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Career Arc: Tony Gonzalez

Tracking the greatest tight end in the history of the NFL on the eve of his final game

Troy Aikman’s golf game altered the course of NFL history. In early March 1997, Aikman received a strange request from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jay Novacek, Dallas’s Pro Bowl tight end, had missed the 1996 season because of a degenerative back problem, and without him the Cowboys’ offense had fallen flat just a year after winning the Super Bowl. The back was bad enough that Novacek planned to retire, leaving the Cowboys desperate for a tight end. Jones was wondering whether Aikman would be willing to accompany him to work out some of the top prospects in April’s draft. Aikman agreed, but with one condition — as an All-Pro in the middle of his offseason, each workout would have to double as a golf outing. So in late March, just a few days before Aikman teed off at Pebble Beach, he rode with Jones to Huntington Beach High School, where he threw passes to a young tight end named Tony Gonzalez.

Quarterbacks of Troy Aikman’s stature typically don’t attend draft workouts, and when Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson heard that Aikman had been on hand to see Gonzalez, he took notice. An All-American who’d skipped his senior season at Cal, Gonzalez wasn’t likely to be around past the middle of the first round, and if the Cowboys wanted him it would mean trading up from the 25th pick. The Cowboys’ interest, along with rumblings from Gonzalez’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, were enough to spur Peterson into action.

On the morning of the draft, Peterson called another UCLA acquaintance, Tennessee Oilers general manager Floyd Reese — whom he’d known since they both had been assistant coaches at UCLA back in the mid-’70s — and asked if he would be interested in moving down a few picks in the first round. Reese seemed receptive, and when Gonzalez was still on the board when Houston was on the clock with the 13th pick, Peterson called again. The asking price was Kansas City’s first-round pick and third- and sixth-round picks. Peterson jumped at the offer. With the 13th overall pick, Tony Gonzalez was officially a Kansas City Chief.

The Cowboys did eventually move up, from 25 to 22, where they took LSU tight end David LaFleur. Aikman had also thrown to LaFleur before the draft, and he’d been impressed. Figuring Gonzalez would likely be off the board when the Cowboys picked, Aikman told the Cowboys brass he was onboard with LaFleur. But when it came time for Jones to explain the pick, his take was a bit different. “Jerry stands up and says, ‘Troy wanted David LaFleur,'” Aikman says. “So everyone here in Dallas thinks I picked David LaFleur over Tony Gonzalez. That couldn’t be further from the truth. They never asked me, ‘Which one do you want?'”

“And then Tony went on to do what he did.”

All Gonzalez did was build the greatest career by a tight end in football history. Gonzalez’s numbers defy belief. On Sunday he became the fifth player in NFL history to total 15,000 receiving yards. Shannon Sharpe is second among tight ends with 10,060. Gonzalez has been to the Pro Bowl 13 times. Just five players have more receiving touchdowns than his 110. Only Jerry Rice has caught more passes.

Gonzalez’s accomplishments were made possible by a durability, a consistency, and a sustainability never before seen from a player at his position. But his greatest contribution to football may be that his legacy is so much more than a compilation of surreal statistics. Next Sunday will be the end of Gonzalez’s 17th — and final — season, and in that decade and a half, he’s managed to redefine everything we expect from an NFL tight end.

Gonzalez was raised in Huntington Beach by Judy Gonzalez, a single mother. As a Southern California native named Gonzalez, many assumed that Tony was Hispanic. But his surname is actually the result of a mix-up at Ellis Island decades earlier.1 His grandfather was from Cape Verde, and his last name — Goncals — was mistyped on his entry papers.

As a kid, Gonzalez wasn’t active in team sports. He preferred skateboarding and time at the beach. “We surfed the same pier, the Huntington Beach pier,” Peterson, a Long Beach native says. “I used to joke with him that his feet were probably big enough that he didn’t need the board.” When Gonzalez did start playing sports, under heavy pressure from his older brother, Chris, it was basketball where he excelled.

By the time Gonzalez got to high school, football and basketball had reached almost even ground. Keith Gilbertson had heard about Gonzalez after his junior season at Huntington, but when the head coach at Cal got his first copy of Gonzalez’s senior film, he realized he was dealing with something — and someone — different. “I’ve been around Super Bowls, national championships in college,” says Gilbertson, “and as a high school recruit, he was as good as I’ve ever seen.” Gonzalez played tight end, fullback, middle linebacker, and defensive end for Huntington Beach. “He did everything,” says Steve Mariucci, Gonzalez’s coach during his final season at Cal. “He probably chalked the lines and sold popcorn, too.”

Cal was just one of the dozens of schools vying for Gonzalez, but Gilbertson was willing to offer him a chance many others weren’t. That winter, Gilbertson traveled to Huntington Beach to watch Gonzalez play basketball, and one game was enough to convince him Gonzalez should pursue both.

The Bears struggled in Gonzalez’s first two years, and after Gilbertson was fired following the 1995 season, Cal hired Mariucci, who’d spent the previous four years as the quarterbacks coach for the Green Bay Packers. He’d kept tabs on Cal during his time in the NFL, and he was well aware of the player he’d be getting in Gonzalez. That spring, Mariucci looked on as Gonzalez contributed to a Cal basketball team that went to the NCAA tournament.

Tony Gonzalez “When you watched him play, there was a skill set from basketball that would show up on the football field,” Mariucci says. “Even if someone was right next to him, Tony would still come up with it because he was able to use his body to be in between the defender and the ball. He would catch the ball with his hands away from his body, much like you’d rebound a basketball at its highest point. Those kind of catches would surface every game.”

After a 4-0 start in Mariucci’s first season, Cal traveled to Los Angeles in early October to play 17th-ranked USC. It had been 26 years since the Golden Bears had won at the Coliseum, but in the team hotel the night before the game, Mariucci told his team that’s where the streak would end. “I was giving them reasons we were going to win that game,” says Mariucci, “and one of the reasons was, ‘Tony Gonzalez, there’s nobody on the field as good as you. You’re the best man on the field tomorrow.’ And he proved me right.”

On a pivotal fourth-and-2, Mariucci called West Right Slot Fake 95 Keep Y Corner — the last part meaning Gonzalez would be headed to the back corner of the end zone. Gonzalez hauled in the pass for a touchdown, and Cal left the Coliseum with a 22-15 win.

Gonzalez caught five touchdowns in all that year and finished with almost 700 yards. By the end of the season, his name was being mentioned as a possible first-round pick, if he chose to enter the draft early. The team had struggled after its 5-0 start, but the Bears still finished 6-5 and were invited to the Aloha Bowl, to be played on Christmas Day. On the morning the bus left for the airport, a car full of Cal players got into an accident on the way to campus. The injuries weren’t serious, but they were enough to prevent a handful of defensive players from suiting up in the bowl.

“We were short linebackers, and Tony came to me and said, ‘Coach, I used to play linebacker in high school. Let me go both ways,'” Mariucci says. “He was so eager to play and to help and do whatever he could to help us win. Some guys would say, ‘I want to protect myself for the NFL.’ This guy wanted to start both ways.”

Mariucci managed to talk Gonzalez out of playing linebacker, but it was the last bit of convincing Mariucci would pull off in Berkeley. When the time came for Gonzalez to choose between his senior year and the draft, his coach’s pitch wasn’t enough to keep him in school. “I was really reaching,” Mariucci says. Gonzalez chose the NFL. Two weeks later, Mariucci followed him, as the newest head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. “He’s got more yards, more catches, more touchdowns than every tight end draft class put together,” Mariucci says. “So much for telling him he should stay.”

The Oilers were an organization without a home as they prepared for the 1997 draft. After a move from Houston, their base of operations consisted of a dozen double-wide trailers just outside Nashville. Reese made his office in a spare room of a medical center in nearby Bellevue, and it was there that he first got the call from Peterson.

While the player evaluation side of the draft is a months-long slog, draft-day trades are a last-minute business. Peterson’s call came on the morning of the draft. The two had known each other for the better part of 25 years, since they’d both been coaches at UCLA. Reese knew that Gonzalez was the player Peterson coveted, and with Pro Bowl tight end Frank Wycheck already in the fold for Tennessee, Gonzalez was worth more to Kansas City than to Reese. When Tennessee went on the clock later that day, Reese pulled the trigger and netted his needy Oilers two more picks in the process.

“It wasn’t a debate,” says Al Saunders, Kansas City’s wide receivers coach at the time. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh gosh, should we take this guy?’ If he was there, and we had a chance to move up to the 13th pick, it was a unanimous decision.”

“I always had that feeling inside, that gut feeling I was going to be a Kansas City Chief,” Gonzalez said at the time. “They were one of the first teams to contact me. I had the best visit to their team. It’s a real joy to be a part of that team.”

Peterson had his man, but the process of signing Gonzalez came with a small but unforeseen complication. Steinberg hadn’t gotten rich by accident, and when the time for contract negotiations came, he pressed Peterson with leverage specific to Gonzalez. “Leigh says to me, ‘Congratulations, Carl, you’ve drafted an extraordinary athlete here. But you know, Tony Gonzalez can also play pro basketball, so you’re going to have to pay him more than the 12th pick in the draft based on last year’s numbers.'”

Lamar Hunt owned the Chiefs and an MLS team, the Columbus Crew, but he was also a minority stakeholder in the Chicago Bulls until his death in 2006. Each year, Peterson would travel to Chicago to take in a Bulls game, and that’s where he met Jerry Krause — the team’s general manager during its ’90s dynasty. Shortly after Steinberg made his claim, Peterson called Krause. “He said, ‘Carl, if you’re asking me, Tony needs to make his living in the NFL because he’s not going to make it in the NBA,'” Peterson says. Steinberg lost his leverage, and Gonzalez signed a contract with standard terms for a no. 12 pick.

Tony Gonzalez Gonzalez was named the Chiefs’ starting tight end in his second season. “I think Tony is the key,” offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye told the Associated Press before the 1998 season. “I truly believe that Tony is the key.” His second season started slow, with a healthy number of dropped passes and only 35 catches in his first 11 games.

“One of the sportswriters in the city grades performances,” Gonzalez told Sports Illustrated that season. “He gave me a D-minus. I’d never gotten a D-minus in anything. D-minus? People were stopping me on the street, calling me at home, asking what was the matter. I didn’t have an answer. I’d never worked so hard preparing for a season. I’d put in all these hours in the weight room, out on the field, and I had nothing to show for it. I was confused.”

Raye told Gonzalez to relax, to simply do what he’d done for years, and he simplified his tight end’s role to help that happen. In the final five weeks, Gonzalez hauled in 24 passes. “He had an insatiable appetite to get better,” Peterson says. “He would read motivational books on the charters — getting better, how to do it. He worked at it as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

The stretch really was the last time in Gonzalez’s career that he wasn’t among the most dominant players in the league. By 2000, the Tony Gonzalez we now know had fully arrived. His 93 catches for 1,203 yards and nine touchdowns that season was the most prolific season by a tight end in league history to that point.

Gonzalez’s football skills had surpassed his basketball ability when he was a junior in high school, but his hoops background was a topic during Chiefs broadcasts for his entire career. It’s more than filler. Gonzalez’s basketball past was one of the only ways to understand just how unguardable he’d become.2 He was a factor anywhere on the field, but his true dominance was near the goal line. It didn’t seem to matter if a defender was in position. Gonzalez would box out and leap up for a rebound that was always his. Dunking the ball over the goal post must have felt like the natural thing to do next. “I was always concerned he was going to break his wrist or finger doing that,” says Peterson, who’s able to laugh about it now.

The year after that historic 2000 season is when the rest of Kansas City’s offense exploded. In 2001, Peterson and Hunt managed to lure Dick Vermeil out of retirement to take over the Chiefs. Vermeil’s last stint as a coach had ended with a Super Bowl win for the Greatest Show on Turf Rams, and Peterson was hoping to re-create some of that firepower in Kansas City. With Vermeil came quarterback Trent Green and offensive coordinator Al Saunders (Gonzalez’s first wide receivers coach in Kansas City), both of whom had previously been in St. Louis.

When Saunders returned in 2001, he saw a vastly different Tony Gonzalez from the one he’d left in 1998. “He had matured greatly, not only from a physical standpoint but from a technical standpoint,” Saunders says. Rather than rely on an ability to catch contested balls in traffic like a rebounder, Gonzalez had learned how to create and take advantage of separation at any level of the defense. He was the perfect weapon for the offense Saunders had envisioned.

One of the more influential stints of Saunders’s three decades of coaching was in San Diego during the 1980s. The Chargers, coached by downfield-passing guru Don Coryell, had one of the league’s most devastating offenses, thanks in part to a tall, pass-catching tight end named Kellen Winslow. “The way I viewed Tony was as someone who could do the same things Kellen did for us in San Diego,” Saunders says. “We became, as a passing game, an inside-out team. We featured our inside receivers, being Tony and Priest Holmes, and our outside receivers were complements to them.”

The Chiefs became a top-five offense in Saunders’s first year there, but by 2002, all the pieces had come together. Willie Roaf arrived from New Orleans and joined guards Will Shields and Brian Waters to create maybe the most dominant offensive line of the past 25 years, and after a bizarre end to his career in Denver, Eddie Kennison came to the Chiefs and became a big-play threat on the outside. That season, Kansas City owned the best offense in the NFL, scoring a league-best 29.2 points per game, and Gonzalez was its main receiving threat. “Every game, we would structure our motions, our shifting, and our passing game to get Tony matched up on the defender we wanted Tony matched up on,” Saunders says.

Gonzalez’s numbers didn’t match up to the ones he’d racked up during the Schottenheimer era, but a better overall offense soon meant a lot more winning. The 2003 Chiefs were again the best offense in football, topping 30 points per game as Gonzalez had more than 900 yards receiving with 10 touchdowns. Kansas City’s last playoff win had come a decade earlier, but the 2003 team, owners of a first-round bye and a 13-3 record, was supposed to change all that. “We all felt like we had a chance to win it all,” Peterson says. Their opponent in the divisional round was the Peyton Manning–led Indianapolis Colts. It was 40 degrees at kickoff, but Peterson says with the wind it felt much colder. What followed was one of the stranger games in playoff history.

Neither team would punt that afternoon, but a lost fumble and missed field goal by Kansas City were enough to lose pace with Manning. The Colts left Arrowhead Stadium with a 38-31 win, and the Chiefs’ dream season had ended.

As the locker room emptied out afterward, Gonzalez sat, hunched over, in full uniform. “It’s hard,” he told the Kansas City Star. “I don’t want to take it off. I think the game’s been over for an hour. I live and die with this team.” It was the closest he’d ever come to a playoff win in Kansas City.

During Gonzalez’s time in Kansas City, the Chiefs’ success would never approach the level it reached in 2003, but his personal accolades had just started. The 2004 season was Gonzalez’s best as a pro: 102 catches and 1,258 yards. By then, Gonzalez’s place as the league’s best tight end was fully secure, but it was elsewhere in the division that his influence on the position had started to show.

That same season, a 24-year-old tight end named Antonio Gates caught 81 passes and 13 touchdowns for the Chargers. Like Gonzalez, Gates was also a college basketball player, one whose Kent State team went to the Elite Eight during his junior season. Unlike Gonzalez, he hadn’t played football. A private workout was enough to convince San Diego to take a chance on Gates as an undrafted free agent, and soon he was the second former basketball player to be dominating the NFL.

“You know how the basketball player tight end now is in vogue, and there are many, because of the size and the matchup problem those guys present: too fast for linebackers, too tall and physical for safeties,” Mariucci says. “That wasn’t quite in vogue yet.” Gates’s success was enough to turn what seemed like an isolated incident into a trend. Today, several of the best tight ends in the NFL — Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas, Jimmy Graham — had almost no experience playing college football.

Gonzalez’s influence isn’t limited to his multisport background, either. The varied roles of players like Graham and Rob Gronkowski have raised questions about what actually defines a tight end, but Gonzalez was lining up split wide and in the slot a decade ago. “When you have someone like Tony, that was really the development stage of the vertical threat of the tight end in the NFL,” Saunders says. “Tony changed the game in that regard. You look at the Gronkowskis and Grahams and the guys that are playing the position now, they’re dunking the ball over the goal post.”

Last season, with Graham coming off a 1,300-yard campaign in 2011, the Saints hosted Gonzalez’s Atlanta Falcons in a mid-November game at the Superdome. Graham finished with seven catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns, but, not to be outdone, the 36-year-old Gonzalez added 11 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns of his own. When Gonzalez followed one of those scores with a dunk over the goal post, Graham took it as a message: I’m still here. “Tony, he kind of made the way for me,” Graham told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “It’s definitely something that motivates me. He’s a guy that I look up to. I spent a lot of time with him this offseason. No tight end plays the game like he does. The fact he’s done it for so long is simply amazing. I try to learn and take away as much as I can from his game.”

Tony Gonzalez In the years following their 2003 playoff disappointment, the Chiefs fell into decline. Kansas City went 4-12 in 2007, and as the team overhauled its roster in hopes of getting younger, it also got worse. The Chiefs won two games in 2008, and by the trade deadline, Gonzalez had told Peterson he was looking for a change. To Peterson, Gonzalez was an icon not only within the franchise, but throughout the city. “Tony Gonzalez would still be a Chief if I were still running the Chiefs,” Peterson says. “I told him I would never trade him. And he was not happy with that.”

The drought was enough to cost Peterson his job, and when Scott Pioli took over as general manager in early 2009, he had no such qualms about turning a 33-year-old Gonzalez into a second-round pick. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who’d worked with Pioli during their time with the Patriots, was looking for another weapon to give to his second-year quarterback, Matt Ryan, and Gonzalez was a perfect fit. “From an organizational as well as personal standpoint there are mixed emotions,” Pioli said at the time. “I have the highest personal and professional respect for Tony and consider him to be a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. This is something we really feel was a decision in the best short-term and long-term interest of the Chiefs.”

Whether it was in Atlanta’s best interest became clear almost immediately. Gonzalez was already the most productive tight end in NFL history — with close to 11,000 career yards and 76 touchdowns. No one could have expected that as Gonzalez moved into his mid-thirties, his production would mirror the seasons he had with Kansas City while he was in his mid-twenties, or that his best season as a Falcon would come last year, at age 36, when he caught 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns.

It took until his fourth season, but last year was the reason Gonzalez came to Atlanta. The Falcons were 13-3 in 2010, but were just 1.5-point favorites against the Packers in the divisional round — and they were playing at home. With Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Gonzalez, last year’s Falcons seemed like a team that could turn its home-field advantage into a run to the Super Bowl.

Tony Gonzalez In their first playoff game, Atlanta nearly blew a 27-7 lead to Seattle before a miracle last-minute drive by Matt Ryan led to a 30-28 Falcons win. For some, that moment, and Gonzalez’s reaction, would have been the ideal lasting image of his career — at 36, he had won his first playoff game. Or it could’ve been a week later, when Gonzalez caught a touchdown in the Falcons’ heartbreaking loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. At least then, one of the game’s greatest players would have exited off one of its greatest stages. It was an exit Gonzalez wasn’t ready to make.

In Week 6 of last season, the Oakland Raiders traveled to Atlanta to play the Falcons. For the past two years, Al Saunders has served as a special assistant for the Raiders offense, and on that Sunday, he walked onto the field in the empty Georgia Dome about an hour and a half before kickoff. There was Tony Gonzalez, already covered in sweat, running route after route at 10:30 in the morning. It was exactly what Saunders had seen in Kansas City a decade earlier, when Gonzalez would spend the defensive period of Chiefs practices catching passes from a team manager, or what Peterson had seen in 1999, when Gonzalez convinced Chiefs backup quarterback and future Hall of Famer Warren Moon to throw him 100 passes after every practice. “I’m talking late in December,” Peterson says. “There’s snow on the ground, it’s cold as hell, everyone’s gone in, and these two are out there throwing 100 balls.”

Gonzalez has been many things in his career, but more than anything, he’s been unwaveringly consistent. Gonzalez’s tireless routine and never-ending attention paid to his body are the reasons for his longevity. He’s written a diet book. He’s experimented with veganism. In 17 seasons, Gonzalez has missed just two games, and most of his career was spent as the league’s most prominent middle-of-the-field threat in an era before defenseless-receiver penalties and player-safety mandates.

When Gonzalez announced he was returning to the Falcons for one more season, he was clear about why. He wanted one more run at a Super Bowl, and coming off a season in which Atlanta was just a few plays from one, it was reasonable to think he would get his chance. But it seemed like this Falcons season was doomed before it began. With a shaky offensive line and a thin defense, injuries ravaged Atlanta, and when Julio Jones was lost for the season, the Falcons’ hopes went with him.

Tony Gonzalez’s career won’t end in that NFC Championship Game, but in a meaningless contest on a cold December afternoon. Still, in a season when the Falcons are in contention for the no. 1 pick rather than the Lombardi Trophy, Tony Gonzalez hasn’t flinched. Playing through a host of injuries, he has gathered 71 catches for 740 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. When Jones and Roddy White were both sidelined earlier this season, teams adopted a strategy against Atlanta that says more about Gonzalez than any numbers could. As the Falcons hit the red zone, two cornerbacks would follow Gonzalez around the formation, jamming him simultaneously as he left the line of scrimmage. That’s a tactic fit for punt coverage, not 37-year-old tight ends.

“I know it’s not the Super Bowl season, go out on a white horse, but very few guys get to do that, finish their career the way they dreamed it would end,” Mariucci says.

“He’s going to finish as hard and as strong as he possibly can. He’s not saying, ‘Oh, I have a hangnail. I think I’m done.’ He’s not tapping out.”

Filed Under: NFL, career arc, Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays