Vahe Gregorian

Former Chiefs great Tony G: From bullied kid to Hall of Famer who speaks his mind

Grazing on a bowl of nuts and dried fruits at a table in his palatial home one day in June, Tony Gonzalez contemplated his ascension into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and what he plans to say about it on Saturday in Canton, Ohio.

“I don’t have a speech written out: I’m not that guy, I never will be,” said Gonzalez, the first tight end named to the Hall in his first year of eligibility. “I like to just talk and whatever comes out, comes out.”

No doubt his words will be eloquent and inspiring, particularly based on what he shared about three key pivot points from his humble and tentative roots to greatness on the field — not to mention prosperity and fulfillment today as a TV analyst, husband, father, motivational speaker, voracious reader and world traveler.

Also could be that some of his words will rankle, as Gonzalez long has been prone to do by spontaneously speaking his mind.

Influenced as he might be by such books as “Zen Reflections” and “The Book of Joy,” Gonzalez in recent years also has strived to be less a conformist and pleaser in the spirit of another book on his shelf: “The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck.”

The downside of that enlightenment, of course, is how others might interpret it.

That brings us to the subtle difference in how the Chiefs and their fans seem to be processing the simultaneous inductions of Gonzalez and safety Johnny Robinson, each of whom made their names in 12 years as Chiefs and refined, if not redefined, the positions they played.

And yet …

“I would tell you that the Johnny celebration is going to be a little different than the Tony celebration,” Chiefs president Mark Donovan said Friday. “But they’re both going to be fun.”

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Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez dunked the football over the crossbar after scoring his 63rd career touchdown (a record for a tight end) against the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 14, 2007 at Arrowhead Stadium. KC Star file photo

While adding “we’ll always think (Gonzalez) is a Chief,” Donovan didn’t elaborate on the distinction.

Robinson is as pure and original a Chief as there can be, drafted in the franchise’s first season, 1960, as the Dallas Texans, never playing elsewhere and becoming a key element in their pinnacle of triumph in Super Bowl IV in 1970.

That’s all in contrast to Gonzalez: Seeking to play in a Super Bowl as he was aging and the Chiefs were in need of repair, Gonzalez requested a trade and played his last five seasons in Atlanta.

If that perceived affront to KC had faded, it was rekindled when he gushed over Atlanta when he was named to the Hall of Fame in Atlanta and was speaking with an Atlanta media outlet.

Never mind that he also said he was proud to be a Chief that day.

When I wrote a few weeks ago that Chiefs fans might want to chill and enjoy this moment with an amazing player, the reaction was mixed.

But Donovan was right when he said anyone who played for more than one team is “in a tough spot, right? You’ve got to take care of all the fans.”

So we’ll say it again: Chiefs fans can hold whatever grudge they want. But what a waste not to embrace this ride with Gonzalez, who loved Kansas City — the bedrock of a career in which he amassed the second-most receptions in NFL history (1,325, including 916 with the Chiefs).

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Former Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez beats the drum before the start of a December 2018 game at Arrowhead Stadium. KC Star file photo

“Mind-blowing numbers,” said former Chiefs quarterback Trent Green, adding, “Tony was the superstar of the town … He was that guy.”

A man of “high integrity and character who always carried himself that way,” former teammate and receiver Eddie Kennison called him.

Noting his fiendish work ethic, Kennison added, “He wasn’t one of those guys to take a knee when it wasn’t his turn.”

In fact, that’s the hinge of Gonzalez’s story and something anyone should savor.

Despite his genetic gifts, his story is about a crusade and the example of how he navigated three turns that will dominate his Hall of Fame speech.

“Don’t ever think that you just show up and this happens,” he said. “The hardest things in my life have made me who I am.”

Bully pulpit

Many of Gonzalez’s early memories are of his family on welfare and moving around near Los Angeles as his single mother, Judy, toiled at a nursing home and became the strongest person he knows.

By the time he moved to Huntington Beach, a second-rate skateboard became his main transportation, and basketball and a surfboard from a swap meet his preoccupations. (The surfboard was courtesy of his father, Joe, who contrary to general understanding saw his sons on weekends.)

The self-described “goofy, goofy kid” whose mother will tell you he was clumsy never could have envisioned the arc of his life stemming from a game he initially couldn’t stand.

He resisted football to the point of simply leaving practices and quitting his Pop Warner team during his second season before his older brother, Chris, ultimately coaxed out a love for the game.

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Tony Gonzalez with his mother, Judy, ikn 1997. Special to The Star

But that wouldn’t have happened if not for Gonzalez facing his nemesis: a boy a year older who routinely threatened and bullied him when Gonzalez was in eighth grade. Another bully joined in later, and together they once compelled him to run into his house yelling “Nooooo!”

Which promptly led to kids at school yelling “Nooooo!” to make fun of him.

He felt like a “loner, nerd, outcast, with no friends hardly.” And a coward.

“But my philosophy back then was it’s better to be a live chicken than a dead duck,” he said.

Until his eighth-grade graduation.

While others celebrated, Gonzalez shuddered at seeing his main agitator and hid behind a wall, where his family found him.

“My mom didn’t even say anything. She just looked at me with the eyes of disappointment,” he said. “My brother mouthed the words, ‘What are you doing?’ They were both disgusted by me.”

And that, he said, was it.

“One minute Tony was this way,” he said, snapping his fingers. “And this next minute it’s this way. It just changed me forever.”

The next time he remembered seeing his prime tormentor was his junior year of high school, when Gonzalez had grown into an athletic 6-foot-3 or 6-4 frame.

“Now I’m looking down on him,” Gonzalez said. “I just looked at him and smiled.”

All these years later, he remembers his name (Curtis Parker) and wonders if Parker remembers his.

“I should thank him,” he said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

With a certain lasting impact: Even conceding he could have chosen his words better when he said, “It made my career to come to Atlanta,” Gonzalez bristled at what he considered an overreaction in Kansas City and said no one was going to “bully me … into thinking I did something wrong.”

‘It’s all up to me’

During his sophomore year as a two-sport athlete at the University of California in Berkeley, Gonzalez’s 10 catches for 150 yards were offset by a fumble in Cal’s 29-24 loss to rival Stanford.

He cried uncontrollably after the game and vowed never to fumble again. (In fact, he fumbled just six times in his NFL career and only once in his final 15 seasons.)

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A star basketball player for Cal, Tony Gonzalez, right, went on to revolutionize the game of football as an incredibly athletic NFL tight end. AP photo

But the results came only after deeper soul-searching alone one night in the Berkeley Hills watching planes take off from Oakland.

He thought about how he was squandering his life by doing “what most lost college students do — partying and partaking in every activity you could think of and not really going to class that much.”

He gazed at the planes and pictured where they were going, envisioning himself on various flights. One could be taking him home “with nothing to do — no career, no degree, no nothing, and forget about pro sports.”

Or, he thought, “I can be on that plane going somewhere great, somewhere exotic … It’s all up to me.”

Literally the next day, he said, snapping his fingers once more, his partying days were behind him and his workouts urgent.

“Cold-turkey everything,” he said. “My life radically changed.”

He became an All-America football player the next season, helped Cal to a Sweet 16 berth in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and was drafted 13th overall by the Chiefs when president and general manager Carl Peterson traded up to get him.

But the ultimate change was yet to come.

Resolving to be great

As a Chiefs reserve his rookie year, Gonzalez showed promise. But it was the failures of 1998 that proved vital in all to come next: Gonzalez had 59 catches … but dropped 16 passes.

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Tony Gonzalez spent 12 mostly stellar seasons in KC before being traded to Atlanta. He made the Pro Bowl a total of 14 times during his career. KC Star file photo

He remembers being benched and booed at home. His brother, from whom he became estranged after his football career, sent him a letter simply saying, “I don’t know who you are out there, but that ain’t the Tony I’ve seen. You are playing scared.”

“Best thing that ever happened to me. It was like a huge wakeup call,” he said. “Once again, you have a choice: I can do this and get beaten down by it, or I can change it and say I’ll never go through that again.

“And in the process of saying I’ll never go through that again, I better learn how not to ever go through that again.”

On team charters, Gonzalez immersed himself in motivational books (he has hundreds now) and morphed into obsessiveness.

From a book on Vince Lombardi, he was struck by the realization that “You’ll never be better than anybody else, consistently, if you’re doing what everybody else is doing.”

So he resolved to catch more practice passes than anyone ever. Maybe it was a million over his lifetime, he reckons, which would mean approximately 755 for every one of his 1,325 career receptions.

He’d try to get 100 catches before practice and then more on the sideline while others were taking a knee. After practice, in pads with helmet on and mouthpiece in, he’d look for 100-200 more.

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As big and strong as he was, Tony Gonzalez was always difficult to bring down. Cutting down on the number of passes he dropped helped make him elite. KC Star file photo

“He was different,” Peterson said. “He really, really wanted to be the very, very best, the very, very best that he could be.”

That zealous preparation naturally enhanced his skill-set. But it also changed a fragile mindset that might mean one drop would lead to another, to thinking “don’t drop it,” instead of, “It’s mine.”

Some might apply another meaning to that phrase — that Gonzalez was more consumed with himself than the team.

But Green scoffed at that, saying that even if he wished Gonzalez hadn’t lamented the change from a West Coast offense under Dick Vermeil, it never mattered “eye-to-eye” in the huddle or in Gonzalez’s habits — including trying to become a better blocker.

In 2008, though, Gonzalez found himself in the crosshairs of some Chiefs fans. Peterson was on the verge of indulging Gonzalez’s trade request when, for reasons that depend on one’s perspective, the prospective deals fell through.

“He was very angry that I didn’t do it,” Peterson recalled. “I said, ‘Tony, you’re too valuable to this organization.’ ”

With his request and disappointment publicly known, Gonzalez incurred the ire of fans even as he enjoyed one of his best seasons: 96 receptions, 10 touchdowns and 1,058 yards. Today, Gonzalez, who has an ongoing relationship with Peterson, looks back and thinks, “I probably wouldn’t have let me go, either.”

But when Scott Pioli succeeded Peterson in 2009, he traded Gonzalez to Atlanta for a second-round pick.

Gonzalez found more success in Atlanta, but he remains most distinguished by his time in Kansas City. He still hold numerous position and Chiefs records and notably is second only to Hall of Famer Will Shields in career starts for the Chiefs (223-174) after missing just two games from 1998-2008.

All of which helps explain why Peterson remains proud he held the line and wasn’t responsible for Gonzalez leaving.

And why Kansas City fans might go ahead and appreciate that Gonzalez is foremost a Chief … however it all comes out on Saturday.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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