KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The man is all beard and no bull. Sean McGrath calls it like he sees it, straight-up, without filters or regret. When he loves something, the Kansas City Chiefs tight end’s eyes light up like the Plaza in December, the giant thatch of whiskers giving him the affectation of a young Santa Claus — only a Santa Claus who’s 6-foot-5, 247 pounds and could stomp your ribs to freaking oatmeal, if he wanted to.
Take James Turrell. Doubtless you have never heard of James Turrell. James Turrell is Sean McGrath’s muse, one of his artistic heroes, a man he studied extensively in college, an experimental art icon. What Bill Walsh is to the West Coast offense, James Turrell is to the field of “installation art,” a genre of three-dimensional works designed to affect the perception of space.
“He’s like a different scale,” McGrath says, the eyes threatening to go nuclear. “He’s doing this thing that he’s been working on since the 1970s. It’s called ‘Roden Crater.’ It’s crazy. He took this extinct volcano and he shaped the earth. And there’s no light pollution out there, either. So his whole deal was like there are a bunch of naked-eye observatories that lie in the summer solstice, so they’ll line up, all that crazy stuff.
“And it’s really cool — there’s this thing called ‘celestial vaulting,’ where you look kind of at the top, you don’t realize that you’re in this atmosphere until you really get down there and realize that, you know, the sky is really around us. You know what I’m saying?”
“I don’t know,” he says, smiling. “It’s just really cool stuff.”
Sean McGrath is a really cool dude, up close, away from the stage, when the real world is on and the cameras are off. You’ve seen the movie “Braveheart,” right? Kansas City’s newest folk hero is a warrior-poet incarnate, the kind Scottish legend William Wallace would’ve wanted protecting his blind side.
He’s 25, runs a 4.7 40-yard-dash, totes a wingspan of 80 3/4 inches, a vertical leap of 35.5 inches, and keeps a sketchbook. As a third-grader, McGrath told his teachers he wanted to be an artist when he grew up. As a fourth-grader, he told them he wanted to be a pro football player.
McGrath has tried his best to balance the two, reconcile the two, ever since. In high school, he was an all-conference standout in football at Carmel (Ill.) Catholic High, all-area in basketball, and a member of the National Honor Society. McGrath has a degree from Henderson State in studio art with an emphasis on sculpture. He was at an art show in Kansas City a few weekends ago, taking in the local scene.
“It’s everywhere,” he says. “You’ve just got to find the culture.”
At the moment, he’s trying to find a kiln, too.
Not a big one, mind you.
“One of my buddy’s mothers has a kiln that I might grab,” McGrath says, smiling. “They suck a lot of energy, man. My energy bill would be through the roof.”
The energy is part of the charm, the fascination, the attraction. McGrath plays football the way a puppy ambles through a pet store, a bundle of lightning bounding from hashmark to hashmark, infectious as hell.
Then there’s the personal narrative: An undrafted player from a Division II program, released by the Seattle Seahawks, picked up off waivers to help with depth and long-snapping, suddenly thrust into the starting lineup because of a crazy run of injuries at the tight-end spot. Over the past three weeks, there’s McGrath, averaging 4.3 receptions and 53 yards per game. He’s not just running with the big boys. He’s running past them.
Also, the beard.
“It’s all falling off up top,” McGrath says, removing his cap to show the thinning spots. “(But) it’s not falling off the face. So it’s probably just some compensation going on there. I just want some long hair, man. It might as well be on my face.”
With that, he twirls a long moustache, one that, at the moment, has sprouted to a Rollie Fingers length.
“If I really want it to stay (up),” he cracks, “(use) a peppermint. A peppermint in my mouth and saliva is nice and sticky, and you’ve got a little sugar on it. Sticks right up there. That’s a home remedy.”
Once a free spirit, always a free spirit. The short answer is that McGrath partied himself out of Eastern Illinois back in the day, the way some kids do once they’re far from home and off the leash.
But he found a football lifeline, eventually — a staffer at EIU recommended him to Scott Maxfield, the coach down at tiny Henderson State, roughly 70 miles from Little Rock. Arkadelphia, Ark., is one of those sleepy towns where the the “mall” is the local Wal-Mart, 756 miles and a world away from what McGrath grew up with in ‘burbs.
“(It) was something of a culture shock,” Maxfield says. “At the time he moved here, it was a dry county … that helped him focus. Sometimes, you’ve got to take a step back to take a step up.”
As a junior, Maxfield got a pretty good idea of what he had, and lined his new toy up anywhere he could — the slot, outside, as an H-back, you name it. McGrath could run like the wind and long snap in an emergency. He caught 55 balls for 656 yards as a junior but a foot injury limited him to just four games during his senior season, all of which he played hurt.
“In the spring after his senior year, he was here at 6 in the morning every day (lifting),” Maxfield recalls. “A lot of people don’t know that. He finished here, he was about 240 (pounds). He’s about 250-260 now; he got in the weight room and lifted twice a day. He worked out really hard to be prepared to get a shot.”
Things clicked in the classroom, too. McGrath found a kindred spirit in adjunct professor Mac Hornecker, a professional sculptor and a burly sort who’d played football himself at Joplin (Mo.) Junior College. Hornecker had graduated from the Kansas City Arts Institute in 1968 and taught at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, for 30 years before retiring and moving to central Arkansas.
“In the old days, it was guys in steel-toed boots and welding equipment and pouring hot metal,” says Katherine Strause, chair of the department of art at Henderson State. “So all of that really appealed to Sean, the rigor of it.”
It was man’s art. Tough-guy art. Carved concrete. Carved wood.
“I think he was one of our better students, personally,” Strause says.
She respected his taste, too, even more than his vision. She could picture him as collector or broker one day, perhaps even teaching. Then again, beauty sometimes is in the eye of the beholder. Maxfield went to one of McGrath’s exhibitions his senior year and came away completely flummoxed.
“He had some stuff that he had welded together,” the coach chuckles. “I guess it was modern art, that was what he called it. I said to myself, ‘(Expletive), that looks like a fishing tackle.’ He said he could sell it. I said, ‘Well, you can sell beachfront property in Arizona if you can sell that.'”
Maxfield laughs again.
“Sean,” he says, “is kind of a character in himself.”
A character, yes.
A dumb jock, he ain’t.
“A lot of people don’t realize,” McGrath says. “(They say) ‘Big football player,’ it’s a common stereotype.”
The eyes blaze.
“But most normal people couldn’t pick up this offense that we’re running, so it’s like a different breed, it’s like learning a different language. I mean, it’s all learning, you know what I mean? If you can’t get a grip on it, it’s just second nature. You just play.”
And play. And play. Tony Moeaki is on injured reserve; Rookie Travis Kelce just underwent knee surgery that might very well end his season. And free-agent signee Anthony Fasano, who opened the season as The Andy Gang’s starting tight end, has been taking his frustration over knee and ankle issues out on Twitter.
Meanwhile, the dude keeps grinding. On a Victory Monday, McGrath was back at the Chiefs’ practice facility, working out, sweating the details, blinders on, head down.
Or as far down as it’ll go, given the foliage.
“A scout came through from (the Seahawks) last week that said they wish they would have kept him,” Maxfield says. “In pro football, sometimes, you’ve just got to be at the right place at the right time, when you’re not a high draft pick.”
McGrath’s time, funny enough, is right here, right now. And in a season that has all the early makings of a masterpiece.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org