Taylor Swift’s Boyfriend is the Reincarnation of My Dead Best Friend

The author with his late best friend, John Kindle (Photo courtesy Chris King)



I knew some cool dads when I was raising my daughter in St. Louis County near the beginning of this century. One dad—he worked in food distribution—started taking his child to rock concerts just before I did. He gave me the heads up that I would like the music much more than I probably expected. He was so right. Taylor Swift knocked me out! I swear I was calling her a genius long before it was cool for old guys with intellectual leanings to call Taylor Swift a genius. This dates me, but “Enchanted” (from Speak Now, 2010) was my jam.

My first best friend, John Kindle, died very early last year. It was sudden, in the sense that he was a former star athlete down to his playing weight in his mid-fifties and absorbed in a thrilling new romantic relationship. It was not surprising, however, if you had seen him bury his father, his mother, and his brother and knew that he had denied himself the gift of fatherhood because he suspected he would die before his children could grow up.

Anyone’s first best friend who dies (relatively) young ascends to the heaven of hyperbole, but let me tell you about John Kindle. He was the star halfback on the high school football team who was voted Class Beauty. He ended up dating every it girl in town, though these were all genuine romances with their own legitimate timelines, not some lothario’s icky it girl Bingo game, and all those it girls also were our friends—interesting, complicated people who remained in our friendship circle throughout the cycles of romance and heartbreak. John had the most generous sense of humor and laughed hardest at his own pratfalls and failings. He grew up to become a union laborer who poured driveways for his family, friends, and friends of family and friends, for free on weekends. He had a sure rhythm hand on the guitar and could hit a note with a warm vocal tone. “Running to Stand Still” by U2, not “Enchanted,” was his jam at guitar circles, but he too recognized Taylor Swift as a genius.

When John died, suddenly (but not unexpectedly for those who knew him best), I felt lost for a solid year of my life, up until very recently. John had stayed in our hometown of Granite City, Illinois, as I joined the U.S. Navy, toured this country as an indie rocker, and settled down to become a magazine travel editor in New York and then a newspaper editor in St. Louis, but, however much or little we saw one another, at a cellular level we remained best friends and brothers. He was universally beloved in our working-class, steel-mill hometown, whereas I was confusing to many and divisive, yet everyone had to confront the fact that I was somehow always standing right next to John Kindle and for some reason I was his best friend. John saved me, with my loud mouth and bold ways, from untold ass beatings. No one wanted to be the guy who kicked John Kindle’s best friend’s ass.

With John gone, I immediately felt the loss of his immense and powerful support that I had always known without knowing how essential it was to my sense of self. I got lost inside and stayed that way for a long time.

I dropped off most social media when I left journalism a few years ago to work for a progressive prosecuting attorney. I did not want my daily personal ramblings—alas, I remain confusing and divisive—to distract from our difficult and highly public work. However, my daughter got me hooked on Instagram, a platform more about images than words, so I have kept an Instagram account where I post pictures with no words and enjoy daily posts from so many interesting people and institutions. Among other things, this brought me back to my love of sports, especially football.

I grew up playing football with John Kindle. Perhaps we were both born halfbacks—fast, compact, built to take a hit—but only John actually developed into a running back. I always ended up on the offensive line. In one summer football league, an uncle of mine happened to be the coach. Like every coach of mine before him, he saw my speed and tried me out in the backfield. Being my uncle, maybe he could be more candid about my failures. “Christopher, in the backfield, you’re a grass killer,” my Uncle Bill told me. “I hand you the ball, and you’re moving in every direction but you’re just not going anywhere. You’re a grass killer. I put you on the line, and then you move with the snap, you hit somebody, you make things happen.” As always, I ended up back on the line.

I was John Kindle’s pulling guard. My job on sweeps was to hit the outside linebacker before he could hit John Kindle. On a good play, I got a concussion and a face mask full of mud and John got four yards. This would become a template for my professional life. Even today, as media director for a prosecuting attorney, I take hits by design so that someone else can get the glory, and grinding out four yards on every play still seems like a winning strategy.

When I accepted a U.S. Navy ROTC scholarship to attend Boston University in 1984, I quickly realized that I was not going to be able to keep up with college, ROTC, and both of my extracurricular passions, music and sports. Something would have to go. I still harbored ambitions for being a rock musician, whereas my playing days were past me, so I dropped sports fandom. When I moved to New York at the end of the 1990s and landed a job as travel editor, I assigned myself a number of sports travel stories, and in that way managed to see a Buffalo Bills home opener, a Montreal Canadiens home game (seated right up against the glass), and a number of Major League Baseball Spring Training camps. However, other than developing an underdog’s preference for the Mets over the Yankees and exhibiting a minor, doomed rooting interest in the 2000 Subway Series, I never again followed a team or cared who won any game.

Then, this winter, on Instagram, I discovered Travis Kelce, the superstar tight end for the Kansas City chiefs and boyfriend of Taylor Swift. Related to those enviable attributes and much more important to me, he is the reincarnation of John Kindle.

I saw my dead best friend in him, not on the football field, but at the microphone bantering with his older brother, Jason Kelce (who plays center for the Philadelphia Eagles), on their podcast, New Heights, which found me on Instagram after I started following the NFL. More than anything, it is the disarming smile and generous, infectious laughter, especially at his own expense, that makes Travis Kelce embody John Kindle. These are drop-dead handsome superstars with the common touch and the gift of not taking anything—not even their own talent, fame, beauty, or luck with the ladies—too seriously. The dead friend I have been missing so desperately comes back alive every time I see Travis Kelce’s smiling face or hear his laughter.

An anecdote shared by Christian McCaffrey, running back for the San Francisco 49ers (who would soon face Travis Kelce and the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII), tells the story. McCaffrey, who looks unremarkable in street clothes, said he was standing on a corner in New York City, unnoticed and anonymous, when Travis Kelce passed him in a limousine on his way to host Saturday Night Live. Though not yet Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, Kelce had just won a Super Bowl (his second) and was on his way to host one of the most important shows in the history of television. He was just about as on top of the world as a man can be (short of also being loved by the ultimate it girl, Taylor Swift). Yet it was Travis Kelce who spotted Christian McCaffrey first, and it was he who hung out of the black car hollering at the younger, much less famous player, whom he scarcely knew—“C-Mac! C-Mac!”—pumping him up. “That is the coolest fucking guy ever,” McCaffrey remembered Kelce.

That was so John Kindle. John also never saw himself as the biggest oyster in the stew. Many people, stunned by John’s humility and humor, have said he was the coolest guy ever. When I shared with John’s sister Colleen my sense of the strong connection between her brother and Travis Kelce, she said of one of the most famous and beloved people on the planet, “I wonder if he knows what big shoes he has to fill.”

I just listened to “Enchanted.” Taylor Swift did not yet know or love Travis Kelce when she wrote this song, and I have not met the man or wanted to do so, but I can now relate to the lyrics differently as someone who has seen his dead best friend come back to life in another man’s smiling face: “Vacancy vanished when I saw your face. It was enchanting to meet you.”