Drops, threats on path to Super Bowl for K.C.’s Valdes-Scantling – ESPN

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  • Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior WriterFeb 9, 2024, 10:00 AM ETClose
      Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.

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MARCELLUS SCANTLING HAD just finished a cigar and was about to turn in when the phone rang. It was almost midnight on a late-autumn Monday in west Florida, and the Scantlings had been up watching the Kansas City Chiefs lose to the Philadelphia Eagles on “Monday Night Football.” Marcellus texted their son, Chiefs receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, to console him. But then Tahisia Scantling’s phone started to buzz.

She’s a real estate broker and always feels compelled to answer the phone in case a client needs help. But this caller was not a client. He was furious, because Marquez had dropped a football — a 55-yard pass, with 1:50 to go and Kansas City trailing 21-17. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes hit Valdes-Scantling in stride, in the rain, and Valdes-Scantling bobbled it, dropped it, then fell into the end zone. Mahomes put his hands on his head. Valdes-Scantling looked in the direction of his quarterback and picked himself up. Then some strangers searched the internet, found the closest number to Valdes-Scantling and vented. One person told her to watch her back; in another call, a man strongly encouraged her son to catch the ball.

Tahisia eventually stopped answering and Marcellus eventually went to bed. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.

Back in Philadelphia, Valdes-Scantling’s direct messages blew up before he even walked off the field.

“I was told to kill myself,” Valdes-Scantling says, “that they were going to kill me. And I got voice memos about how someone was going to shoot me, or how I lost them all this money and they’re going to come find me. Everything that you could possibly think of, it was said.”

That Nov. 20 game was emblematic of a receiving corps that led the league in dropped passes in 2024, and Valdes-Scantling had become an avatar for the Chiefs’ offensive futility. Even Nickelodeon poked fun of Valdes-Scantling in a promotional cartoon in advance of their “Nickmas” game between Kansas City and Las Vegas, depicting Raiders cornerback Amik Robertson handing the receiver a block of butter, presumably for his butterfingers.

All that negativity flipped on Jan. 28 as Kansas City clung to a seven-point lead over the Baltimore Ravens late in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game. On third-and-9, Mahomes went deep with Valdes-Scantling sprinting downfield. He soared through the air and landed on his back. In his hands held the catch to seal Kansas City’s victory.

When he got to his feet and put his finger over his lips, Valdes-Scantling quieted the stadium in Baltimore and, effectively, shushed the state of Missouri. Chiefs fans apologized on social media, and the hate-dialing abated. Kansas City was back in the Super Bowl, and nothing else mattered.

There are hundreds of stories told during Super Bowl week, oftentimes about redemption, but here’s the truth about MVS: He doesn’t fit that narrative, because he didn’t change a thing. He didn’t lose his locker room and he never lost his confidence. It’s carried him through two colleges, Green Bay and Kansas City.

On that rainy night in Philadelphia three months ago, Valdes-Scantling’s agent, Harold Lewis, sent a series of texts to check up on his client. MVS told Lewis that he felt bad that he let his team and the fans down, but reassured him that he was OK.

“I’ll make up for it tomorrow,” he texted Lewis. “I will definitely make up for it.”

Valdes-Scantling helped the Chiefs reach the Super Bowl last season after a clutch performance against Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game. William Purnell/Icon Sportswire

THE FOOTBALL COACH at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Florida, doesn’t cut players, but Valdes-Scantling felt as if he had been.

According to his longtime friend Tracy Johnson, Valdes-Scantling wasn’t given a helmet or pads freshman year, and had to buy them on his own. He was allotted the No. 97, which was considered a diss for receivers.

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“He wasn’t the most athletic guy,” says Johnson, who has known MVS since pre-K. “He was tall, lanky, slow and didn’t catch well. And in Florida, everybody’s fast.

“It was just one of those, ‘All right, you’ll figure it out. But right now, we really don’t have anything for you.'”

Cory Moore, the longtime football coach at Lakewood, says Valdes-Scantling didn’t have a helmet because he was so small that the team didn’t have one that could fit him. He stood roughly 5-foot-6, Moore says, and weighed 115 pounds. He had knee and back pain that Moore said he thinks came from growing pains.

But Johnson, who’s now Lakewood’s offensive coordinator, says he believes that No. 97 jersey lit a fire under Valdes-Scantling.

His father just remembers the frustrations coming to a boil by the end of Valdes-Scantling’s sophomore year, when he came home in tears and told his dad he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play anymore.

“He didn’t really get a chance to play much,” Marcellus says. “He was like, ‘Dad, the coach doesn’t even know my name.'”

Marcellus told him he could accomplish anything with hard work. Valdes-Scantling lifted weights in his garage, ran on the beach and toiled with a trainer.

A growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years didn’t hurt, either. That summer, he played in 7-on-7 tournaments. Tracy Johnson was Lakewood’s quarterback, and despite being his friend, he forced the ball to other receivers just to avoid Valdes-Scantling. The receiver got into Johnson’s face and told him he was open and ready to showcase his talent. He just needed the ball.

Valdes-Scantling’s assertiveness surprised Johnson. “Who’s this kid I’m talking to?” he thought.

Johnson told him that if that’s how he felt, they should work out together. Build trust. The skinny kid who barely saw the field as a sophomore caught 28 passes for 600 yards and six touchdowns as a junior.

Valdes-Scantling sought improvement in other parts of his life, too. One day, after a service at Pinellas Community Church, the pastor talked about having a purpose in life. “Who do you want to help?” the pastor asked Valdes-Scantling. He visited nursing homes and homeless shelters and cleaned strangers’ yards. He helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

After a dominating senior season, Valdes-Scantling committed to North Carolina State. His jersey? No. 1.

KC Chiefs receivers, including Marquez Valdes-Scantling, struggled with drops during the regular season. Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

AFTER TWO SEASONS, he transferred to the University of South Florida, back home in the Tampa area. He had to sit out for a year because of transfer rules and was close to graduating by his junior season.

“The thing I remember about him was that he ran good routes because he was so fast,” says Charlie Williams, who was Valdes-Scantling’s receivers coach at USF. “He’d get in and out of his breaks and he caught the ball better than he’s catching it now.

“I know there’s a lot of pressure playing in that league, but this guy, he made a lot of big plays for us, and I’m talking deep balls. I’m talking intermediate, third down, big catches. All of the above.”

Williams, now Arkansas’ director of football management, says Valdes-Scantling was always willing to help the younger players. But near the end of his senior year, he was eager to move on to the NFL. Williams says Valdes-Scantling got banged up in the regular-season finale against the University of Central Florida, and informed Williams that he would not play in the bowl game. The coaches told him that unless you’re a first-round lock, it wasn’t a good idea to skip the bowl game.

He wound up playing and erupted for 133 yards and a touchdown in a victory over Texas Tech in the Birmingham Bowl.

Green Bay picked Valdes-Scantling in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft, and it was a receiver’s dream: catching footballs from Aaron Rodgers. MVS did not disappoint in his rookie season. He caught three passes for 103 yards in a Week 6 win against San Francisco and finished the season with 581 yards on 38 catches.

In 2020, he led the NFL with 20.9 yards per catch. But he’s probably best remembered for something that happened in Week 11 that season. Valdes-Scantling fumbled in overtime against Indianapolis, setting up the Colts’ game-winning field goal. Lost in the aftermath was his 47-yard catch late in the game that allowed the Packers to reach overtime.

Shortly after the game, Valdes-Scantling tweeted that he was receiving death threats via social media. His teammates rallied behind him and Packers coach Matt LaFleur, in an interview with reporters, expressed confidence in him. LaFleur said football is a tough game for tough-minded men.

Valdes-Scantling, for his part, has shrugged off the incidents. He says he didn’t ask for security after the most recent threats, and that they have little effect on him.

His dad can’t help but worry about him.

“I think people forget that … these guys on this field are somebody’s child out there,” Marcellus says, “that’s running around, doing what they love. They just see him as a commodity.

“I love the fact that he plays football and he’s doing what he wants to do, but I don’t give a darn about that. I mean, that’s my son. I would rather be going out to car shows with him, going hunting. I mean, when you’ve got your baby out there, when you’re a man out there and they’re struggling, it sucks. It hurts real bad.”

Valdes-Scantling and tight end Travis Kelce are among QB Patrick Mahomes’ prime targets. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

IN THE SPRING of 2022, when superstar receiver Tyreek Hill left Kansas City for the Miami Dolphins, the Chiefs signed Valdes-Scantling to a three-year, $30 million contract. Valdes-Scantling says he didn’t know Mahomes at the time. But the two-time MVP knew of Valdes-Scantling.

“[Mahomes] and Aaron kind of had their thing, being State Farm guys and being Adidas guys and all that stuff,” Valdes-Scantling says. “When we talked about it, [Mahomes] basically said he’s watched a lot of highlights, or a lot of the plays I made because obviously you watch film of other teams. And he would watch film of Aaron, so he would see me making plays with him.

“When it was time for me to go to free agency, he was a big advocate of me coming to play with him.”

Their connection was true, and Valdes-Scantling had 42 catches, 687 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the 2022 regular season. He was clutch for Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game, catching six passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 win against Cincinnati. He didn’t have a catch in the Super Bowl against Philadelphia, but earned his first ring.

The majority of the 2024 season was a buzz kill. Valdes-Scantling’s regular-season numbers (315 yards, 21 catches, one touchdown) were career lows. He wasn’t alone in his struggles. Aside from rookie Rashee Rice — and tight end Travis Kelce, of course — most of Mahomes’ targets made more news for in-game gaffes than catches.

But Valdes-Scantling prides himself on never riding the wave of emotions, high or low, and knew that when — not if — he got another chance, he wouldn’t disappoint Mahomes, his teammates or his city.

Just before the two-minute warning in the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago, with the Ravens poised to get the ball back and possibly tie the score, the Chiefs dialed up a three-man route. Rice was double-covered, which left Valdes-Scantling and Justin Watson in 1-on-1 coverage. MVS outran his defender and Mahomes lofted the 33-yard pass.

“I put it up and let him make a play,” Mahomes told reporters after the game. “In those situations, you put it up. You don’t want to overthrow it, so you just put it up there, 1-on-1, and let a guy make a play. And he did that. He made a great catch and sealed the deal.”

Green Bay picked Valdes-Scantling in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft, and it was a receiver’s dream: catching footballs from Aaron Rodgers. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

IT WAS SATURDAY, the day before the Chiefs left for Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII, and Valdes-Scantling was home with his dogs, Ace and Spade, getting ready for his trip.

Packing isn’t easy. His wardrobe requires more thought than most football players. Valdes-Scantling has a clothing line called “Sik Selection” — Tracy Johnson runs it with him — and uses fashion as a way to express himself. His closet is loaded with everything from Louis Vuitton to Walmart.

Lakewood is called “Hollywood High” and Valdes-Scantling says there was a place in the middle of school where the kids would walk by and judge “fits” during lunch hour.

“So if you had on a trash fit,” he says, “they would make fun of you. If you didn’t, or if you just had something that was just chill, they would let you go by and it was just like an everyday thing.

“I just always have been into fashion, being different. It’s kind of what I like to do.”

The NFL Network put him on its “Fit List” for his pregame attire in Baltimore. He wore a jacket and shorts and a big-brimmed hat. The outfit wound up being the least talked-about element of Valdes-Scantling’s day.

Truth be told, MVS has an appreciation for Chiefs fans — most of them. He loves the way they show up regardless of whether it’s 100 degrees or 30 below.

He held a charity softball game in the Kansas City area last summer and was moved by their support. He refuses to let what he calls “a bad bunch of fans” destroy the sentiment of the Chiefs’ majority. He bought a house in Kansas City and would love to stay and catch passes from Mahomes and be a part of a growing dynasty. Finances, however, might have an influence on his future.

Valdes-Scantling, 29, is set to have a nearly $14 million cap hit next season, the last year of his contract. He can’t think about any of that now, though. At this moment, his life is exactly what it’s supposed to be.

After his very first NFL contract, he went back to Lakewood. And Valdes-Scantling bought jerseys and pads and helmets for anyone, big or small, who wanted to play football.

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