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Tony Gonzalez makes amends with Chiefs fans during Hall of Fame speech

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, the former Chiefs tight end appeared to be trying to mend his complicated relationship with Kansas City fans

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame-Enshrinement Ceremony Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Former Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez was formally enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, giving a 40-minute acceptance speech — one that appeared to be directed primarily at Kansas City fans.

Among many Chiefs fans, Gonzalez has been a sore subject ever since he was traded to the Atlanta Falcons after the 2008 season. Perceptions didn’t improve in February, when Gonzalez — just named a finalist for the Hall of Fame — told Atlanta reporters that playing for the Falcons had “made my career.”

Gonzalez’ statement had actually been a bit more nuanced than that — but in the age of social media, the headline is often all that matters.

So on Saturday night, while Gonzalez did spend some time speaking of the five years he spent playing for the Falcons, he mostly spoke of his 12 seasons in Kansas City.

Speaking in front of a large video screen picturing him in a Chiefs road uniform — and in front of his wife October, who was wearing a Kansas City home jersey bearing Gonzalez’ name and number — he first spoke about fellow Hall of Famers like former Chiefs Will Shields, Willie Roaf, Warren Moon and Marcus Allen. He credited all of them with inspiration and support — but particularly Allen.

”During my rookie year, I hit what is called ‘the rookie wall.’ I was struggling,” Gonzalez recalled. “Marcus — whom I didn’t know that well — came up to me and said, ‘Hey. Give me your phone number. I’m going to give you a call.’ I had no idea what he wanted. He called me that night and said, ‘Keep your head up. You got this. Don’t worry about a thing.’ That means a lot. It taught me going forward how to treat all the young players.”

He specifically thanked every Chiefs quarterback who ever threw him a pass — which was a pretty long (and not necessarily distinguished) list during that period of Chiefs history.

”I want to thank Lamar Hunt and Norma Hunt — and Clark Hunt now — for taking a chance on me,” Gonzalez said. “I really appreciate you guys. I want to thank Carl Peterson for trading up — they had the 18th pick that year and traded up to 13th. Thank you for taking that chance on me. I know we had our battles during contract negotiations, but we always got it done.”

Gonzalez thanked Jimmy Raye — who was offensive coordinator during Gonzalez’ third season in Kansas City — “for using me in ways I never knew I could be used... moving me all over the field.”

He called Marty Schottenheimer one of the “greatest coaches of all time,” and said the former Chiefs head coach’s words still echo in his ears: “This is a performance-driven business, men. If you don’t perform, you won’t be in business too long.”

But Gonzalez’ kindest words for a Chiefs coach were reserved for Dick Vermeil.

”Sometimes coaching transcends just coaching,” he said. “It becomes a friendship. It’s more than just being there in the locker room. The epitome of someone like that is coach Vermeil. He is the greatest. He would open up his home to all the players. he and his wife Carol would make home-cooked meals and serve bottles of wine. They treated everybody the same. I loved you for that, coach, and I appreciate you.”

Then he turned his attention specifically to Chiefs fans. He recalled his first game in Arrowhead Stadium — when he didn’t realize that something unusual was going to happen at the end of the National Anthem. He sang the last line of the anthem, and the audience obliged with Arrowhead’s famous “home of the CHIEFS” ending.

”There’s nothing else like playing at Arrowhead Stadium,” Gonzalez declared. “After I [was] traded to Atlanta, I came back to Kansas City to play a football game. I was on the other side of the ball, and I wasn’t sure how the fans were going to treat me. So I was worried about it all week long. During the pregame, they introduced me — which I thought was very special.

“Then something happened that was one of the greatest moments of my career.” he remembered. “The Chiefs fans started yelling at the top of their lungs. I looked over at my teammate Sam Baker, and he said, ‘Wow. That is really special.’

“And so you Kansas City Chiefs fans, know how much I appreciated you — and how much I cherished the relationships before the game, after the game, coming out to the parking lot... getting cookies... burritos... words of encouragement. I love you guys. Thank you.”

Gonzalez also spoke of his second year with the Chiefs, in which he led the NFL in dropped passes. He was benched twice and booed by the home crowd. Newspaper articles identified him as a bust.

”And it hurt,” Gonzalez said. ”Nobody likes that. I remember being in my room. Crying. Depressed. Drinking. In a deep hole. The more it seems you are depressed, the harder it is to get out. I was stuck there for a while — throughout that whole season — until my brother Donnie wrote me a letter. It said, ‘Hey, Tony. I don’t know what we’re seeing out there, but that’s not you. It’s not you. Get back to being Tony. You can do this.’”

Football - NFL - Chiefs vs. Chargers Photo by Matt A. Brown /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

His brother had included a book of Vince Lombardi quotes with the letter. After reading it, Gonzalez said he did something he hadn’t done since the seventh grade: he bought a book — this one a biography of Lombardi. More books about other great players and coaches followed — and Gonzalez said he devoured them.

”I started learning the process — the routine of success — that makes a player great,” he said.

”This is why the Hall of Famers sit up here — because they’re different,” Gonzalez explained. ”I don’t know if it’s more athleticism, but I don’t believe it is. I believe it’s in here — in your heart — and it’s in your mind. It finally clicked for me once I learned how to do that. So I changed my whole routine. Before, I’d go to practice and catch maybe 20 or 30 balls. Believe it or not, that’s all receivers usually catch. Now I said, ‘I’m going to take a page out of Will Shields’ book. While the defense is going, I’m gonna catch balls.’ I would catch 10, 15, 20 balls while the defense was going. Before practice, I’d go out early. I’d catch 100 balls before practice even started.”

Gonzales said that it was the adversity he endured that made his career.

”That is the reason I’m standing here,” he said. “It’s not about the touchdowns. It’s not about the catches. It’s not about the glory. The most learning you will ever do is when you go through the bad times — in fact, that’s part of it. So welcome that when it comes — because I know what it’s done for me.”

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