Sixteen years ago, a middle school teacher in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, told the high school band director Brett Baker that a pretty good baritone saxophonist would be headed to his school.
After hearing the kid audition, Baker made the rare decision to promote the freshman directly to jazz band.
“He was a pretty good musician,” Baker recalled. “He took private lessons. He practiced.”
The kid also practiced sports: hockey, lacrosse, and, most prominently, football. Those football talents would take him to the University of Cincinnati and, eventually, to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Eagles center Jason Kelce cemented his place in civic lore at the team’s recent championship parade, where his underdog-themed speech set the city (and the internet) aflame. But years ago, he was just a high school kid balancing music, sports, and academics.
“The extracurriculars teach you so much more about working with other people, accomplishing goals, accomplishing tasks,” said Kelce. “I think there’s so many similarities you can draw from the work ethic and the practice and everything that’s required from something like band or … sports.”
Those extracurricular worlds collided Thursday in a concert for the ages at Central High School in North Philadelphia.
Every year since 1933, the bands and orchestra from Cleveland Heights High School — just outside Cleveland — do a spring tour that includes a visit with another high school music program. This year’s music program just happened to be Central, one of the city’s most prestigious academic magnet schools.
Kelce is a popular guy in both communities these days, and he dropped in for a little jam with each school’s jazz band. The All-Pro offensive lineman, who sported his high school letter jacket and a Central High beanie, was reunited with the very same baritone sax he played as a student. He hadn’t picked up the instrument in 12 years.
“It was a school instrument,” Kelce recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t have the money for a bari sax growing up.”
These days he does have the dough, along with the admiration of young and old across the Delaware Valley.
After playing a few tunes and watching the rest of the concert, Kelce posed for pictures and doled out autographs to a mob of adoring students.
Central freshman and piano player Alex McPhedrin couldn’t believe his luck. He didn’t know Kelce was going to show until minutes before the concert. He quickly shot his dad — and fellow Eagles fan — an incredulous text.
“And he just responded with a bunch of emojiis I couldn’t understand,” Alex said. “It was crazy.”
Fellow freshman Prem Modi happened to have a football with him at school. The plan was to toss it around once classed ended — that is until Kelce signed it.
“I was gonna play with it after school, but I guess not anymore,” Prem said.
A percussionist, Prem took up music because it helps him better express his emotions.
“Percussion really shows who I am as a whole,” he said. “If I’m really sad, I’ll play a sad tune. If I’m angry, I’ll just bash on my set at home.”
Though Kelce’s star power brought the cameras and excitement, the concert itself was a celebration of what great high school music programs can look and sound like.
Both schools have long and distinguished musical traditions.
Cleveland Heights is nicknamed “Home of the Arts,” and its high school band won a national competition in the early 1930s, according to band director Baker. The band soon received concert requests from other high schools trying to mimic its musical success, and a seven-decade touring tradition was born.
When Kelce was in the band, he visited Chicago, New York City, and Boston. Central’s musicians, meanwhile, have traveled widely abroad and in the United States.
The goal of Baker’s program isn’t to produce musicians or composers — though that sometimes happens. Rather, the purpose is to create well-rounded kids who appreciate and consume music.
In Baker’s eyes, Kelce, who sings and plays guitar, is just one of many Cleveland Heights grads who keep music in their lives.
“It doesn’t have to make a million dollars or [be] a top 40 hit or something to be part of who you are,” Baker said.
As Thursday’s festivities would attest, Cleveland Heights, and the old band, are still a big part of Kelce.
“Before I was a Philadelphia Eagle and a Super Bowl champ,” he said, “I was a Cleveland Heights Tiger.”