Jason and Travis Kelce take Cincinnati to ‘New Heights’

Cincy heroes, Skyline chili, surprises abound on an unforgettable night at UC

After a night full of surprises, the biggest one of all was for Jason and Travis Kelce.

The NFL stars and UC alumni brought their “New Heights” podcast to the University of Cincinnati for a live show Thursday night. And while the brothers are proud Bearcats, neither had crossed the stage at commencement to receive their degrees in person.

Until now.

After an evening full of fun twists and turns and special guests, the Kelces themselves were surprised when President Neville Pinto and Athletic Director John Cunningham came out to host an impromptu graduation ceremony just for them.

It might have been the first commencement where a graduate quoted the Beastie Boys and downed a beer onstage.

Jason Kelce in cap and gown giving speech during impromptu graduation ceremony, with family onstage

Jason Kelce gives a spirited speech at the impromptu graduation ceremony at the end of the event. Photo/Kelly Bennett

Fans pack arena after last-minute venue change

After a venue change to avoid rainy weather in Nippert Stadium, a sold-out crowd of 12,500 students and supporters filled Fifth Third Arena Thursday, with many lining up outside the venue early in the morning to secure the best seats. While the new location doesn’t hold the same significance to the Kelces that Nippert would have, it was a great venue for the lengthy event — doors opened at 5 p.m. and the show ended around 11 p.m.

Fans packed the arena decked out in gear representing the Bearcats, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals — podcast guest and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow being a draw for many.

Among the students was sophomore Marcus Elliott, who can often be found sporting Chiefs apparel, even when Travis Kelce is not in the same room.

Above left to right: Elliott shows his Kansas City pride on Decision Day 2011, in CVG airport and on a service-learning trip in Tanzania.

In 2021 when UC officials surprised Elliott at his home with a full ride to UC, it was clear that while he was excited to be a Bearcat, he’s a Chiefs fan through and through.

He’s a longtime fan of cornerback Darrelle Revis, who ended his career with the Chiefs, and has been following Kansas City ever since.

So there was no way he was missing out on “New Heights.” He describes the experience as surreal.

“The event was great and a lot of fun,” Elliott says. “I went with my friend who is a Bengals fan, and we have a nice team rivalry.”

Travis Kelce at the center bottom of the photo takes a selfie with hundreds of students in the stands

Travis Kelce (center bottom) takes a selfie with hundreds of students. Photo/Kelly Bennett

Throwback footage of the brothers from their UC days and clips from their podcast played on the jumbotron before the event began. But this audience needed no warming up.

Excitement and Cincinnati pride was palpable.

Academics and student-athletes face off in Great ‘Lombaby’ Games

Around 8 p.m., Travis and Jason took the stage to introduce the first-ever Great Lombaby Games. Jason said he was Inspired by the movie “Revenge of the Nerds” to host a series of challenges for students, jocks versus nerds — or rather, student-athletes versus academics.

Students selected from across majors and sports faced off in pursuit of the Lombaby trophy, a giant, 100-pound baby (and nod to the Super Bowl’s Vince Lombardi Trophy) with a gold cup.

Jason and Travis Kelce on stage in arena with hands on hearts

In the tradition of athletic events, the games began with the national anthem. Photo/Kelly Bennett

The arena transformed into something out of Nickelodeon's “Double Dare,” with obstacle courses, a mechanical bull and inflatable pools filled with Skyline chili.

The brothers introduced the two teams of students, who competed in a series of twisted games. Travis and Jason provided live color commentary as students answered trivia questions on a mechanical bull and pinned the mustache on Kansas City coach Andy Reid.

Two students had to run sprints across the court between scarfing cheese coneys — it was their first time trying the Cincinnati delicacy. An unfortunate introduction, indeed.

Ultimately it was the academics who prevailed.

While the podcast recording was the main event, the games were certainly a highlight. The Kelces were clearly having a blast, interacting with students and fans and keeping the energy sky-high.

Students in blue T-shirts celebrate a win

Team Academics clinches the win. Photo/Kelly Bennett

The Great Lombaby Games teams
Team Academics Team Athletes
Chris Raymer Dontay Corleone
Megan Riley Ellie Flower
Sahithi Yalamanchili Jessica Davis
Gianni St. Hilaire Jillian Hayes
Grace Adams Jizzle James
Zac Swain Juliette Larachuente-Huebner
Brooke Strobel Zeta Washington
Antonio Seoldo Lauren Pleiman
Taylor Morgan Korbin Spencer
Madison Wesley Thomas Matthew
Khalid Davis (team coach) Kimora Bailey (team coach)

Giving back to students at the heart of the event

The night brought more than just fun and games — it was an opportunity to give back. Organizers say Jason and Travis were adamant about providing free tickets to students (there was an online lottery for tickets) and donating proceeds to UC student-athletes via Cincy Reigns, UC’s official Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) collective.

“Student-athletes specifically benefited from the exposure of Cincy Reigns, and the generosity of Travis and Jason,” says UC Athletics Deputy AD Anthony Di Fino. “They had a firm belief that this event should support NIL to ensure top athletes from around the country can see that Clifton offers a great experience at the highest levels of college athletics.” 

Before the event, the Kelces met with the Bearcats football team and announced a $10,000 scholarship for walk-on defensive lineman Ben Blevins. 

Bearcats, Cincinnati Bearcats, University of Cincinnati, Univ of CIn, UC, BIG12, NCAA, photo by Isabella Marley, Isabella Marley photo, NCAA football, college football, football
During the New Heights live podcast on Thursday, April 11, 2024 at 5/3rd Arena in Cincinnati, OH / UC Communications photo by Isabella Marley

Jason and Travis Kelce presented UC student Ben Blevins with a scholarship check. Photo/Isabella Marley

“Travis and I are incredibly honored,” Jason told reporters that afternoon, “and it’s crazy that we’re put in position to do stuff like this.”

That night they brought Blevins onstage, presented him with an oversized check and played a video message from retired NFL quarterback Drew Brees. 

Brees is a co-owner of Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux Restaurant, which is sponsoring 13 scholarships to walk-on athletes as a tribute to Jason’s 13-year career, which began as a walk-on at UC.

NFL reunions abound for ‘New Heights Live’

After a brief intermission, it was time for the main event. Introducing the Kelces via video was none other than Cincinnati mayor and fellow UC alum Aftab Pureval. 

Pureval and Travis had a bit of a light-hearted spat earlier this year after the mayor playfully trash-talked the Chiefs ahead of their championship game against the Bengals. When the Chiefs won, Pureval walked back his comments and Travis famously called him a “jabroni,” quoting Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. 

“Don't be a jabroni,” Pureval said in the video, “make some noise and let’s welcome ‘New Heights Live!’”

Packed crowd in stands with Jason and Travis onstage

Photo/Kelly Bennett

The crowd cheered and pyrotechnics blasted as Travis and Jason came out once again. Jason changed from jeans to shorts for some reason.

Most of us are used to podcasts having ads and this one was no different. The guys promoted the newest menu items from Subway before launching what appeared to be dozens of footlong sandwiches into the crowd with T-shirt guns. Thankfully they turned out to be T-shirts wrapped up like subs, so turkey and lettuce weren’t raining from the sky.

If you did want a free sandwich, their mom Donna Kelce — who’s become something of a star in her own right over the past year — was handing out Subway sandwiches before the event.

The show’s first guest, who was not announced before the show, was Desmond Ridder, a 2022 UC grad, record-breaking former Bearcats quarterback and current QB for the Arizona Cardinals.

Desmond Ridder chats with Jason and Travis during the show.

Desmond Ridder chats with Jason and Travis during the show. Photo/Kelly Bennett

Ridder dished on his favorite dining hall (Stadium View) and local date spot (Mr. Sushi) before sharing some of his favorite UC memories. 

When he received a scholarship offer to UC, Ridder was at Churchill Downs in his native Louisville, Kentucky. It was loud amongst the crowds and horse racing, and he needed to find a quiet spot to take the important call. 

“That happened to be a porta-potty,” he said. 

Next to the stage was Bengals offensive lineman and Travis’ former Chiefs teammate Orlando Brown Jr. He shared his football journey from a 6-foot-6, 400-pound eighth grader to a Super Bowl champion. 

The arena erupted for the final guest of the podcast, Joe Burrow.

The juxtaposition of Burrow’s chill demeanor (there’s a reason they call him Joe Cool) with the hyped-up party-boy energy the Kelces bring made for many entertaining interactions, particularly between him and rival Travis.

The guys pulled up some of Burrow’s old tweets, prompting him to share his opinions on everything from NFL taunting (there shouldn’t be a rule against it) to aliens (they exist, but he wants to see proof).

Jason, Joe Burrow, Orlando Brown Jr. and Travis on "New Heights"

Joe Burrow and Orlando Brown Jr. join the guys for the show. Photo/Kelly Bennett

Burrow recalled being moved by Jason’s speech after winning Super Bowl LII. Around that time, Burrow was leaving Ohio State to consider other options, and Jason texted him, encouraging him to consider UC. Ultimately Burrow ended up at Louisiana State University, but he never forgot the kindness Jason showed him during what Burrow described as a difficult time.

One special guest not in attendance was Taylor Swift, whose relationship with Travis has been headline fodder for the past several months. The superstar still had a presence at the event, though, from fans sporting her merch to Swift’s songs playing throughout the evening — Travis even danced to her hit, “Shake it Off.” Within 48 hours of the UC event, the couple was spotted in the crowd at the Coachella music festival in Indio, California. Swift even sported a New Heights hat.

The sweetest sendoff: A surprise graduation ceremony

As the show came to a close, Athletic Director John Cunningham came out to thank the guys for an evening to remember, hinting at one last surprise for them and their families.

“You’re both graduates of the University of Cincinnati, but neither of you have participated in a ceremony,” Cunningham said.

President Neville Pinto then entered the arena in full commencement regalia, garnering perhaps the loudest cheer of the night and certainly the warmest welcome a university president has ever received.

Caps and gowns were brought out for Jason and Travis, and parents Donna and Ed Kelce joined their sons onstage.

It was a perfect end to a phenomenal event.

Anthony Di Fino UC Athletics Deputy AD

Confetti falls from the air on the Kelce family, President Pinto and John Cunningham

Cue the confetti! Photo/Kelly Bennett

Travis claimed that he was not allowed to walk at his graduation ceremony in 2012 because of an outstanding equipment issue — he lost his helmet and was unable to turn it in. Leadership presented him with that missing helmet onstage.

“To all my fellow students, before we make this thing official, I thought I’d give you guys some advice:

“You gotta fight for your right to party!”

After the quickest commencement program of all time, the brothers turned their tassels and accepted their diplomas — one from the College of Arts & Sciences for Travis and one from the Carl H. Lindner College of Business for Jason.

“Don’t forget to get your degrees on the way out,” Travis said.

Travis Kelce drinks a beverage onstage

He's just being Travis. Photo/Kelly Bennett

The surprise was a highlight for the Kelces and spectators alike.

“My favorite part of the night was seeing the Kelce brothers graduate,” says student Marcus Elliott. “That was an extremely special moment.”

“It was a perfect end to a phenomenal event,” adds Deputy AD Di Fino.

As the confetti fell, both Jason and Travis teased a return visit in the future: “Let’s do this thing again soon!”

Judging by the raucous response from the crowd, Cincinnati is certainly game.

Travis hugs dad and Jason hugs mom after receiving their diplomas onstage.

The Kelce brothers share an emotional moment with their parents. Photo/Kelly Bennett

After the event, Travis, Jason and Joe Burrow were spotted together at Uncle Woody’s, a stalwart watering hole just off campus.

Even days later, the impact and buzz from the night can still be felt on campus.

“The energy remains high and the excitement from the event is still lingering,” says Di Fino. “The amount of fans, staff and those that had no connection to campus who traveled in have not stopped reaching out letting us know it was one of the best events they can remember being a part of. For the 12,500-plus in the building, certainly it will be a memorable Bearcat moment. It has raised the bar for future events.”

Featured image at top left to right: Ed, Travis, Donna and Jason Kelce celebrate the brothers' impromptu graduation ceremony. Photo/Isabella Marley

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Jason and Travis Kelce take Cincinnati to ‘New Heights’

April 16, 2024

UC alumni Jason and Travis Kelce returned to UC for an unforgettable evening that included the Great "Lombaby" Games, a live recording of their podcast "New Heights," special guests Joe Burrow, Orlando Brown Jr. and Desmond Ridder and a surprise commencement ceremony.