The phone call came from Roy Williams, basketball coach at
Kansas, during the middle of last week. The Jayhawks had a game
on Thursday night in Lawrence against Ohio State. Tony Gonzalez
had put in a request for tickets, and the request had been
filled. But Williams had also left a message for the Kansas City
Chiefs' tight end. A personal message.
"What's it say?" Gonzalez asked in the Chiefs' locker room at
"You'll have to hear it for yourself," replied a teammate who
had heard the message. "It's for you. It's really good."
"Does he want me to play?" Gonzalez asked. "Is that it? Does Roy
Williams need a guy? Because here I am. I think I have a year of
eligibility left. I could get out there right now. I could get
him some points."
As easily as that, the idea took hold. At forward, 6'4", 250
pounds, from Huntington Beach, California, TONY Gon-ZA-lez. He
lifted a hand and took an imaginary jumper. The imaginary ball
went through an imaginary basket. He could do that. Yes, he
could. Straight off the street he could put on a Kansas uniform
and drop 15 points, grab seven or eight boards on those sad
visitors from Columbus. Columbus? He could do it against the
visitors from Boston or Milwaukee, L.A. or New York. The NBA. He
could do it in the NBA.
"I played against a lot of those guys," Gonzalez says. "Stephon
Marbury. Jerry Stackhouse. I don't know if they remember me, but
I played against them in the summer camps. Always came out in
the top 15. Same as them. I played with four guys at Berkeley
who have been in the NBA. Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Ed Gray. Guys
like that. I played ahead of guys at Cal who are in the NBA. Why
couldn't I do it?"
The NBA. The NFL. Why not take on the AFL, the CIO, the UN, too?
Why not MSNBC, the FBI, TGIF? The horizon was flat and all
engines were purring. Possibility was no harder to find than
water or air. The Chiefs, the latest hot team of this strange
NFL season, were preparing for Saturday's game against the
Pittsburgh Steelers, whom they would defeat 35-19 to go 9-5 and
set up a meeting against the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday with
first place in the AFC West on the line. Gonzalez would have his
best day as a pro, catching six passes for 93 yards and two
touchdowns. Bring 'em on. Bring on anybody or anything.
"I've read that [Minnesota Vikings wide receiver] Randy Moss
wants to play in the NBA, two sports," Gonzalez says. "Maybe I
wouldn't mind that either. Maybe I wouldn't mind playing Randy
Confidence is a wonderful thing. When it finally arrives.
"The third year is when everything finally clicks in for me,"
Gonzalez says. "I'm not sure why that is. High school? I was
nothing until my junior year. College? The same thing. I was an
All-America as a junior. The NFL? Here it is all over again."
Twenty-three-years old, better and better with each succeeding
week, Gonzalez all at once appears to be the best tight end in
the league. His stock has exploded like an Internet IPO. Who is
better? Mark Chmura of the Green Bay Packers is injured. So is
Shannon Sharpe of the Denver Broncos. Ben Coates of the New
England Patriots is having a down year. Gonzalez has caught 61
passes, already a Kansas City season record for a tight end. So
are his 10 touchdown receptions; six of those have come in the
past four weeks.
Against the sad Steelers he caught just about everything thrown
within 10 feet of him, reaching, twisting, turning, plucking
passes from the air on those 58 television screens against the
wall of the nation's electronics departments as Christmas
shoppers stopped to stare. His best play might have been a
block, a wicked shot to Pittsburgh All-Pro middle linebacker
Levon Kirkland that helped spring wide receiver Derrick
Alexander on a winding, 82-yard end-around for a third-quarter
touchdown that closed all accounts.
"Tony Gonzalez hit that guy so far...," Chiefs first-year coach
Gunther Cunningham said, looking fruitlessly for a proper
description. "I don't know how far. He just hit him. That was
typical of the plays we've been getting from him."
His timing with perpetually criticized quarterback Elvis Grbac
is getting better and better. Gonzalez runs a route, turns, and
the ball is there. He is as agile as a wideout, as big as a pine
tree planted in the middle of the field. The pine tree dunks the
ball over the crossbar when he scores his first touchdown in a
game. After his second score on Saturday, he threw up a 15-foot
jumper for variety.
"We had a great situation in practice one week," Cunningham
says. "Donnie Edwards at outside linebacker is an athlete, a lot
like Tony. The same size, same age. A team was going to play
Tony with a great linebacker and we used Donnie to impersonate
him in our practices. It was something to see, those two guys
just going at each other. You couldn't take your eyes off them.
It was just this pure one-on-one game."
Says Grbac, "Tony's confidence level is so high he believes he
can catch anything you throw at him."
The click-in began about a year ago. The Chiefs were heading
toward a 7-9 finish under coach Marty Schottenheimer. Gonzalez
was marching in step. The 13th pick in the 1997 draft as a
junior out of Cal, he'd been a backup as a rookie and was in his
first season as a starter. He would wind up with 59 catches, but
11 games into the season he had only 35 receptions and he hadn't
caught a touchdown pass. He'd also dropped 13 passes. Wasn't
this kid supposed to be this great two-sport athlete who had
scored 23 points in a 1997 NCAA tournament win over Villanova?
Where was this athleticism? The kid was wondering the same thing.
"One of the sportswriters in the city grades performances,"
Gonzalez recalls. "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."
The confusion was partly the fault of the Kansas City coaches.
Intrigued by the idea of mismatches featuring a man too fast for
linebackers to handle and too large for safeties to cover, they
had put wrinkles into the offense for him, "broadened his plate
too much," in the words of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. The
decision was made to simplify his job and make it fun again.
"You've played in Pauley Pavilion and the Rose Bowl," Raye told
Gonzalez. "You can't get any bigger than that. Just relax.
"I'd slam the ball down after I dropped it," Gonzalez says. "I'd
be on my knees, pounding the ground in frustration. It was all
inexperience. You have to get up and forget. I couldn't do that
In search of answers, he turned to a resource rarely used in
football: the bookstore. He began reading motivational books.
Pat Riley. Phil Jackson. Lou Holtz. Tony Robbins. He found a
book, The Edge, by Howard E. Ferguson, that was a collection of
positive quotations from famous men. He read a biography of
Vince Lombardi. He looked for words that shed light on his
problem. Was he afraid of success? Was he as committed to his
task as possible?
In the last five games of the 1998 season Gonzalez caught 24
balls, including his only two touchdown passes of the season. He
felt comfortable for the first time as a pro. He felt the start
of the click. He remembered the first click of them all.
"I was awful at football when I was a little kid," Gonzalez
says. "I didn't have the aggressiveness. I was just a nice kid.
I didn't want to hurt anyone. I played Pop Warner because my
older brother, Chris, did. I was big, but I was just a
puddin'--everybody pushed me around."
He says he was one of the worst players on one of the worst Pop
Warner teams in Orange County, the Huntington Beach (Calif.)
Cobras. The league rules said that every kid whose parents paid
the $180 entry fee had to play six downs in every game. That's
how many Gonzalez played: six. Off the field his life was even
worse. In eighth grade he was stalked by a pair of bullies.
"They were older, in high school, and they'd come looking for
me," he says. "They called my house, threatening me. To this
day, I don't know why they were after me."
Tony used to hide his skateboard in the weeds outside school,
jump aboard and hustle home as fast as he could. He would lock
the doors and watch television. He didn't go to school dances,
didn't join clubs. He hid from the bullies. Eighth grade was the
worst time of his life. He summoned the courage to set up a
fight with the bullies, then backed out.
In a predominantly white neighborhood in this bedroom community
on the Pacific, he had a curious, darker complexion. What was
he? That was the question he always was asked. His name seemed
to indicate that he was Mexican-American, but it was not the
original family name. His paternal grandfather was Cape Verdean,
an immigrant from that small set of Portuguese islands off the
west coast of Africa. The grandfather's real surname was
Goncals, but after an immigration official at Ellis Island
mistakenly typed in Gonzalez on the entry papers, it became the
family name. Tony's paternal grandmother was Jamaican. His
grandfather on his mother's side was American Indian and
African-American. His maternal grandmother was white. Tony was a
bunch of stuff.
"Put it all in," he says. "Please. I get people who ask me
questions in Spanish. My teammates have no idea what I am. They
call me the Big Mexican. It's the first thing people ask. I've
seen racism from whites, from blacks, from Hispanics. I've seen
it from everywhere. I'm proud of everything I am. It's like
music. Why do you have to like only one kind of music? I like
At the end of eighth grade, a couple of things changed. First,
he stopped worrying about the bullies. At graduation that year,
still afraid, he had hurried off the stage and hidden around the
corner. He still remembers the looks on his family members'
faces when they found him, how pitiful he felt. He vowed never
to be in that situation again. Second, he found basketball. He
scored 18 points in the first game he ever played, in a rec
league in Huntington Beach. Basketball gave him confidence.
"The next year, I went out for football at the high school
because my brother was playing," he says. "The first day of
practice, Eric Escobedo, a friend of mine, looked up and said,
'Gonzalez? What are you doing back out there?' Well, he didn't
know I was different. After basketball, well, I got it. I
figured it out. I could play football too."
Click. High school. College. Click. The pros.
Suppose he'd had three years to settle into a basketball career.
What could have happened then? Suppose he'd had one year of
playing just basketball. He always played his best basketball at
the end of the season, when his body and mind were acclimated to
the sport again. What if the end of one basketball season were
the start of the next? Wouldn't he be better? How much better?
"As it is, I wouldn't mind trying the two sports some time,"
Gonzalez says. "I've never talked to the Chiefs about it, so I
don't know what they'd think, but it would be something to try."
What would Vince Lombardi say? Lou Holtz? Tony Robbins? Don't
they talk about reaching your potential? How do you reach your
potential if you never try? Gonzalez already has a court at his
house in the Kansas City suburbs. Sometimes he shoots jumpers to
settle his mind. He also plays basketball every day during the
off-season, often with teammates.
"I've dunked on about half the team," he says. "The other half,
mostly the big guys like Chester McGlockton and Derrick Ransom,
they've already told me that if I try on them, they'll hurt me."
Oh, yes, and the part about Roy Williams? Gonzalez says he went
to the Kansas game. He also checked the message. "What'd it say?"
"It was some thoughts about playing against the Steelers,"
Gonzalez said. "Some inspirational stuff. He wished me luck. He
didn't say he needed another player."
O.K., football for now. He might as well go ahead and become a
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Rising star Gonzalez got the Chiefs on the board when he hauled in a 15-yard touchdown pass over Steelers defensive back Lance Brown.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Hammer time Gonzalez leveled Pittsburgh's Kirkland, springing Alexander on an 82-yard score.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Slam dunk Gonzalez punctuates some scores with a hoops move.
Improving every week, the 23-year-old Gonzalez all at once
appears to be the best tight end in the game.
"I was big," Gonzalez says of his younger days, "but I was just
a puddin'--everybody pushed me around."