No tight end ever worked quite as hard as Tony Gonzalez to be glamorous. There’s a story about him I think of now. Gonzalez was playing in the Pro Bowl, as he did after every season. (This year he was chosen for his 13th Pro Bowl; only Bruce Matthews and Merlin Olsen have been chosen for more. Neither of them, you will note, played tight end.)
The AFC coach in this particular Pro Bowl was the famously uncompromising Bill Belichick. Gonzalez watched Belichick all week to see what made him different. He was curious. He was always curious. But Gonzalez couldn’t really pick up much that was different about him. Sure, Belichick was tough, but Gonzalez had dealt with tough coaches all his life. Sure, he wanted to win -- didn’t they all? Big deal, this guy.
Then came the game, and Tony Gonzalez went out on the opening kickoff to play on special teams. Gonzalez had no interest in playing on special teams, of course -- nothing is less glamorous. But this was the Pro Bowl, and in Hawaii there are no laborers to handle the mundane duties of kickoff and punt coverage. Anyway, Tony G. is an accommodating sort.
So he went out to block for the return team, though “block” might be too active a verb. One of the fun annual activities for Gonzalez's friends and family at the Pro Bowl had long been watching Tony G. half-ass his way through his special teams duties. This time was no different. After the ball was kicked off, Gonzalez might have brushed someone on the NFC side. Then again, maybe he didn’t. This was the Pro Bowl. This was Hawaii. This was a party. This was not a day to work too hard. He jogged back to the sidelines, pleased with himself.
“Why don’t you [bleepin’] block somebody, Gonzalez!” Belichick barked as Gonzalez jogged by.
Gonzalez froze. What did he say? What did that man say? Was he joking? He had to be joking. Gonzalez turned to look at Belichick, and he saw a man … who was definitely not joking. Wait: Bill Belichick was RIPPING him? For not blocking on SPECIAL TEAMS at the PRO BOWL? Gonzalez felt this rage build up inside him. Who did that guy think he was? Tony Gonzalez was a superstar in the NFL. He played the game hard -- everybody around the league knew that. No player in the NFL dealt with more nonsense, more double-teams, more facemask grabs, more bearhugs, more illegal shoves, more picks and chips and trips and bumps … and … well… WHAT DID HE SAY?
Gonzalez wandered to the bench, and he sat down, and he steamed. The acid just turned in his stomach. Oh, he was enraged now. How DARE that guy rip Tony Gonzalez … and at the Pro Bowl, no less. Wasn’t this supposed to be a fun little reward game for being a great player? Wasn’t this Hawaii? Weren’t there beaches and people wearing flowered shirts and sipping Mai Tais? Well, wasn’t it the Pro Bowl? Why don’t you block somebody? Are you kidding? Oh, yes, Tony Gonzalez was mad now, supremely PO’d, and all his life, when Gonzalez got mad, he reacted swiftly and with force. Yes, Gonzalez would show Mr. Bill Belichick, the emperor of football himself, just what a special teams block looked like. Next kickoff, Gonzalez was out there pulsing with rage. Kickoff, and he found his man, and he LIT THE GUY UP. Oh yeah, knocked him right to the ground, stood over him a second, and the shocked guy looked up at him like, “Dude, what gives?”
Yeah. Why don’t you block somebody? How about that block, Oh Mighty Premier of the Pro Bowl? He jogged to the sideline now, and you better believe he made SURE to go by Belichick, made sure he got REAL CLOSE to the Supercoach, and what do you have to say NOW, pal?
“Nice block,” Belichick said, and was that a hint of a smile on the guy’s face?
“And that’s when I knew,” Gonzalez told me one of the times he told that story. “That’s when I knew that SOB had gotten me.”
* * *
There had never really been a glamorous tight end in the NFL before Tony Gonzalez. Oh, there had been great ones -- John Mackey was this uncompromising mix of power and speed, and Mike Ditka was harder to bring down than Rome, and Ozzie Newsome was a circus acrobat, and Kellen Winslow was unrelenting and indomitable, and Dave Casper would spend days picking footballs out of the air and grass and dirt out of his helmet and linebackers out of the way.
But glamorous? No. Tight end was a guts position, a mud position, an enclosed place for receivers not quite fast or sleek enough to play receiver, a bloody place for offensive linemen not quite big or strong enough to block the biggest defenders. Tony Gonzalez meant to do something about that. He did not come into the NFL to be a gritty stagehand, and he did not come to the NFL to blend into the background. He came to the NFL to be a star.
Check that: Tony Gonzalez already WAS a star when he got to the NFL -- people just didn’t know it yet. He was born a star. He could do anything as a kid in Southern California. Well, anything cool. Basketball? Best in the neighborhood. Skateboarding? Best in the neighborhood. Biking? Best in the neighborhood. Surfing? He held his own. Good looks? Yeah, he had those too. Football? Heck, in football it wasn’t even FAIR … he didn’t even like football that much, but he was so much better than everyone else, he just kept playing. When he was a senior in high school, he shared the award as the best high school athlete in Orange County. He wasn’t crazy about sharing. But, hey, the other guy was Tiger Woods.
Oh, yeah, he was a star. He went to Cal, starred in football, starred in basketball too -- for a Sweet 16 team, no less -- starred in life. He came out his junior year, the Kansas Chiefs worked all sorts of maneuvers to trade up and get him, and he came to Kansas City and promptly announced, “I like to have fun.” He looked like a guy who liked to have fun. He looked like a walking magazine cover. Plus he was big, fast, strong, athletic … everybody was pretty well blown away. Well … OK … maybe not everyone. I remember there was this one former NFL player, a tough old codger, who watched Gonzalez practice for a few minutes and came up with this cutting but succinct summary.
“Pretty boy,” the codger grumbled.
* * *
Well, yeah, people forget that it wasn’t easy for Tony Gonzalez at first. Now, you look at Tony Gonzalez’ numbers and the jaw drops. He isn’t just the most prolific tight end in the history of the game. Nobody comes close.
Receptions: 1,242 (next best among tight ends: Shannon Sharpe with 815).
Receiving yards: 14,269 (next best: Shannon Sharpe with 10,060)
Touchdowns: 103 (next best: Antonio Gates with 83).
Games started: 237 (next best: Ozzie Newsome with 191).
Incredible, no? But it wasn’t like that at first. There were big expectations, of course. Gonzalez was preposterously talented, huge (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), and fast, and more than just fast he was also quick, and he could jump, and he had these claws for hands. But at first, Gonzalez was like a bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces of talents. Nobody could quite figure out how to make a great tight end out of him. He showed some promise his rookie year, but he didn’t start a game, and coaches grumbled quietly about his blocking. Pretty boy? Well, they said it would take some time.
The second year, the coaches thought Gonzalez would take the big leap forward, vault into superstardom, and Gonzalez was pretty sure of it. His numbers did go up. He caught 59 passes -- quite a few for a tight end. But it wasn’t coming together like everyone hoped. His blocking was uninspiring. And he was a more unusual player than anyone had expected. He didn’t really run receiving patterns like other tight ends -- he seemed more comfortable going to an open spot and turning around and sort of blocking out his defender, like he was a big man in the post. He was fast, but he wasn’t especially elusive. He didn’t break many tackles. He was generally tackled right where he caught the ball.
And, he dropped a lot of passes. No, really: Tony Gonzalez -- who should have a bust of his HANDS in Canton as well as a bust of his head -- actually dropped a lot of passes. Gonzalez counted 13 drops. Later, he adjusted it to 17 drops. Whatever the number, it was noticeable. At one point, after dropping another pass at Arrowhead, he heard a smattering of boos. They felt like fireballs.
He was pretty miserable then. He had always told reporters, “I know it won’t be easy to become a good player in this league.” But deep down, yeah, maybe he thought it would be pretty easy. Why not? He had always been a hard worker. He knew he was loaded with talent. He had complete faith in his competitive spirit. These things were always enough for success, always more than enough.
And now, suddenly, for the first time in his life, he was not succeeding. Gonzalez is pretty shrewd about life. He knew that he could coast like this and make a nice career for himself. He could catch 60 or 70 balls a year, reach a couple of Pro Bowls, make a lot of money, have a nice life. He went home to California after the season and started doing some journal writing. At one point -- and he would remember it specifically -- he wrote down a question:
“What kind of person do you want to be?”
He stared at the question for a long time. He wasn’t entirely sure. But he knew he didn’t want to be the player he had been.
* * *
I never saw a player in the NFL who spent more time catching footballs than Tony Gonzalez. It was really striking. After every practice, he would catch 100 or 200 passes from the ball-throwing machine. He had this whole routine set up … he would stand way back and catch from afar for a minute or two, and he would take a step in, then another step in, then another step in, until finally, at the end, he was standing at 10 paces. It was like duel, and the ball would buzz it was spinning so fast, and when it hit his hands you could hear this hard pop, like the sound of a good fastball hitting a catcher’s mitt.
Well, sure, maybe others guys do that after every single practice. As Gonzalez himself has said: “You don’t get an edge by practicing hard. EVERYBODY practices hard.” His point is that it was all the extra work you do that counts, and Tony Gonzalez just constantly caught footballs. In quiet moments during practice, he would have someone throw him footballs. Between practices, he would have someone throw him footballs. Between plays, he would have someone throwing him footballs.
On the sideline, during games, you would often see him walking around, asking different people for a catch.
“Throw?” he would ask.
“Wanna throw?” he would ask.
“Time for a throw?” he would ask.
“He would drive you absolutely crazy,” one of his best friends and longtime teammate, Tony Richardson, said.
It was an obsession. When Gonzalez wrote down that question -- what kind of person do you want to be -- he had a lot of thoughts about that, but perhaps most pressing was that he wanted to be the kind of person who NEVER FREAKING DROPPED PASSES. And like a once large person who lost a lot of weight, he had the conviction of the converted. Every year, long after his dropped-passes days were gone, he kept asking for people to throw him footballs.
In his third year, he caught 76 passes, 11 of them for touchdowns, and made his first Pro Bowl. In his fourth, he caught 93 passes for more than 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns.
And it’s like the puzzle pieces fit and the picture was clear. True, Gonzalez was a back-of-the-end zone kind of receiver. No, he did not often dazzle with spectacular runs after the catch. But here was Tony Gonzalez’s amazing gift, one that I think makes him unique in the history of the game: Tony … Gonzalez … is … always … open. Even when he is covered, he is open. Even when he has a linebacker in his grill and a safety draped on his back, he is open. He is open because he will always beat those guys to the ball. He will take it away from them. He will pull it in even as they’re yanking him to the ground. He is like a hockey center who always wins the face off.
Once quarterbacks realized this -- they just kept throwing it to him. You saw those amazing numbers above. In 12 words, I can make those amazing numbers at least twice as impressive. Ready?
Elvis Grbac. Trent Green. Damon Huard. Brody Croyle. Tyler Thigpen. Matt Ryan.
These are the main quarterbacks who threw passes to Tony Gonzalez.
I mean, Shannon Sharpe had John Elway. Kellen Winslow had Dan Fouts. John Mackey had John Unitas. With Gonzalez, it didn’t really matter who threw the ball. It almost didn’t matter how well they threw it either. “Just throw it somewhere near me,” he would tell the quarterback, whoever it was, and when they threw it near him, he caught the ball. It was like a superpower. Nine times in his career, he caught 75 or more passes. Five times he caught 90 passes or more. Twelve times he caught passes for more than 800 yards. Tight end records all.
Oh, he loved catching passes. As he grew older, his body started to change. He adjusted. He developed a new diet. He worked out harder. He never stopped asking for people to throw to him. He did it all so he could catch more passes. He would admit that his love for pass catching wasn’t always entirely healthy or unselfish. If the team won but he didn’t catch enough passes, the victory didn’t taste very sweet to him. If the team DID NOT win and he did not catch enough passes, he was all but inconsolable. “I want to contribute,” he would say defiantly. “I want to be a part of it.”
I remember after one game, everybody was raving about Gonzalez’s blocking. That wasn’t a common theme -- oh, sure, every now and again a coach would blurt that Gonzalez was a good blocker, but it always sounded like a protest, like directors who said that Elvis Presley really could act. Gonzalez probably blocked reasonably well through the years, but it was never the point. But this one game, he was absolutely pancaking people -- the Chiefs scored eight rushing touchdowns -- and Gonzalez was getting the raves. And so reporters were asking Tony G. set-up questions: “Does a good block mean as much to you as a touchdown pass?”
And: “What’s more fun -- scoring a touchdown or springing a back for a touchdown?”
The questions were like late night talk show questions, perfect opportunities for Gonzalez to play it humble and say, “Yes, it’s just as much fun for me set up a touchdown for my teammates as it is to score one.” But … listen … THERE WAS NO WAY HE WAS GOING TO SAY THAT. Are you kidding? A catch vs. a ferocious hit? A touchdown vs. a lead block? At first he tried to be open minded about it. “As much as a touchdown pass?” he asked. “I wouldn’t exactly say that. But I do like to get a good block.”
But when they persisted, he finally had enough. “Come on,” he pleaded. “I like to block. But I know why they pay me.” He had an ego, OK? He had personal ambition, OK? He loved being at the heart of things. All those catches made him feel like he was doing his job well. And, sure, all those catches also made Gonzalez rich and famous and the superstar he always wanted to be. Magazine covers? Television appearances? Movie offers? Of course. Oprah loved him. He hung out with the Naked Chef. I remember one time we were talking about books, and I gave him a recommendation, and he nodded and said: “I’ll definitely read that, but first I have to finish this book Barack recommended to me.”
Yeah. Barack. You think the future president would recommend books to lead blockers? Gonzalez was living life. When he was young, he would admit, he goofed off a lot, played a lot of video games, lived the night scene -- “The NFL makes you stupid,” he would say -- but, in time, he started wanting more. He is a little bit spiritual now. He is involved in a bunch of charities. He spent some time in a Spanish immersion program. He saved a choking man’s life in a restaurant, once. He and a nutritionist Mitzi Dulan invented something called “The All-Pro Diet.” He did some writing. He and October had what they called a “commitment” ceremony -- though both refer to it in retrospect as their wedding -- and they have two children. And he just kept catching passes and catching more passes and catching more passes …
And it would seem to be the perfect football life, exactly what Tony Gonzalez wanted.
Except, yes, there is one small thing.
* * *
After losses, Gonzalez would sit on a stool in front of his locker. And he would just stare at the locker. Just stare. Sometimes, I would time it. He would sit there for 20 minutes. For 45 minutes. For an hour. He wouldn’t talk, and he wouldn’t move, and he would brush off any condolences. He would just wear his uniform and ignore his surroundings and stare at that locker. He was inconsolable.
Nobody was entirely sure what to make of it. Sure, he took losses hard. But lots of guys do. There were some who thought he was exaggerating his pain for effect. I never did, though. I thought there was something else going on, something complicated, something hard even for Gonzalez in his writing and self-observation to explain.
And his teams just kept on losing.
His rookie year, the Kansas City Chiefs were 13-3 -- best record in the conference -- and in his first playoff game against Denver, he had what could have been the winning touchdown in his grasp. He got shoved out of bounds as he fell. Did he get both feet in bounds? There was no challenge system in the NFL then. There was no replay that was conclusive anyway. His team lost.
It was seven years before his team made the playoffs again. This time, the Chiefs played Indianapolis at home -- and it was a game where neither team punted. The Chiefs scored 31, but Gonzalez caught only four passes and none of them for touchdowns. The Colts scored 38.
Three years later, the Chiefs made it back to the playoffs, again against Indianapolis. This time his Chiefs were thoroughly outmanned. Again Gonzalez caught four passes, only this time he scored his first and (so far) only postseason touchdown. It was the Chiefs only touchdown in a 23-8 loss.
Four years after that, he was playing for Atlanta and the Falcons went 13-3 and were looking like a real Super Bowl contender when they played Green Bay at home. They got utterly blitzed 48-21. Gonzalez caught one pass.
Last year, the Falcons played at New York. They lost 24-2. Yeah, 2. Gonzalez caught four passes.
That’s it. A whole career -- more than 1,200 catches, more than 14,000 yards, more than 100 touchdowns -- and for what? No playoff victories. Not a single one. I thought that, as the years went on, he would stare at his locker a little bit longer after each loss. I thought it had something to do with this: Tony Gonzalez sees himself as a winner. He KNOWS that he’s a winner. And yet, he hasn’t won.
He would tell me in his later years that he would not let the playoff losses define him. No way. He saw the way other players lived their whole post-career lives regretting that they never played in a Super Bowl. “That won’t be me,” he insisted. “If I don’t get the chance, I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t let that define me. I just won’t.”
But still, he kept coming back to the NFL, in better and better shape. He talked of retirement at 33. But at 34, he caught 70 passes. At 35, he caught 80. This season, he was an absolute phenomenon. He’s 36 years old and he caught 93 passes.
Do you know how many receivers older than 35 have caught 93 or more passes in a season?
One. Just one. Tony Gonzalez. Not even Jerry Rice did it.
Do you know who held the record for most catches by a tight end older than 35? Wesley Walls. With 20 catches.
People keep asking Tony G. if he will REALLY retire after this season, and he keeps saying that he’s 95 percent sure that he will. Why 95 percent? Well, I think he can’t help but wait to see what happens in Sunday’s playoff game at home against Seattle. Gonzalez wants it. He needs it. He keeps saying this is the best team he has ever been on, and they are at home, and, yes, he needs that victory. He wants to retire, of course. He doesn’t even want to think about the pain if he loses in the playoffs again.
* * *
One thing about Tony Gonzalez: He is constantly surprising. He came to the NFL to be a star, and he became a star, and he has lived it fully.
There is one other Tony Gonzalez story I think of now. Through the years, Gonzalez developed a close friendship with a young man named Miles Postlethwait. They met at a heart camp. Gonzalez was there to make an appearance and brighten some spirits. Miles was there because he had endured numerous heart surgeries. The two talked briefly, though neither remembered what was said.
Then, they started seeing each other a bit more often. Miles’ mother Marty had started this charity called “Shadow Buddies” where they give little dolls to children in hospitals to inspire hope. Gonzalez got involved with the charity. He would go to hospitals and give out these dolls and make the children smile. They liked it. He liked it. Over time, he and Miles started to hang out a bit.
I saw them together now and again. It was a beautiful friendship. They poked fun at each other mostly, but they had serious conversations, too. Miles was drawn to Tony’s hunger for greatness and his seriousness about achieving it. Tony was drawn to Miles’ endurance and positive and courageous spirit in the face of pain.
And this one time, I was having dinner with them both, and Gonzalez started peppering Postlethwait with questions about his goals in life. It was fascinating because Tony was fired up. Gonzalez wanted Miles to tell him his goals, but when Miles said, “I want to graduate from college,” Gonzalez fired back that wasn’t specific enough. No, if you want to achieve goals, you can’t make them dreamy and vague. No. When do you want to graduate? How soon? What do you want to study? What kind of grades do you want to make? What do you want to get out of your degree?
He just kept pelting Miles with questions … and, through those questions, you could see how a little bit of how Tony Gonzalez is wired, could see how he became the greatest pass-catching tight end who ever lived. He did it by creating this whirlwind of goals and then going after them, bit by bit, by changing his diet, and getting stronger, and studying more film, and building trust with quarterbacks and catching thousands and thousands of footballs where and when he could.
“You can see what I get out of this friendship,” Miles said to me, and he smiled.
And then, Miles began to talk. He said that he did have one goal, one he did not like talking about. He wanted to be less afraid. He wanted to be able to go into the Intensive Care Unit, where he had suffered so much, and where new kids were suffering every day. He wanted to help them. “It’s still too close for me,” he said. “I can’t go in there. But I know I have to go if I’m going to help some kids. So that’s my goal, I guess. To be brave enough to start going into the ICU units and talking to those kids.”
Tony Gonzalez just looked at Miles for a long time. He didn’t say a word, but you could tell he was thinking about it. Finally, he smiled just a little.
"Well,” he said. “Now you can see what I get out of this friendship.”