The NFL star's childhood best friend tells PEOPLE how their close-knit friend group contributes to one another's success
It was 1995 when a five-year-old Travis Kelce met his lifelong best friend, Aric Jones, at the Cleveland Heights Recreation Center. Decades later, Jones, 32, says he's “living out a childhood dream” with the NFL star and their closest friends from Cleveland Heights.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, the Homebred designer and life of the party in the Kelce family suite since 2016 explains how their Cleveland Heights friend group formed “a cohesive unit” to support Kelce’s success.
"We were on the Mighty Mites Hockey team together. I was four, Trav was five, and he was the biggest and the best player on the team, and I was the smallest and the funniest player on the team," Jones recalls.
Kelce, 34, and Jones, who Chiefs fans may recognize as a regular inside the Kelce family suite at Chiefs games, didn't attend the same school in Cleveland Heights until high school, but the Ohio native says he and Kelce "essentially crossed paths in every single facet of life," including through their families.
"Travis went to middle school and played rec league basketball with my older brother," Jones explains. "When my brother was playing 5th grade travel league basketball, Travis was the 4th grader playing up on my brother's team."
"It was always Jason [Kelce] and my older brother, and then Travis and me, playing in sports camps together for years," he says.
After playing hockey together for the Mighty Mites, Jones and Kelce, who was "always the biggest and most talented kid" on his teams, participated in the John Carroll Sports Camps.
"The camp counselors used to be afraid of Jason," says Jones, "and my brother and Travis were always competing to be the best two players."
Jones remembers recognizing Kelce's athletic talent and work ethic early, even before high school.
"I'll never forget it. Travis was in the 8th grade, I was in the 7th, and his school was coming to play my school. And that whole day of school, all the kids in the school were whispering like, 'Travis is coming up here to play today,' " he recalls.
Jones continues, "And then when Travis was walking out of the visitor locker room, a group of kids from my middle school were waiting outside the locker room, literally screaming his name all the way out to the field."
Kelce was "huge" while "nobody else was" at the time, Jones notes. "And I'll never forget him and his signature walk down the hallway up to the field and a group of kids from the opposite school following him. And it was just like, 'Man, this is different. This is different.' "
But the hometown recognition never went to Kelce's head, and Jones says his longtime best friend has always given his friends as much support as they give him.
“There’s a video on YouTube when I scored my first freshman touchdown in my first game of freshman year, and you can hear Travis in the background yelling ‘Get in there! Get in there!’ and he’s just, always been there," he says of his friend.
Jones describes their group as "a bunch of Sports Illustrated Kids kids with a dream," who endlessly supported one another. When they attended colleges in different cities, Jones says Kelce “would drive hours to watch me play, and I would do the same.”
Jones and his family grew close to Kelce's parents, Donna and Ed Kelce, during their Cleveland Heights days, and they’re still "like family" to this day, he says.
“I remember the first game we all went to watch Travis play. His dad, Ed, taught me how to shotgun a beer that day,” Jones shares.
He adds, “And Mama Kelc, she's the same person doing the same thing she always was. Before all of our home games, Mama Kelce and the moms would make food for the team that we would all eat. So she would be our pregame meal. Those cookies that she brought up for the Super Bowl last year, we've been eating those cookies for years.”
“Fast forward to my junior year,” - the same year Jones admits he and Kelce would often be “separated” from one another in math class for goofing around – “Travis was a senior, and he was our quarterback, while I was the backup, which kind of explains our true dynamic,” says Jones.
“I went to my first house party with Travis. I got in my first car accident with Travis. He was there for so much of my, honestly, just teenage-ness,” says Jones.
“We’re friends first, but we're also competitors because that's what sports teaches you," he continues. "We'd go to practice together, go on trips, sleep in the same room sometimes, maybe even in the same bed depending on the amenities where we were, and we always pushed each other."
"Still, to this day, as a group of friends, we all have a saying to each other: do your job, and everybody is a star in their own role. And if we all do our job, contributing to each other’s success, then great things happen, like our 4th Super Bowl appearance.”
“Travis is the car, and everybody sees the Bentley, and they see the Ferrari, but are you popping the hood? 'Cause we're the engine. And that's the way I look at it," Jones says of his and Kelce's core friend group, made up of Cleveland Heights natives Harry Clark, private chef Kumar Ferguson and friends they've "made along the way," including Ross Travis, Reggie King and Chris Pearson.
Kelce was drafted by the Chiefs in 2013, and Jones remembers the moment vividly. “When Travis got drafted, I was still in college, and I cried that night. And then a week later, we were having his draft party in Cleveland."
During Kelce’s second season with the Chiefs, Jones moved into the tight end’s Kansas City home and worked as a season ticket representative for the NFL team while he and Kelce were roommates, but Jones didn’t get that job through his connections with Kelce. In fact, quite the opposite happened.
“Nobody in the Chiefs organization even knew we were friends,” Jones says. “They didn't find out until I was probably working for the Chiefs three or four months in that me and Travis had a friendship.”
Jones says it was that season when things “really started ascending” for Kelce and his Cleveland Heights crew, recalling the NFL star sharing an inspiring book with him.
“The Energy Bus is my favorite book, and is one of the books Trav shared with me. The whole thing is just about your energy and your mentality going into things and how much that plays into the final product of whatever it is that you're doing," he explains.
Jones says the mentality of “you get out what you put in” is crucial to their group’s success, and Kelce’s dedication to winning is a “motivational force” for his close friends. “Last year, Trav got some sort of bonus or something with his contract or whatnot, and we were congratulating him in a group text, and his response was, ‘We just go to work every day.’”
“That response right there. How can you not wake up and go to work every day and do your job?" He states. " 'Cause that's all it is, you go to work, you do your job, you do what you're supposed to do. It's all principles.”
Jones says his friends haven’t changed a bit when they're just spending quality time together. “When it's just us in the room, we're making jokes, we're talking shit to each other. We're making fun of each other. It's very much like being at a high school lunch table. We love to talk about the past and the future. talk about high school memories and argue about football. Sometimes things get a little rowdy.”
Last Thanksgiving, Jones says he and Kelce spent the holiday “eating KFC and watching Four Brothers and Batman,” with friends, which ended up being “the best Thanksgiving ever.”
And just two weeks ago, Kelce was on the golf course with Jones. “He was trying to teach me because he's getting into it now," he shares, reiterating their shared passion for sports.
As Kelce’s success continues to soar, on and off the field, the group has established game-day roles to help the NFL star stay focused on football.
“So obviously, Kumar's making the food for Trav, and Trav gets his haircut on game days by Patty Cuts. He will drive to the game with one or two people, depending on who they are. I don't go to the games with Trav because my job is to be on the party bus entertaining the guests,” explains Jones, whose role is largely "the party captain" during game days.
“I'm up in the front and as loud as I can be. I'm the fan guy," he says of his role. "These people know me as I'm the one up there interacting with the fans, being loud in the suite, getting all the energy exactly where it needs to be in the front. There's a party in the back, energy in the front.”
Jones’ role doesn’t end during NFL off-seasons, either. He was by Kelce’s side for his Feb. 2023 hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, and traveled to the West Coast to attend events like Vegas Prizefight and Coachella Music and Arts Festival.
“It doesn't just stop when the season stops. This is a very just cohesive thing. This is what we do," says Jones.
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Their shared will to win, love of friends, family, football and continued dedication to supporting their chosen brotherhood is this group’s secret sauce.
"We’re really just a bunch of Midwest kids who respect and admire each other, and we learn together – and that’s sports. That's the beauty of sports. We all love sports. We understand the mentality that has to go around sports," he notes.
Jones continues, "That's why sports are so important at a youth level because regardless of whether you see the success early on or not, the concepts remain the same. And it's it's off the field, too. I can take the lessons that I've learned from sports or the conversations that I've had with Travis or whatnot, and apply that to my marketing skills, apply that to Homebred, to space that it is that I'm in, because it's all the same. But if you don't play sports, you might not understand.
“Having Travis as the unspoken leader, you pick up on that mentality. So even the Chiefs, when you have somebody like that leading your team, how do you not fall behind that?”
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