Patrick Mahomes and the most important quarterback battle in football history
Jan 26, 2023
- Ryan Hockensmith is a Penn State graduate who joined ESPN in 2001. He is a survivor of bacterial meningitis, which caused him to have multiple amputation surgeries on his feet. He is a proud advocate for those with disabilities and addiction issues. He covers everything from the NFL and UFC to pizza-chucking and analysis of Tom Cruise’s running ability.
THE SUMMER BEFORE SEVENTH GRADE, Patrick Mahomes got summoned to the Whitehouse High School football field for a special workout. It wasn’t quite a secret. But let’s just say the coaching staff in East Texas definitely didn’t advertise it to the other 10 to 15 middle school kids who wanted to be Whitehouse’s quarterback when they grew up.
The coaches did invite one other kid. The varsity’s offensive coordinator, Reno Moore, was running the workout that day and asked fellow seventh-grader Ryan Cheatham to come out, too. Moore had heard hype about both kids, and he wanted to get a quick assessment of what the buzz was all about.
Mahomes was a star pitcher in the Tyler area, the son of an MLB player. Cheatham was just as good as a pitcher. Together, they were the one-two punch that led Tyler’s junior baseball team (ages 13-14) to the U.S. title at the 2010 Junior League Baseball World Series.
Cheatham and Mahomes stood side by side that day, doing footwork drills and throwing for Moore. He’d scheduled this workout at a time and place where he hoped none of the other kids would see. “We didn’t need anybody thinking we’d already decided,” he says.
But … he was about to have already decided. Cheatham and Mahomes were awesome that day. They both had cannons, and Moore took note of the skills and footwork they had accumulated from playing other sports. There’s a good chance no field in America had two better seventh-grade throwers than what Moore was looking at.
Moore nodded throughout and didn’t say much. He was impressed, though. He thought Cheatham was the perfect righty pocket passer for the Whitehouse system. And Mahomes was a brilliant lottery ticket, with unorthodox arm angles and power that made anything possible on any given play. The only real concern with Mahomes was whether he would eventually decide baseball was the bigger priority — and he loved being on the Whitehouse basketball team, too.
The two boys both understood what was happening on that day in 2008. Whitehouse was a program on the rise in Texas, and Moore had developed his past two starting quarterbacks into scholarship FCS passers. Both kids were giddy about the coaches paying such close attention to them. “We were honored to get time with the varsity coaching staff,” Cheatham says. “That day was so much fun.”
The whole time that Cheatham and Mahomes threw, Moore kept noticing how supportive they were toward one another.
“Good throw,” Mahomes would say to Cheatham.
“Nice one, Pat!” Cheatham would yell at Mahomes.
After an hour or so, Moore had them stop. He’d seen enough. He already thought both kids had Division I potential. He watched as they high-fived and walked away together, and it was the first hint that Cheatham and Mahomes were, in fact, best friends.
All three left that day excited about the future. But they had no idea that one of the longest, most formative quarterback battles in the history of football had just begun.
IN INTERVIEWS WITH 14 former coaches, players and friends from that era, all said that the Mahomes-Cheatham competition laid the groundwork for what we see today — a well-liked megastar NFL quarterback who has consistently managed to navigate difficult situations with seeming ease.
It all began back at Whitehouse during what ended up being a four-plus year QB competition between young Patrick Mahomes and the kid they called Cheeto. “There was a level of respect for Cheeto from everybody, including Patrick,” says Whitehouse receiver Coleman Patterson, who later played with Mahomes at Texas Tech. “It was competitive but I don’t think there was jealousy. There was a mutual respect, and I think it was instrumental in making him the quarterback he is today.”
That friendship got off to a frosty start. Mahomes moved into the Whitehouse district in third grade, and he ended up in the same homeroom as Cheatham. The two had known each other from afar. Tyler’s one of those wide Texas areas that’s big enough to produce a bunch of great athletes, but small enough that they all know of each other.
In their first sports showdown, right before Mahomes moved to Whitehouse, he was on the mound and Cheatham was at the plate. The at-bat was a 14-pitch little kid duel, with Cheatham fouling off pitch after pitch before finally popping out. As Cheatham ran off the field, they both looked at each other like they knew this would be the first of many head-to-head showdowns in their life. “We were definitely sizing each other up,” Cheatham says.
But within a week or two of being in the same class, they realized they both loved the same things: football, baseball, basketball, video games … and heating up really crappy-but-delicious food at midnight on sleepovers. Mahomes and his buddies liked to get chicken fried steaks with mashed potatoes and gravy, and then they would chop up the beefsteak, stir everything together and splatter ketchup onto it to create a chicken fried puddle. “A lot of people might find that gross,” Patterson says. “But it was amazing. I love ketchup. But nobody loves ketchup like Patrick Mahomes.”
The Mahomes ketchup hype is very real. Cheatham says his mom had two ketchup bottles in her fridge, one for the Cheatham family and one for Patrick Mahomes. Over ketchup and Call of Duty, Cheatham and Mahomes became very close friends — and two rising dominant athletes at Whitehouse.
By the time they hit their teenage years, Mahomes and Cheatham were part of Rose Capital East, the best junior baseball team in the country. Mahomes won the U.S. final one night on the mound in 2010, then Cheatham had a no-hitter through five innings in the world championship against Chinese Taipei. But Chinese Taipei ended up batting around in the sixth to chase Cheatham and win 9-1. Mahomes played shortstop and scored the only run. If future MLB draft rankings existed for that age group, Cheatham and Mahomes probably would have been two of the nation’s best prospects.
That propelled them onto the radar of Whitehouse football coaches. From their first day of seventh grade, coaches began alternating between Mahomes and Cheatham under center, starting with that day with Reno Moore on the practice field. The coaching staff was truly 50-50 and changed their minds every other day about who was in the lead. Mahomes was a little shorter, with a slightly stronger arm, and he seemed to generate more big plays, both good and bad. Cheatham was more of a prototypical, steady distributor in the system that Moore ran at Whitehouse.
For that seventh-grade year, Cheatham and Mahomes rotated in and out on almost every series. They both were fantastic, so coaches just kept the rotation going … and going … and going. In eighth grade, they split snaps. In ninth grade, same.
When football season ended, they played hoops together. When hoops season ended, they alternated starts on the mound for the Whitehouse baseball team. There’s a decent chance that Cheatham and Mahomes had exactly zero school days off from a sport in high school. The sheer volume of sports was a crucial part of shaping young Patrick Mahomes. He had to coexist with something like 100 different kids every year in three different sports, plus take coaching from 20 or so different adults. It forged a future A-list star who is kind and generous with teammates and humble and open-minded when coaches get after him.
The only question — and it was a huge question in the Whitehouse hallways — was, which sport would Mahomes ultimately pick? If Vegas had put odds on Mahomes in junior high, it would have been something like even money for baseball and 3-to-1 for football, with sharp bettors all throwing some long shot money on basketball, which Mahomes often told friends was actually his favorite sport. He was a die-hard Duke fan — with a Duke jersey he wore as often as he could — and would argue with Patterson, a UNC fan, every March about who was better, JJ Redick or Tyler Hansbrough.
But no matter the season, his relationship with Cheatham was the through line of Mahomes’ high school life. By the time they had gotten through ninth grade, Cheatham and Mahomes had competed against one another on the football field for three full years — then stayed over at the other’s house every weekend gaming and ketchupping. Coaches up and down the Whitehouse football program marveled at the way two highly competitive teen boys managed that dynamic … while also realizing they really needed to pick one of them soon.
Before that freshman year, coaches asked Cheatham and Mahomes to take on an extra job every week. They would play their game on Thursday, then come to the varsity game on Friday night and chart plays. One kept track of down, distance and stats and the other would document every playcall and the result. They could switch back and forth, but coaches wanted detailed reports at the end of every game. “It was going to be their team someday soon,” says Adam Cook, then the quarterbacks coach at Whitehouse. “Well, one of them, anyway.”
The two eagerly took on the job, and a close friendship somehow got even closer. They spent Thursday nights trying to beat the other out for a job, then Friday nights helping each other on the sideline with pens and paper. “We knew we were both good, and that something was going to eventually happen where one of us didn’t get the playing time,” Cheatham says. “But outside the lines, Patrick is the most respectful, kindhearted guy I know.”
They both had good years rotating on the JV team, and they knew Whitehouse was committed to senior-to-be Hunter Taylor for their sophomore years. But that summer, just when they thought they were headed for yet another split season under center as JV sophomores, Whitehouse coaches pulled Mahomes aside with some stunning news.
They were bringing Mahomes up to varsity — to play safety.
MAYBE THE MOST FUN Cheatham ever had playing sports was his sophomore year of high school. With Mahomes playing varsity defensive back, Cheatham took over the JV offense, and Whitehouse dominated the surrounding schools. Coaches really began to think they had a core group of kids coming up that could challenge for a state title. They just had to figure out who was going to be their quarterback.
Mahomes had a good year as a safety. Coaches thought he had remarkable instincts and an understanding of offensive strategy, and his baseball skills, including tracking fly balls, came in handy in the defensive backfield. “He could get to more balls that you thought he had no chance at, and it’s because he has really good feet and anticipation,” Cook says.
But Mahomes didn’t love safety. Not like quarterback, anyway. He never said much about it directly to his friend group, but seeing Cheatham get every rep — and crush it — on the JV team made him a little jumpy about competing for the job the following year with some QB rust. Coaches could tell he wasn’t feeling it as a defensive back, and Mahomes eventually had a tough conversation with his mom. He aired out his concerns about his football future, and the idea of quitting football was on the table.
Mahomes and his mom, Randi, declined comment for this story. But in past interviews, she says she encouraged him to pray on it, which Mahomes did. When football rolled around before his junior year, Mahomes still was on the fence. He thought maybe this was the end of his football career. “You’re going to regret it if you quit,” she told him.
So he stuck with it and entered his junior year with coaches again unsure of who to start at quarterback. Cheatham and Mahomes had drifted a bit during that sophomore year. Not in a bad way — they just didn’t get to spend as much time together because they were on two different teams. It was weirdly nice to be competing again as juniors. “I missed being around him more on the football field,” Cheatham says.
Whitehouse opened the 2012 season 2-0, with Cheatham and Mahomes again splitting snaps. But in the third game, against rival Sulphur Springs, Mahomes started the first half in steady rain. He managed the first half with no turnovers, no botched snaps, no fumbled handoffs. The other school’s skill position guys kept having slips and dropped balls, and coaches were impressed at the way Mahomes had Whitehouse chugging along.
At halftime, Cook pulled Cheatham and Mahomes aside and told them the coaching staff wanted to stick with Mahomes because of the slick conditions. But they both had a feeling that Mahomes had just won a quarterback battle that had gone on for four-plus years.
Cheatham exchanged a look with Mahomes. It’s the kind of look between two very good friends, where no words are said because no words are needed. They were both happy and sad, all mixed up together. “At the time, I wouldn’t have admitted it,” Cheatham says. “But I knew Patrick was better than me. I could see it.”
Mahomes led Whitehouse to another win. After the game, there was a sense in the locker room that Cheatham’s quarterback career was over. As the room cleared out, only Cheatham and Cook remained. They hugged and started to cry.
“My pride hurts,” Cheatham said.
“I know, Ryan,” Cook said. “It’s going to hurt. For a while. But you have a new opportunity now. You have an entire team that respects you, and we will have a role for you. You can succeed, and you can help Patrick succeed.”
Cook told him that Cheatham could shift out to receiver, where he had taken some reps before. He knew the Whitehouse offense inside and out. He knew how to find open windows in defenses. From that year of charting plays, he knew what Cook was going to call before Cook did sometimes. And most of all, Cheatham knew Mahomes and vice versa. “It was definitely tough to come to terms with,” Cheatham says. “But internally, I thought if I was going to lose my spot, I’m glad it was to a guy like Patrick.”
Before he even left the locker room, Cheatham nodded his head. He needed to go home and process the loss a bit. But he understood the new assignment, which was essentially this: He had to become Travis Kelce 1.0.
Love my bro @RyanCheeto #50HappyDays #Day42 pic.twitter.com/PIxGXs4IMu
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) October 18, 2014
ON THE FIELD after the Sulphur Springs game, Texas Tech wide receivers coach Sonny Cumbie approached Whitehouse’s Adam Cook. Cumbie was there to see Red Raiders wide receiver recruit Dylan Cantrell, and he stumbled upon something else. “People are going to know the name Patrick Mahomes really soon,” he told Cook.
Cumbie went back impressed, and later briefed new Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury. They both quickly made Mahomes their No. 1 recruiting mission for the next class. When Cumbie showed Kingsbury film of Mahomes, he remembers Kingsbury sitting up in his chair. “We have to get this kid, don’t we?” Kingsbury asked.
Kingsbury went so far as to take every other quarterback prospect off his recruiting board. Their infatuation makes perfect sense now that Mahomes is the best player in the NFL. But whatever Kingsbury and Cumbie saw … nobody else was seeing it.
But how? How did everybody miss on the son of a prominent pro athlete who had preposterous arm strength and won at a high level in Texas and would become one of the youngest Super Bowl MVPs ever five years later?
It’s most likely a combination of things. One is that Mahomes wasn’t exactly Arch Manning at football — he hadn’t even won the starting job at Whitehouse until he was a junior in high school, after all. And even then, as charming and breathtaking as his style seems now, football hadn’t had a Mahomes yet to make comps to. Throw in the fact that quite a few programs wondered if Mahomes might get drafted by an MLB team, and he felt like a big recruiting risk at the time.
Mahomes had a strong junior year, throwing for 3,839 yards and 46 TDs during Whitehouse’s 10-2 season. He got offers from Oklahoma State and Rice, but Texas Tech was all-in on him. He attended the Tech spring game in April 2013, and on April 21, Mahomes tweeted a photo of himself beside Kingsbury, in a Texas Tech shirt, doing the Red Raider “Guns Up” salute. He was going to be a Red Raider.
But just when Mahomes’ football future looked all but locked up, baseball decided to knock on his door one last time.
THE FINAL SEASON of Cheatham-Mahomes had a very different vibe. By the time they were seniors, the two were closer than ever and had begun to develop the kind of on-field dynamic that is eerily similar to the relationship Mahomes has now with Kelce. Kelce was once a very good high school quarterback himself before shifting to tight end at the University of Cincinnati. If you want to understand how the magic of Mahomes and Kelce came to be, the magic of Mahomes-Cheatham is the origin story.
Cook would call a play. Mahomes would get back in shotgun, with Cheatham in the slot, and they would make eye contact. “That same weird telepathy relationship that we have, you can see it with him and Travis Kelce,” Cheatham says. “I could look over before the snap and see Patrick’s eyes and then he’d look at the safety over the top of me and see that he saw there was a hole, and I knew he wanted me to go to that hole and sit down there and he would get it to me. That’s exactly what Kelce does.”
Whitehouse was ridiculous that year. Mahomes led them to a 10-0 regular season, scoring 40-plus points in every game. The team beat Sulphur Springs 38-14 in the first round of the playoffs, then lost a tough 65-60 shootout in the next round. For the season, Cheatham had 60 catches for 624 yards and 8 touchdowns, but he didn’t lead Whitehouse in any statistical category, other than maybe hauling in all-hell-breaks-loose 6-yard catches on 3rd-and-5 to bail out Mahomes. Sound familiar?
That spring, Mahomes and Cheatham finished up their last sports season together on the baseball team. Mahomes was heading for Lubbock in a few months, and Cheatham was going to pitch at Tyler Junior College. But first, they decided they wanted one last big memory before that chapter of their lives ended.
The memory came on March 11, 2014, when Michael Kopech rolled into town. The whole Whitehouse baseball team — especially Cheatham and Mahomes — had a long history with Kopech, who lived an hour away in Mount Pleasant. Kopech, now a starter for the Chicago White Sox, was a gas-throwing senior 60 miles up the road from Whitehouse. He’d been pitching against Tyler-area teams in high-level baseball games for about 10 years, and both Cheatham and Mahomes circled the Mount Pleasant-Whitehouse game that year on the calendar. So did MLB scouts. Mahomes got the call to pitch that day, and about 30 scouts showed up with radar guns. Kopech was a likely first-round pick, and MLB teams still considered Mahomes an early-round talent if he picked baseball. Everybody in the stands that day couldn’t help but think that a huge game from Mahomes might cause his gaze to drift back toward baseball.
They both were hitting the high 90s that day. Cheatham played first base, and in his first at-bat, he dug into the box hoping to get some offense going for Mahomes. Kopech wound up and unleashed a heater right at Cheatham’s knee. “It was terrifying when the ball came out of his hand and was headed straight for my leg,” Cheatham says. “Luckily, it got me in the soft spot of the knee.”
Mahomes struck out the first six guys he faced, often on 3-2 counts, and walked four in the game. Yet he took a no-hitter and a 2-1 lead into the seventh inning. His coach, Derrick Jenkins, thought he looked tired.
“Let me finish,” Mahomes told him. “I got this.”
And he did. Mahomes mowed through the last two hitters to finish off a no-no. Mahomes had 16 strikeouts — including three against Kopech. Meanwhile, Kopech had 12 strikeouts — including two against Mahomes. They combined to go 0-for-6 with five strikeouts against each other.
Kopech didn’t even get to see the last out of the game. Whitehouse players agitated him the entire day with chirping, usually goofing on Kopech’s long hair. Kopech eventually snapped and got tossed for jawing at the umps. “Our friend group always did a really good job of getting under peoples’ skin,” Patterson says. “We got in Kopech’s head pretty bad that day.”
The Whitehouse baseball ended nearly two months later after a state playoff loss. But Cheatham and Mahomes both savored that Kopech game as they moved on. “That is an all-time great memory for me and Pat,” Cheatham says. “We couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
They went their separate ways that summer. Mahomes — sort of — moved into his dorm room in Lubbock on the same day the 2014 MLB draft concluded. He’d made a seven-figure ask of any team that picked him, and scouts had continued to call Mahomes. So on move-in day, Mahomes and his family initially didn’t take his stuff in. They sat outside, fielding calls, and sure enough, the Tigers picked him in the 37th round.
But right after he got picked, Mahomes’ roommates watched as he started hoofing in his belongings. They came out and helped carry some stuff in, and when one guy asked Mahomes what happened, he said, “They didn’t offer enough money.”
“How much did they offer?” he asked Mahomes.
“A little over a million,” Mahomes said.
“Damn, that’s a lot of money,” his teammate said.
But not enough. Mahomes replaced injured starting QB Davis Webb over a month into the season, and he immediately looked like a foundational player. Mahomes threw for 1,547 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, cinching up the starting job for the foreseeable future.
As soon as the season ended, Mahomes walked on with the Tech baseball team. He still had the itch. He played a little right field, some third base and pitched during the preseason. In one of the first games of the season, Mahomes came in as a reliever against Northern Illinois with Tech up 6-0. It was, for all intents and purposes, the end of his baseball career.
Mahomes got a standing ovation as he took the mound — the excitement around him as Texas Tech’s quarterback was inescapable. But fans weren’t on their feet for very long. Mahomes walked the first hitter, including one pitch behind the guy’s back. He hit the next batter in the buttocks. He walked the next guy on five pitches and was pulled. He threw 15 pitches and didn’t record an out. All three guys scored, giving him an ERA of infinity. Mahomes played two games the rest of the year as a backup third baseman, finishing 0-for-2 at the plate. He had a bright future — but it wouldn’t be on the diamond. He let coaches know after the season that he was hanging up his baseball cleats.
“You could tell it was really hard for him,” Texas Tech baseball coach Tim Tadlock says. “Make no bones about it, I watched him play against the best players in the country, some of which went on to be major league players. He was right there with them. But football was screaming louder at him than anything else.”
Through all the ups and downs of that first year, Mahomes and his entire Whitehouse friend group stayed in touch, getting together during breaks. That’s about the time most high school friend groups begin to splinter.
But that’s not what happened with the Whitehouse gang. Mahomes and his longtime high school girlfriend, Brittany Matthews, stayed together into college. And before Mahomes’ sophomore year at Tech, two familiar Whitehouse faces transferred to Texas Tech and decided to walk on with the football team. That meant three of Mahomes’ favorite high school targets, Dylan Cantrell, Jake Parker and Coleman Patterson, were now lining up alongside their old prep quarterback again. “It was like a Whitehouse mini-reunion,” Patterson says.
Cheatham had gone off to Tyler Junior College to pitch and won a national title as a sophomore. He then transferred to the University of Texas’ Tyler branch as a junior — where he again won a national title — and Mahomes came to a few games to cheer on his good friend. His wife, Brooke, was friends with both Patrick and Brittany, too, so they all hung out when they could. Somehow, they’d moved farther apart and gotten closer.
Eight years later, the Whitehouse gang is going as strong as ever. Mahomes got engaged to Brittany in 2020, and they recently had their second child together. Most of his high school inner circle still collides at night on a regular basis, going at it playing Call of Duty the same way they did when they were teenagers. The only thing missing is Mrs. Cheatham’s extra ketchup bottle, and maybe a swamp of chicken fried steak soup at midnight.
It’s not hard to see the benefits of Mahomes’ friendship with Cheatham. When he arrived at Texas Tech, Kingsbury was up front with him that he would sit behind Webb. Mahomes never sulked and sat patiently until Webb got hurt. Then, when the Chiefs traded massive draft capital to jump from No. 27 to No. 10 to grab him, Mahomes entered training camp telling anybody who would listen that he was the backup that year to starter Alex Smith. “I come in with a little bit of pressure, but it’s Alex’s team,” he said at the time. “Alex is the starting quarterback, so I have time to really work on my game and become ready and be available whenever Coach Reid needs me.”
Just 10 months ago, Mahomes married Brittany in front of friends, family and what felt like half of Whitehouse High. Mahomes posed for pictures with Brittany, then his family, then finally with his five groomsmen. Four were Whitehouse alums.
In one photo, Patrick is standing in the middle, with his groomsmen surrounding him. Directly to his right is his younger brother, Jackson. On the far left stand his high school and college receivers, Patterson and Parker. On the far right stands Cheatham.
And the one non-Whitehouse guy, the very tall figure sandwiched between Cheatham and Mahomes? Yep, the actual Travis Kelce.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.