The Transformative Power of Tony Gonzalez

Aug. 03, 2009
Aug. 03, 2009

Table of Contents
Aug. 3, 2009

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The Transformative Power of Tony Gonzalez

Is he the best tight end ever? That's up for debate. What isn't in question is his determination to help turn the upstart Falcons into Super Bowl contenders

The securityguard manning the checkpoint of the gated community overlooking the Pacific ispleased to inform you that your name is on the list. A series of lefts bringsyou to the street where Tony Gonzalez lives, in a Spanish-style home that,while not gauche or over the top, isn't quite small enough to be called aMcMansion. ¶ As you pull up to the house, a stunning woman in a white RangeRover is pulling out. Tony's wife, October, bestows a dazzling smile upon you.The family is off to Italy the next day, and she has errands to run. ¶ You walkup the driveway and enter a small courtyard, past the garage containing, amongother items, a tandem bike and a set of free weights. Following a path to theleft, you come upon a backyard that is part Mediterranean hideaway, part TonyG's Water Park 'n' Fun Zone. A putting green abuts the basketball court, hardby the grass volleyball court, from where it is but a short walk to the hottub, which serves as the headwaters for a miniwaterfall that gurgles into thepool.

This is an article from the Aug. 3, 2009 issue

The cars, thetoys, the smoking-hot wife, the theme park posing as a backyard—it's all parfor the course (or putting green) for today's professional athlete. Gonzalezhasn't come out of his house yet, but you feel as if you already have a handleon the guy. Then he appears on his patio, invites you to sit and startsanswering questions. Over the next hour you are reminded again and again whyit's a bad idea to judge people before you get to know them.

Gonzalez, 33, isone of the best tight ends in NFL history. In 12 seasons with the Kansas CityChiefs he caught 916 passes for 10,940 yards and 76 touchdowns. Twenty-sixtimes he had more than 100 yards receiving in a game. All these are NFL recordsfor his position. But on the Thursday before last spring's NFL draft, theChiefs traded their 10-time Pro Bowl selection to the Atlanta Falcons for asecond-round pick next year. When training camp opens this week, Gonzalez willbe wearing a uniform other than the Chiefs' for the first time since hiscollege days as a football and basketball star at Cal.

It bears notingthat Gonzalez is thinking of franchising his Xtreme Clean 88, a commercialcleaning business. "We do carpet cleaning, construction cleanup, evencrime-scene cleanup," he says. In that case the company's services might berequired in the Chiefs' offices, because a lot of people think the Falconsstole Gonzalez.

First-year Chiefsgeneral manager Scott Pioli dealt the future Hall of Famer in part becauseGonzalez wanted to put the franchise in his rearview mirror. He was not at theend of his career, but he could see it from Kansas City last season, as theChiefs lost 14 games, worst in the AFC and most in team history. "While wewere struggling," he recalls, "I was reading My Losing Season, by PatConroy. It was about his college [basketball] team. They were horrible, but helearned a lot about himself during that time. I agree—you do learn the mostabout yourself, you grow as a person, when you go through tough times. And Ifeel I've done enough learning and growing to last me the next fiveyears."

Conroy's is thefirst of a half-dozen books Gonzalez mentions during the conversation—notincluding the two he's cowritten. The first was Catch & Connect, achildren's book in which he detailed his diverse ancestry ("My mother'sfamily includes African-Americans, Caucasians and Native Americans. My father'sheritage is Jamaican, Portuguese and Scottish") and his struggles growingup ("There was a time when playing football frightened me.... I was kind ofa geek and a coward. Girls ignored me").

His second book,The All-Pro Diet, will be released on Aug. 18. Written with his nutritionist,Mitzi Dulan, it is Gonzo's guide to "losing weight, gaining muscle andliving a healthier life." His regimen is not the sort that Artie Donovan,for one, might have appreciated. Three years ago, Gonzalez says, he switched toa "whole foods, plant-based diet—completely vegan. At first I had to learnto get my protein. I wasn't getting enough lentils." He eventuallyconcluded that veganism might not be wise for someone whose job includespower-blocking 290-pound defensive ends. "So I started educating myself onhow much meat is O.K., what types of meat are O.K.," he says. "It'sbeen a learning process."

Gonzalez did notcasually make the decision to alter his diet so radically. He had twotriggering events. Before recounting them, he asks a visitor if he has read TheTransformative Power of Crisis, by Robert M. Alter and Jane Alter. No? Herecommends it.

Three years ago,after suffering a two-day headache, Gonzalez began to feel numb on the rightside of his face. He responded to this alarming development by ... waiting forit to go away. Finally October told him, "Something's wrong. You could behaving a stroke. You're going to the hospital." Gonzalez received adiagnosis of Bell's Palsy, a facial paralysis caused by a malfunctioning nerve.The condition responded well to acupuncture, and he has not had arecurrence.

A bigger scarecame at a minicamp about a month later. After having blood drawn during a teamphysical, Gonzalez was approached by an anguished-looking Chiefs trainer, whotold him he needed a second test. "Something came up in your blood,"the trainer said. The more Gonzalez pressed him to be specific ("F------TELL ME!"), the more evasive the trainer was. After giving blood a secondtime, Gonzalez took a call from a doctor who'd analyzed the first results."There's something very wrong here," the doctor said. Gonzalez'swhite-blood-cell count was way off. How did he feel? Was his energy low? Was hebruising easily?

"I told him,'No, I feel great!'" Gonzalez says. "He said, 'Well, these tests arenot usually wrong.'"

Gonzalez'sinitial blood work suggested that he had leukemia. The results from the secondtest would be back in a half hour. Gonzalez recalls spending part of that timedriving around in a rented Ford Explorer, tears streaming down his face, morescared than he'd ever been. The doctor called back on schedule to inform him... that there had been a mix-up. It must have been someone else's blood they'dbeen looking at.

Later that day,on a 3½-hour flight to Los Angeles, Gonzalez recalls, "I was just lookingout the window, thinking about what's important in life. And I decided, I'mgonna go for it with the whole nutrition thing." As it happened, he washalfway through Colin Campbell's The China Study, which links Americans' highrates of obesity, diabetes and cancer to an unhealthy diet. "It'sscary," Gonzalez says. "I know these fast-food restaurants do greatcharity work, but some of that food they're serving is, like, poison. It's abig problem. The more I read about it, the more I wanted to get the word out.So I wrote a book."

Eager todemonstrate that he also reads, a visitor mentions Michael Pollan's provocativeThe Omnivore's Dilemma. "Great book," says Gonzalez, who has read it,of course.

An air hornpierces the humidity over the practice field of the Falcons, who are well intothe second hour of a "voluntary" workout on this afternoon in May. Thenext drill will be seven-on-seven. The offense gathers around a tall, intenseplayer. Matt Ryan, the second-year quarterback out of Boston College, istelling his guys that he's tired of the defensive players "coming over hereand talking about how they're gonna shut us down. That's bull----!"

A few minuteslater Ryan zips a 35-yard pass to an aperture between two defensive backs.Splitting them at the last instant, Gonzalez latches on to the back end of theball as it zips past. It is a sensational catch, and a shout goes up from theoffensive side, directed at the defense: "Get used to it!"

Gonzalez couldget used to a steady diet of Ryan, who ran away with last season's offensiveRookie of the Year award, completing 61.1% of his passes while leading Atlantato an 11--5 record and a wild-card playoff spot. The numbers the tight end putup in Kansas City, year after year, are all the more impressive consideringthat he never worked with a topflight quarterback. Ryan, says Gonzalez,"will be the best quarterback I've ever had." And Gonzalez will be asignificant upgrade at tight end over the perfectly serviceable Justin Peelleand Ben Hartsock, taking considerable pressure off the young quarterback. Lastyear teams sometimes slowed Atlanta's attack by loading the box againstpowerhouse running back Michael Turner (who rushed for a career-high 1,699yards) or by doubling Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White (88 catches, 1,382 yards). Apremier receiving threat like Gonzalez, says coach Mike Smith, "obviouslygives us another option."

Smith likens agreat tight end to a chessboard queen. "You can put him in-line, in theslot, in the backfield," even split him out, the coach says. "We canput him all over the place to create mismatches."

"Dude is amismatch-makin' machine," declares linebacker Mike Peterson, a first-yearFalcon who has knocked heads with Gonzalez for the last decade while playingfor the Colts and the Jaguars. Ozzie Newsome agrees. The Hall of Fame tightend, now general manager of the Baltimore Ravens, puts Gonzalez in a class withthe greatest at his position: John Mackey, Mike Ditka, Jimmie Giles, JackieSmith, Shannon Sharpe. (Newsome, who ranks near or at the top of that list, istoo modest to include himself.) "Whenever we scouted Kansas City,"recalls the Wizard, "the first thing you said was, 'We've got to neutralizeTony Gonzalez,' which is like saying you've got neutralize Adrian Peterson orRandy Moss." In other words, good luck.

Atlanta swung thedeal for Gonzalez thanks to the savvy of second-year G.M. Thomas Dimitroff, aonetime Bill Belichick mentee who worked with Pioli in New England. There,Dimitroff recalls, "we always thought about dealing in future picks. I knewScott would be open if I suggested a second-rounder next year."

While Gonzalezbelieves the youthful Chiefs have a bright future, he wasn't willing to waitaround for it. "We're young," he says of his new squad, "but not asyoung as we were in Kansas City. Here it's a lot of third- and fourth- andfifth-year guys. They're hungry; they're desperate to make an impact. There areno prima donnas."

Everyone in theorganization has noticed that the Falcon with the most cause to behave like aprima donna is, in fact, the one who stays after practice running extra routes,honing his footwork, catching extra balls. "He comes out here; he knows howto work; he takes care of his body," Ryan says of Gonzalez. "Hisactions speak very loudly."

His work ethicisn't the only thing worth emulating. Back on his patio in California, Gonzalezticks off the destinations he and October and their toddler, Malia, areplanning to hit on their upcoming trip. (They will be accompanied by Nikko,Tony's eight-year-old son from a previous relationship.) "Let's see,"Gonzalez says. "Rome, Florence, the Amalfi coast, then over to the Greekislands of Mykonos and Santorini."

While plenty ofhis NFL colleagues use the off-season to boat and fish and lower their golfhandicaps, Gonzalez sees the world. He's spent a month each in Mexico, CostaRica and the Dominican Republic over the past several years—"to experiencea different culture," he says, "and learn Spanish." With so muchdowntime, he says, "I'm a big advocate of reading, educating yourself,getting out there, living your life.

"Not thatthere's anything wrong with sitting around and playing a bunch of golf, hittingthe nightclubs. I did that my first two years [in the NFL]. But after a whileyou just go numb." Gonzalez's warning to his peers: "Keep the brainworking, dude. If you're not careful, the NFL can make you stupid."

Here, then, isthe wonder of Tony Gonzalez. The man with the freakish physical skills, the guywith the theme park in his backyard, believes there is no real living without alife of the mind.

Now on
Training camp postcards from Peter King and the rest of SI's NFL crew

"They're desperate to make an impact,"Gonzalez says of his new teammates. "There are no prima donnas."
PHOTOPhotograph by CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDEALWAYS ON THE BALL Gonzalez brings almost every tight end receiving mark—plus one of the NFL's most inquisitive minds—to Atlanta.PHOTOJIMMY CRIBB[See caption above]PHOTOGREG NELSONAN EARLY READ At minicamp in May, owner Arthur Blank got hands-on with the Falcons' biggest off-season acquisition.PHOTOPAUL ABELL/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]