of our games. Travis does a lot of things amazing. I think I do things really well, too.

“But at the end of the day we’re two different players playing different positions. We both do what our offense asks of us, and we make plays when we need to make plays.”

Kittle, by the way, is just as comfortable in front of the cameras as Kelce is. He was charming with the child reporters who questioned him on Opening Night, and happy to take questions on anything from his favorite foods, to his taste in music, to his favorite soccer teams or the WWE. He could easily be one of the most celebrated stars of this Super Bowl, if only he could get out of the shadow cast by Kelce and his international icon girlfriend.

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Kittle can’t, of course, but don’t expect him to complain. He’s happy to be back even in a part of the spotlight four years after he and the 49ers lost to Kelce and the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. After that game, Kittle sat on the sidelines as the Chiefs celebrated and promised himself, “I will be back” because “I’m big on speaking things into existence.”

And here he is. So he’s certainly not going to be bothered that Kelce draws the bigger crowd.

“I have nothing to complain about,” Kittle said. “My family’s healthy. My wife loves me. I’m playing football in January and February. This has been a dream of mine my entire life.”

And he’s thrilled to live it, even if he is the second-most famous tight end in the game — and perhaps still the second best, no matter what his friend Kelce said.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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