Clad in his red No. 67 San Francisco 49ers jersey on a February night in 2013, offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore trudged off the field at the New Orleans Superdome following a 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Little did the second-year pro know that he was also walking into the NFL postseason wilderness so to speak as a return trip to football’s biggest stage would painfully elude him in the seasons to come.
There was a gut-wrenching loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game the year after that Super Bowl appearance and then seasons of 8-8, 5-11, 2-14, 6-10, 7-9 and 5-11 with a couple of season-ending injuries – a broken leg in 2014, a torn triceps in 2018 – and a trade (from San Francisco to Miami) to deal with too.
Yet, Kilgore has persevered and the former Dobyns-Bennett High School and Appalachian State University star’s 10th season as a pro will culminate in a second trip to the Super Bowl, eight years after his first.
Now with the Kansas City Chiefs, the 33-year-old backup center and special-teams contributor is relishing the opportunity Super Bowl LV presents and is definitely not taking it for granted.
“No doubt I appreciate it more,” Kilgore said in a telephone interview two days after Kansas City beat Buffalo in the AFC championship game. “I remember the veterans telling me back in the day don’t get use to this. Even making it to the playoffs is a feat and an accomplishment in the NFL. So, absolutely a different perspective and a different outlook going into this one.”
Kilgore’s preparation has been much different as he was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Monday after an exposure to the team barber, who had tested positive for the coronavirus. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Kilgore was in the middle of receiving a haircut on Sunday when word came down about the positive test.
After quarantining and missing practice, Kilgore had five straight days of negative tests and rejoined the team on Saturday.
That Kilgore would be in this situation – or even in the NFL – was something that was not a given six months ago as he seriously pondered a fall without football while spending quality family time with his wife, Megan, and their two kids.
After two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, the team declined the third-year option on Kilgore’s contract and he became a free agent for the first time in his career.
As training camp neared in August, he was still searching for a landing spot.
“I was on the brink of retirement,” Kilgore said. “I told my wife and agent that it had to be the perfect situation and a contending team. For the Chiefs to reach out, I knew that was a team back in September that obviously had a chance of going on and playing in the Super Bowl. It’s a rewarding feeling.”
Kilgore has started four games for a squad led by MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, subline speedster Tyreek Hill and tremendous tight end Travis Kelce.
“What impresses me the most about these guys is they don’t make the moments bigger than what they are,” Kilgore said. “They go out there, let their personalities show and execute at such a high level. This is the most fun I’ve had with a team.”
Another major contributor for KC has been second-year safety Juan Thornhill, who was a star at Altavista High School in Virginia. He won five state titles – three in basketball and two on the gridiron – in the VHSL’s smallest classification and had memorable postseason performances against J.I. Burton, Honaker and Haysi.
“He’s done really well this year and he can be all over the field,” Kilgore said. “The secondary on this team just flies around and does such a good job. This is a great experience for him being so young in his career.”
Kilgore was once that youngster on the rise and he turned his bright future into a decade-long career at the game’s highest level.
He was a team captain in both San Francisco and Miami, which is not surprising to those from his hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee.
“They don’t come any more reliable than Daniel,” said Graham Clark, Kilgore’s coach at D-B.
Kansas City boss Andy Reid is the seventh head coach Kilgore’s played under in the NFL and he’s had numerous coordinators and position coaches as well. They all have respect for the work Kilgore does in the trenches.
What has been the secret to his longevity?
“Being a team guy, doing whatever the team asks,” Kilgore said. “I never put myself in front of others and do what the coaches ask. Being able to adapt has really allowed me to put myself in a situation where I’ve gotten 10 years in. The biggest thing probably is just not being a turd in the locker room; being a good teammate and bringing some leadership.”
His high school coach saw that on display in the AFC title game.
“I noticed they had a little scuffle and the coaches were trying to hold everybody back and there was one player trying to hold everybody back and it was Daniel,” Clark said. “And they listened to him.”
Perhaps that could be a harbinger of things to come.
“If he decides he wants to coach when he gets through playing, he’s going to be a great coach,” Clark said. “He’s worked with us at camps over the years and did an amazing job.”
Clark never recalls Kilgore having a poor snap at D-B and his teammates marveled at his litheness.
“Don’t let his position fool you,” said former Dobyns-Bennett quarterback Bo Burton. “He was one of the most athletic guys on our team.”
During the second semester of his senior year at Appalachian State, Kilgore would arise at 4:30 each morning and go through his training regimen in preparation for the NFL Combine and then complete his student-teaching requirements.
“There are very few people that are gifted with Daniel’s athleticism, size and strength,” said Brandon Thompson, who played with Kilgore at both D-B and App State. “But fewer people who are willing to put in the work day in and day out that it takes to have a successful 10-year career in the NFL. … It’s been an awesome feeling being able to watch his accomplishments the past 10 years, but to be honest I expected it. Daniel is a go-getter and deserves everything he has achieved.”
Kilgore is also a winner as D-B went 43-8 and made the playoffs every year of his high school career.
During the five years he was at Appalachian State (counting the season he redshirted as a freshman in 2006) the Mountaineers were 59-12 and won two NCAA Division I FBS national championships.
“We used to go to church together and he’d wear those championship rings from Appalachian State sometimes and look over at me and hold up his hand,” Clark said. “I’d hold up my church bulletin that I’d written plays on to see if he thought they were good.”
Now, Kilgore will get another shot at adding a Super Bowl ring to his jewelry collection.
He’ll once again be wearing a red jersey – a different shade this time – but with the same No. 67 on the front and back.
Eight years later, he hopes the ending is happier.
“Once it gets close, there are butterflies,” Kilgore said. “It’s the biggest game in football, but you just try your best to make it as normal as possible. You don’t buy into the hype or the social media stuff because some people are going to talk you up and others are going to talk you down. I’ll just do what I’ve always done and be ready to play.”
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