Patrick Mahomes threw his first pass to Rashee Rice almost a year ago during an informal workout at TCU. Until that day, the two had never met, and it’s funny now how insignificant that throw probably seemed back then. Had either of them known then that they’d be playing together in Super Bowl LVIII, they might have marked the occasion with toasts and takeout from Joe T’s.
Every championship team generates bits and pieces of folklore that live on long after the parades and confetti. If Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers to win their third Super Bowl in five seasons on Sunday in Las Vegas, that meeting in Fort Worth will be part of theirs.
Rice, a standout receiver at Southern Methodist University who’d also been a star at Richland High School just outside of Fort Worth, showed up at TCU to catch some footballs from Shane Buechele, the quarterback he’d played with at SMU, and whoever else happened to be around. The receiver’s goal was twofold: to sharpen his game while preparing for the 2023 NFL Draft and to make a good impression on whoever happened to be watching.
He had no idea that the greatest quarterback of this generation would also be there. What he also couldn’t have known is that Mahomes uses these North Texas gatherings near his offseason home to begin preparing for a new season while also gathering notes on receivers in that year’s draft class.
Rice was joined on the field by Quentin Johnston of TCU, Zay Flowers of Boston College, and others. For Rice, Mahomes’s presence took the day to a whole other level. “Everything happens for a reason,” he would tell a Kansas City radio station months later. He wanted to make an impression on the Texas Tech legend and two-time NFL MVP quarterback.
Plenty has happened since. In last year’s draft, the Chiefs took defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah with the final pick of the first round, then as other teams started scooping up other wide receivers, including Johnston and Flowers, Kansas City general manager Brett Veach told his draft room: “Let’s just go up and get our guy.”
Kansas City moved up nine spots in a trade with the Detroit Lions to use the fifty-fifth pick on Rice, and Mahomes was one of the first to call Rice and congratulate him. That pick was based in no small part on Mahomes’s recommendation. “Patrick is very much like a coach and a GM when he sees talent,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said in November. “He’s able to see these guys, and then it’s a matter of [discussing] what they do well and how do we help fit that into the offense. He’s [got] a great eye for that. It’s a credit to Brett Veach, his personnel department, and Coach [Andy] Reid for finding Rashee.”
SMU receiver coach Rob Likens raved about Rice’s abilities as a fast learner in an interview with ESPN. “He can immediately take something that he sees or hears and he can apply it faster than anybody I’ve ever coached,” Likens said. “I would tell him five different things in a meeting and he tried all five of them that day and he was successful doing it.”
Mahomes and Rice spent hours on the field together in training camp last summer, and then, with the Chiefs searching for a secondary receiving option after tight end Travis Kelce (he’s the one with the famous significant other), Rice was inserted into the starting lineup in the seventh game. His breakout performance came in late November against the Las Vegas Raiders, when he caught eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. Since then, Rice has been as good as almost any wideout in the NFL. Over Kansas City’s final six games of the regular season, he caught 43 balls for 518 yards. In three playoff games, he has twenty more receptions for 223 yards.
After that Week 12 win over the Raiders, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid paid Rice one of his highest compliments, calling the rookie receiver “Patrick-friendly.” That’s the ability to give Mahomes a place to throw the ball when he’s scrambling outside of the pocket and looking to make something out of (seemingly) nothing. These are the plays that define Mahomes’s greatness—his ability to elude pass-rushers and still deliver passes with pinpoint accuracy.
“There’s a lot that goes into that,” Reid told reporters of playing wide receiver next to Mahomes. “A lot of it is just playing. Being willing to fit your game into the offense’s game and how Patrick sees things. [Rice]’s done a nice job of being open that way, listening and deciphering what defenses work with what routes and how to manipulate that.”
Rice gave the Chiefs a spark against the Raiders at a time when they’d lost two out of the last three games. During the third quarter, Mahomes called a play in which Rice was asked to run a five-yard comeback route toward the middle of the field. When he saw Mahomes running from the pocket, he took off in another direction. He got behind a defender, and Mahomes released the football just as Rice raised his hand. That one gained 19 yards. He made an even bigger play in the fourth quarter on a third-and-six play. He caught the ball in stride, turning a 5-yard pass into a 39-yard touchdown play.
“He’s a guy who wants it,” Mahomes said that day. “That’s the biggest thing. He wants to be great. He has a chance to be a great receiver in this league, and we’re going to continue to push him to be that. He’ll just say, ‘I’m going to be there. I’m going to do what I need to do to get myself open. I’m going to make something happen with it.’ That’s the type of guys you want.”
According to the Athletic, Mahomes sent notes to Reid and Veach after the Fort Worth workouts in which he praised Rice’s speed and ability to slow down and find an open spot. That gift is similar to what has made Kelce one of the greatest tight ends ever—and the second-most important player in the Chiefs’ current run. Mahomes noted that Rice was a good listener, later telling the Athletic: “He had a good grasp of feel. If he made a mistake, he would fix it the next time.”
As an SMU assistant coach in 2018, Rhett Lashlee recruited Rice out of high school and convinced him to pass up offers from Nebraska, Minnesota, and others to play for the Mustangs. Lashlee then coached Rice during the player’s freshman season before departing SMU to spend two seasons at the University of Miami.
Finally, in 2022, Lashlee returned to SMU as head coach in time for Rice’s senior season. Back when he had recruited Rice, Lashlee was drawn to the star high-school receiver’s ability to make tough catches. Through the years, though, Lashlee came to admire so much more.
The SMU coach told me of the afternoon during Rice’s senior season when he broke his toe early in a game against TCU. It was initially thought to be “turf toe,” but when the injury kept getting worse, x-rays revealed the break.
“He caught a touchdown pass later in that TCU game,” Lashlee said. “He played in games. He practiced, and that shows you how driven he is to be great. He loves playing. He didn’t want to not be out there with his teammates. He’d shown us as a freshman that the moment wasn’t going to be too big for him. Rashee has elite ball skills. He was the best in the country at the 50-50 balls by his senior season. He’s very smart, and he transformed his body in the weight room. The knock on him was speed, but you see him run away from people. I saw it in his high school basketball games.”
I asked Lashlee what lessons other players could take from Rice’s career. “I think the first lesson is trust the process,” he said. “In a world where everybody expects to be an All-American as a freshman, or else they’re going to transfer, he didn’t do that. He did play as a freshman, but he wasn’t the guy. And he wasn’t the guy his sophomore year. And he really wasn’t the top guy his junior year. Every time he could have gone somewhere else.
“But he just kept working at it, and by his senior year he was definitely the guy, and look what happened,” Lashlee said. “He developed so much from coming out of high school and his freshman year to when he got drafted. And it really helped him.
“I think the second thing that goes with that is what he learned, really, in his senior year with Rob [Likens], is that practice matters,” Lashlee explained. “He became a great practice player, and he bought into that, and when your best players are your best practice players, you have a great chance to have a good team because everyone looks up to them. And the other thing is Rashee loves to compete, man. There were some ups and downs. There was a maturing process. There were times Rashee probably wasn’t a great practice player. But the work and the attitude paid off. I saw where Patrick [Mahomes] said the other day that Rashee hasn’t hit that rookie wall. I think that goes back to his drive and trusting the process.”
I called Richland High head coach Ged Kates to check his memories of a player who delivered almost weekly highlight reels. He was happy to oblige. “I have two memories—one for something on the field, one for something off the field,” Kates said. “On the field, we had a game his senior year, where all the other team had to do was punt it out of bounds. If they do that, we would have had one play left.
“But the kid punted it right down the middle of the field,” Kates went on. “I know that’s not what their coach wanted. Rashee fielded it, we made a couple of blocks, and the rest was all him. He crossed the goal line as time expired, and we win the game. We had no business winning, but we did win it because of him and his special ability and knack to be able to do it at the right time. As a player, he was just phenomenal. Everybody in the stadium knew that if they kicked it to him, he was gonna return it. You could feel it.”
The coach also recalled a Saturday morning after he’d mentioned to the Richland High players that his son, Drew, would be playing his first tackle football game later that day, and Rice asked what time the game would be held. “That day, five or six of our young men showed up at my son’s game,” Kates said. “They made a tunnel for the kids to run through and stayed the whole game slapping kids on the helmet. My son’s team was treated like the Dallas Cowboys. It was just special. They made some young kids a memory they’ll have forever.”
Rice wore jersey number eleven during a four-year career at SMU in which he caught 96 passes and scored ten touchdowns his senior season. When he got to Kansas City, Rice switched back to number four, which he’d worn in high school.
“He sent me a text,” Kates said of Rice’s jersey decision. “ ‘Coach, I want you to be the first to know.’ He just wanted me to know he hadn’t forgotten his roots.
“Look, nobody’s perfect,” Kates admitted. “[Rice] had some teenage moments. But he’s a good-hearted young man. He’s extremely intelligent. I’d love to tell you that I knew he was going to be this good as a rookie. I didn’t know that. But the fact that he has become a guy Patrick Mahomes looks to in tough situations, that does not surprise me because he’s about as intelligent as it gets out there on the field.”
Kates named two parts of Rice’s game that he considers unique. First was the way Rice caught the football. “You know how some guys cradle it, or pin it against their chest?” he said. “Rashee would just pluck it out of the sky. If you’re a little bit older, you’ll remember Butch Johnson with the Cowboys. That’s how he caught it. And the second thing is he always understood concepts before everybody else. It’s understanding the concept [of the play] versus the coverage. You can tell Mahomes trusts him to be somewhere when the play breaks down. He’s about as intelligent a football player as I’ve ever been around.”
I asked Kates where he’d be watching the Super Bowl and how he felt about having played a role in the rookie receiver’s path to the NFL. “I’ll be right on my couch,” he said, “and nobody better bother me. I’ll be totally focused. It’s a really neat deal. My whole family—we couldn’t be bigger fans of Rashee.”