Vahe Gregorian

Chiefs greats Robinson, Gonzalez are Hall of Famers whose traits still resonate today

In Canton, Gonzalez speaks about Chiefs fans

On the eve of entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame, former Chiefs’ tight end Tony Gonzalez gives props to Chiefs’ fans.
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On the eve of entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame, former Chiefs’ tight end Tony Gonzalez gives props to Chiefs’ fans.

On the surface, Johnny Robinson and Tony Gonzalez’s paths to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and their lives before, during and after football couldn’t be more different.

Robinson grew up in Louisiana, the son of a Baptist deacon. As a teen, he was as promising at tennis as he was football. Despite endless health issues and what is now halting speech, most of his life since retirement has been dedicated to what is essentially a family ministry, the Johnny Robinson Boys Home. He lives modestly in Monroe, Louisiana.

Gonzalez grew up in southern California, his first memories in poverty as his single mother toiled to provide. Skateboarding and surfing were his passions before he embraced basketball and, finally, football. A portrait of health and vitality, the outspoken Gonzalez remains visible as a Fox Sports NFL analyst who will debut his own podcast this fall. He lives in an opulent Beverly Hills home.

Robinson was an original Chief, joining the franchise at its inception as the Dallas Texans in 1960 three years before the move to Kansas City. His tenure spanned a golden era under Hank Stram, and as a safety he was crucial to three AFL championships and the Chiefs’ lone Super Bowl triumph 50 seasons ago. There is a certain symmetry to the fact his last game (in which he suffered a severe groin injury) was the fateful Christmas Day 1971 playoff loss to Miami that proved a pivot point in the team’s fortunes.

Gonzalez played for the Chiefs from 1997-2008, a period during which they had four more coaches (and a fifth on the way) than playoff wins (zero) and went 6-26 his last two seasons. By 2008, he sought a trade and was dealt to Atlanta in 2009 —part of what seems a tepid embrace of Gonzalez by Chiefs fans now, even if the sentiment isn’t shared.

“I got a chance to play for some of the great fans ever, fanatical fans, especially in Kansas City,” Gonzalez said Friday, continuing to express affection for Kansas City that was overlooked in February when he said Atlanta had made his career. “There’s no greater … They’re in Atlanta, too, but there’s just not as many of them. In Kansas City, it’s a whole city of getting behind their players and the organization. Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

Most in contrast: Gonzalez, 43, was born five years after Robinson’s career ended and enters the HOF as its first first-ballot tight end; Robinson, 80, will go in as this year’s senior finalist — long after being a six-time finalist in the 1980s. Robinson will be the sixth Chief from that defense in the Hall of Fame, a milestone matched only by the Packers of the 1960s.

For all those differences, though, the first longtime Chiefs to enter the Hall of Fame on the same day (Ty Law of this year’s class also spent two seasons with the Chiefs) have substantial points in common …

With echoes to today’s game and reverberations for today’s Chiefs.

Elite blueprints

In tight end Travis Kelce, they feature a descendant of Gonzalez’s influence on the position. And the tribute to Robinson highlights what the Chiefs have been lacking of late: defense.

And their hopes of at last returning to a Super Bowl must at least partly duplicate the 1969 blueprint that featured a defense rising up from a horrendous performance in its last postseason game.

Those Chiefs came into the 1969 season off a 41-6 loss to Oakland in a Western Division playoff game; these Chiefs are coming off a 37-31 overtime loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game.

That’s why they virtually purged their defense this offseason, from replacing defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and most of his staff with Steve Spagnuolo and his assistants to changing schemes and shedding the likes of Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Dee Ford in favor of Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark and others.

While the shuffle isn’t likely to produce one of the best defenses in pro football history, as the 1969 unit became, any improvement from a year ago could make for a breakthrough with a Patrick Mahomes-led offense.

More specific to their shared personal legacies, Robinson and Gonzalez redefined their positions in 12 seasons each with the franchise.

Their stunning statistics (Gonzalez ultimately had 1,325 receptions, second-most in NFL history; in 10 seasons on defense, Robinson had 57 interceptions) tell only part of that story.

While linebacker Willie Lanier was calling plays from the middle, giving direction to the front four and linebackers …

“Johnny was taking care of the back end. And the back end is what protects you from the errant decisions and protects you from the easy seven (points) or three — and that’s the ballgame,” Lanier, already Hall of Famer, said Thursday.

Bobby Bell, who in 1983 became the first Chief inducted to the Hall of Fame, talked about the trust Robinson created. Knowing he was on the back line meant never having to look over your shoulder.

“He had our back, protecting us,” Bell said Wednesday.

That trust often was rewarded in the most crucial times.

When the Chiefs still were in Dallas in 1962, Robinson had two interceptions and a hit that prevented a touchdown in the AFL title game, a 20-17 overtime win against the Houston Oilers. In the 1966 AFL title game against Buffalo, his 72-yard interception return helped spring the Chiefs into the first Super Bowl. Playing with three broken ribs, he had an interception and a fumble recovery in the 23-7 Super Bowl victory over the Vikings.

All of that explains why fellow 2019 inductee Ed Reed sought out Robinson when the class was announced in Atlanta before the Super Bowl.

“I always like to thank the pavers that came before me. They’re the reason why the game has evolved … It’s the reason why you see these safeties doing certain things now because of what they’ve seen us do,” Reed said Friday.

With a smile, he added, “Giving him his flowers while he’s here, man.”

When the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame class was announced in February, Ed Reed went out of his way to congratulate senior finalist Johnny Robinson. He explained why on Friday.

Gonzalez was similarly influential in the evolution of his position, as former Chiefs coach and TV analyst Dick Vermeil observed.

“Every game, you see someone go in the air and catch a ball that in the old days would be an exception; you just never saw that,” said Vermeil, who coached the Chiefs from 2001-05. “Now you see it every week, and Tony Gonzalez was one of the early contributors to showing … what they can do in the air.”

Part of Gonzalez’s body control and mid-air adjustments were owing to a basketball background that made him a two-sport star at the University of California. Part of it came from zealous dedication that included constantly working on nuances, such as pass-pattern cuts.

It made for results that might feel familiar.

“I think (Kelce) is a disciple of Tony Gonzalez,” Vermeil said. “Tony showed him how.”

Don’t take Vermeil’s word for it.

“Tony set the bar,” Kelce said in December, adding, “I don’t know if I can catch No. 88, but it’s an absolute honor playing in his shadow.”

Driven to win

Something else links Robinson and Gonzalez: a quenchless intensity to win that might be called a Hall of Fame mindset.

That started with remarkable durability. Robinson missed just four of 168 regular-season games; after his rookie year, Gonzalez missed only two starts in his final 16 seasons.

“I’m proud of that,” Gonzalez said, adding that he had played through injuries because “you have to be there for your teammates.”

The pain Robinson played through in Super Bowl IV made his will to win abundantly clear in itself; the pain Gonzalez was left in after Chiefs’ losses made that statement, too, along with what many consider an inimitable work ethic.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a player who demonstrated more how he hated losing,” Vermeil said. “In the locker room after a loss, he just didn’t handle it well. He didn’t like it emotionally. It was real to him. It was a really bad experience. …

“There was not an acceptance bone in his body for losing.”

Asked if that accounts for Gonzalez seeking a trade as he was aging and hoping to play in a Super Bowl, Vermeil said, “I think maybe he lost confidence in (the franchise’s direction) and wanted to go somewhere where they could get it done.”

But Vermeil considered Gonzalez a team player, calling him a joy to coach and a “truly gifted person in every way: athletically, character-wise, integrity-wise.”

Never mind that Gonzalez has let on that he didn’t initially love playing in Vermeil’s offense.

“I don’t think anybody as gifted as Tony ever thinks he gets the ball enough to take advantage of his skills,” Vermeil said, laughing. “And that’s good. That’s good.”

Now, Robinson and Gonzalez will share some other things: gold jackets and busts in Canton.

Just the same, the divergent nature of their journeys naturally makes this resonate in a different way when it comes to Robinson.

It’s been a long time coming.

As Lanier reflected on what this means in Robinson’s life, he thought about the recent death of Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who was named to this Hall of Fame class in February.

And he thought of what it would be like for Robinson to bask in this with his family and friends — and for the rest of his life be able to sign autographs punctuated with “HOF19,” or its variations.

“That,” Lanier said, “becomes a significant joy.”

One shared by two quite different men whose legacies nonetheless are tethered by their time as Chiefs, their influence on the game and, as of Saturday, by simultaneously entering the Hall of Fame.

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