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Tony Gonzalez — the reluctant football player who will now be enshrined in the Hall of Fame

Some kids dream about becoming sports stars, but one California kid just dreamed about having fun

NFL: NFL Honors-Red Carpet Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over a 17-year career, former Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez missed just two games. After his rookie season in 1997, he started all but two games. He had a streak of 211 consecutive games with a reception — the longest such streak for any tight end, and second only to wide receivers Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald.

It’s not enough to say that only two players had longer streaks. We need some perspective. The streak began on December 4, 2000, and ended with the final game of his career on December 29, 2013. That’s just over 13 years! Most NFL players never even play for that long — much less contribute meaningfully to their team’s success.

Up in the Arrowhead Stadium press box in the early 2000s, we used to chuckle whenever Gonzalez would get his first reception in a game. We knew that within moments, Chiefs public relations director Bob Moore’s voice would be coming over the PA system to tell us in how many consecutive games Gonzalez had a pass reception.

Along the way, Gonzalez would have 1,325 of them, gaining 15,127 receiving yards — the former the most among tight ends (second only to Rice), and the latter representing not only the most among tight ends, but also sixth among all receivers. He scored 111 touchdowns, ranking second among tight ends, and ninth among all receivers. No other player has been selected for the Pro Bowl more often. No other player scored two or more touchdowns in more seasons — something Gonzalez did in every season of his career.

Nor did Gonzalez just fade away. His best career game was in the final season, when he had 149 yards on 12 receptions (with two touchdowns) against the New England Patriots on September 29, 2013. That season, he had 859 yards — fourth-most among tight ends — on 83 catches, which was second only to tight end Jimmy Graham.

That’s why Tony Gonzalez will be donning that gold jacket at the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.

But how it came to happen is another story.

Tony Gonzalez was born in Huntington Beach, California in February 1976. He and his brother Chris — born two years earlier — were raised by their mother Judy. who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet.

But it was Chris that would have the greatest impact on Tony’s career.

For starters, he once saved Tony’s life.

When Tony was five, he and Chris were crossing the street and found themselves in the path of an oncoming car. Tony wasn’t old enough to realize the danger, but Chris was. He managed to get his younger brother out of the way, but was struck by the car. Chris was knocked unconscious, thrown a long distance and suffered a broken leg, but Tony was untouched.

More to the point of this story: unlike Tony, Chris was obsessed with football.

“I wasn’t that kid,” Tony recalled in a Sports Illustrated Brain on Sports podcast in 2016. “I didn’t want to be a professional athlete. I didn’t care. I just wanted to have fun. Chris is the one who made me go out there and play. He was the one who really guided me — especially when I was younger. I’m not even sure I would have played football if it wasn’t for him.”

And Chris would resort to whatever it would take to get Tony to play.

“Plenty of times, I wanted to go outside and throw some passes, and he didn’t want to do it,” Chris told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009. “So I would literally start a fight with him just to get him [angry] and get him up. Then, once he was already up, he’d say, ‘OK, let’s go outside and play.’”

First it was Pop Warner football, but Tony’s heart wasn’t in it.

“I quit after the first year,” Tony said. “The second year, I went out, and I was on the team, but I wasn’t ON the team. I was the worst kid on the team. I didn’t want to be out there. I didn’t have that mentality.”

For the soft-spoken young Tony, getting that mentality would require another step. Throughout the eighth grade, he was bullied by a bigger schoolmate. But during his middle school graduation — most of which he spent hiding from his tormentor — he finally took matters into his own hands and confronted the kid who had been terrorizing him.

The bully backed down.

“That bully changed his life forever,” Gonzalez’ stepfather Michael Saltzman told the Journal-Constitution. “After that, he was afraid of nothing.”

Tony went out for football in his freshman year of high school, but still remained lukewarm on the sport. Nonetheless, he was effective as a linebacker — the position Chris had been playing for HBHS. But by then, Tony had discovered basketball, and it occupied most of his attention. By his junior year, he was averaging 17 points and nine rebounds per game. College scouts started paying attention, and was named an All-USA Honorable Mention by USA Today. In his senior year, Gonzalez would break the HBHS career hoops scoring record.

But in football, he was really starting to shine. He was named an All-American at middle linebacker and tight end, where he gained 945 yards (and 13 touchdowns) on 62 receptions. Named MVP of both Orange County and the Sunset League, in 1994 he was also named the region’s High School Athlete of the Year.

He shared the award with Tiger Woods.

Gonzalez now had his pick of colleges, but he decided on the University of California-Berkeley. It was a shorter distance to drive, and the school had promised he’d be able to play both football and basketball.

He played both sports at Cal, but Gonzalez began to see that while he loved basketball, football was his future. On the court for the Bears, he was a backup; in his junior season, he averaged 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. But in the fall, he had racked up 699 yards and five touchdowns on 44 receptions under new head coach Steve Mariucci, and was named to the first string of both the All-Pac-10 and All-America teams.

The NFL was waiting, and Gonzalez decided for forgo his senior season.

But he would take with him an important lesson he learned during his sophomore season, as he related to the Talk of Fame podcast last week.

”[We were] playing against Stanford University in the big game — Cal-Berkley at Stanford — and I have a great game,” he said. “I actually had 150 yards receiving — I never did that in the pros — but toward the end of the game, we’re up and driving to ice the game, and they throw me a little out pattern and I fumbled the ball. They get the ball back, go down and score.”

The Bears lost the game 28-24.

“I remember after this great game, I was uncontrollably crying, because I felt like I had lost the game for the guys,” Gonzalez continued. “I remember that feeling, and it felt so so bad. I made a vow to myself: ‘I’ll never — ever — be a guy that fumbles again.’ It was so important to me. Whenever that ball was in my hands, it was like, ‘Man, you’ve got everyone’s hopes and dreams on the line.’ That’s the way I looked at it.”

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Marty Shottenheimer — who had brought Paul Hackett in as offensive coordinator in 1993 to provide the spark of a West Coast offense to the Chiefs under newly-acquired superstar quarterback Joe Montana — liked what he saw in Gonzalez. Not only did he come from a college program where he had thrived in a West Coast system under Mariucci, he was the kind of player that suited Schottenheimer’s basic instincts: big, strong and athletic.

Montana had retired after the 1994 season, and for the next two seasons had been replaced by former San Francisco 49ers backup Steve Bono. For 1997, the Chiefs had decided to hitch their wagon to a yet another former 49ers quarterback: Elvis Grbac. The Chiefs had also brought in veteran wide receiver Andre Rison as a go-to receiving option. With Gonzalez, the Chiefs thought they might finally be able to field an offense as good as their widely-feared defense.

So in the NFL Draft, they traded up five spots to take Gonzalez in the first round at number 13 overall.

And the plan worked.

In the 1997 season, the Chiefs ranked first in defense and fifth in offense, rolling to a 13-3 record and the number one seed in the AFC playoffs. But they faltered in the first game of the postseason, falling to John Elway and the Denver Broncos 14-10.

Gonzalez had caught the only touchdown the Chiefs scored that day. Absent a questionable out-of-bounds call at the end of the first half, he would have caught another that might have made the difference in the game. But in the end, he could only join his shell-shocked teammates in the quietest postgame Chiefs locker room I ever witnessed.

And his brother Chris — by now living with Gonzalez — was there to pick him up.

“He taught me to care a little more, to put more into it,” Tony told the Journal-Consitution in 2015. “He taught me to have passion and to get angry. After games, he hit harder than me. After losses, he helped me put things in perspective. We worked off each other. We counseled each other and picked each other up.”

Gonzalez would need the help. His debut NFL season hadn’t gone as well as he would have liked. Although he had become more comfortable by the end of the season — as evidenced by his performance in the postseason loss to Denver — he was targeted just 54 times in 1997, gaining only 368 yards on 38 catches.

The following season — when the Chiefs dropped below .500 for the first time since Schottenheimer’s arrival in 1989 — things would get worse. Gonzalez — now a starter who was getting twice as many targets as he had in his rookie season — led the league in dropped passes. The local media — remembering the out-of-bounds catch in the 1997 playoff game, bad call or not — started wondering if the Chiefs had missed with their first-round pick in the previous season.

Remembering his lesson from college, Gonzalez bore down, and started working on improving his game. He began taking extra practice time to improve his catching technique. By his third season, the hard work seemed to have turned it around — pushing his catch percentage from 58 percent in 1998 to 70 percent in 1999, when he gained 849 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. The media reversed its course. Stories began to appear about how Gonzalez’ new dedication was paying off on the field.

And it was. But there was more to it, as he revealed in the Talk of Fame podcast.

“My second year in the league, I led the league in dropped passes, and it was the best damn thing that ever happened to me,” he explained. “It wasn’t because I wasn’t trying or wasn’t working hard enough. [It was because] I wasn’t having as much fun. I [had] stopped going out. I [had] stopped drinking. I was young and single, and I wasn’t having that much fun. I was taking things way too seriously.

“So [when] I dropped the ball, I would let it just destroy me, instead of just saying, ‘Hell, I’ll catch the next one.’ I learned a lot about that. You have to be loose to play this game. You have to be loose in life. You have to be loose on television. It doesn’t matter what it is that you’re doing. If you’re not having fun, it ain’t worth it. So kick back, have a couple of drinks, go out if you feel like going out, but take care of business. You have to lock in and lock out. Work hard, play hard, and good things will happen.”

As a kid, Chris had pushed Tony onto the Pop Warner field, and Tony had resisted. He wanted to go have fun instead. Over time, though, he had learned that if he worked hard and respected his teammates, he could be good on the football field.

But his journey to the Hall of Fame truly began when he finally realized that to be great, he simply had to remember all the lessons he had learned, and still do what he always wanted to do: go out and have fun.

In 2000, Gonzalez would have one of his best seasons as a pro, gaining 1203 yards and scoring nine touchdowns — and not coincidentally, begin his 211-game streak of receptions.

Bob Moore would open the press box microphone to announce Gonzalez’ 131st consecutive game with a reception on December 28, 2008. It was the last time he would do so.

After enduring another heartbreaking divisional round playoff loss while holding the first seed in 2003 under Dick Vermeil — plus another wild card playoff loss in 2006 under Herm Edwards — Gonzalez had become disillusioned in Kansas City. Year after year, he had performed at a high level — he had made the Pro Bowl every year since 1999, and been named a first team All-Pro four times — but things weren’t working for the Chiefs. They were in free fall. By the middle of the 2008 season — his 12th — Gonzalez could hear the clock ticking.

”I had a couple of years left on my contract, but I was really trying to get out of Kansas City — not because I didn’t love it, but because I was getting toward the end of my career, and the window was closing,” he told the Talk of Fame. “I knew that the team we had in Kansas City [had] no shot in the next two years — that [we weren’t] a Super Bowl team. I asked for a trade. I asked Coach Edwards, ‘Why don’t we part — be nice to each other — and let me go to a contender, and you guys get a draft pick? That way, we’ll both win. We’ll all say we loved our time together, but it’s time to move on.’ They didn’t grant me that wish.”

But as we learned only this past October, negotiations had been underway to trade Gonzalez, but at the last minute, Chiefs GM Carl Peterson backed out of two deals that were under consideration. We described it as a “crazy story” when we told you about it in October, but Gonzalez has now confirmed his side of it.

“I do remember that after the trade deadline went down — I thought for sure I was getting out of there, [because] Carl Peterson told me I was going to be traded, but that didn’t happen — I had to come back and face my teammates. I went to Coach Herm, and I said, ‘Hey, you mind getting all these coaches out of the room? I want to talk to my teammates one-on-one.’ At this time, there was stuff being written in the media that I was abandoning the team. I was getting flak from players that had played before — Mike Ditka was one of them. I stood up in front of my teammates and told them flat-out: ‘Look, I’m not giving up on you guys.’ I told them what had happened, but I told them, ‘I am fully dedicated to this team.’

“It was a big growing experience for me,” Gonzalez said. “And I went out there and probably had my best season that I had ever played in the NFL — I think I was first-team All-Pro that year. We didn’t win too many games, but I brought it every single game. I always brought it, but I had extra incentive that year, because I wanted to make sure my teammates knew I wasn’t trying to abandon ship, by any means. I was just trying to win a Super Bowl. That’s all you could ever want. That’s why you play the game.”

True to his word, in 2008, Gonzalez gained 1058 yards, scored 11 touchdowns, was selected to the Pro Bowl and named an All-Pro — and the Chiefs finished the season 2-14.

Shortly afterward, new Chiefs GM Scott Pioli traded Gonzalez to the Atlanta Falcons for a second-round pick. Gonzalez would suffer two more early exits from the playoffs as a member of the Falcons, and in 2012, would play on the Falcons team that lost the NFC Championship 28-24 to the San Francsico 49ers.

Tony Gonzalez never dreamed of being a professional athlete. But as it happened, lacking that childhood dream might have made it possible for him to have an even bigger one. And while he never made that dream a reality, his peers have now given him their highest honor — one that says he abundantly deserved achieving it.

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