No End in Sight
The good times are just starting for the Kansas City tight end, who has the world in the palm of his hand
IT WAS JUST THIS PAST FEBRUARY that Tony Gonzalez played in his second straight Pro Bowl game, posed in the Hawaiian surf with supermodel Heidi Klum for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and later held his first-born son in his arms.
Not a bad month for the handsome and wealthy young man, who is universally acknowledged as the best tight end in the NFL. You almost want to ask Gonzalez what he plans for an encore in his fifth season with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001.
Last year, at the tender age of 24, Gonzalez caught 93 passes–the third-highest total by a tight end in NFL history. His 1,203 receiving yards rank No. 4 on the all-time single-season list for his position, and his six straight 100-yard games established a record for tight ends.
In 2001, however, Gonzalez faces a possible transition in his idyllic life. New Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil has brought his potent St. Louis Rams-style offense–with its emphasis on perimeter players–to Kansas City. Gonzalez also will be playing with a new quarterback after Elvis Grbac, who made Gonzalez his go-to guy, departed for the Baltimore Ravens. Whether life will be as good for Gonzalez with Vermeil as the coach and Trent Green under center was the starting point in his recent interview with FOOTBALL DIGEST.
FOOTBALL DIGEST: You’re going to be working with a new quarterback this year in Green, who comes from an offense in St. Louis that didn’t throw to the tight end much. Any concerns there?
TONY GONZALEZ: At first, I did worry about that a little. But I think I’ve proven myself enough to know that I can get open and be there for any quarterback. I would think it’s in his best interest to throw me the ball. I suspect there will be enough balls to go around in this offense to keep everyone happy.
FD: When coaches and personnel people in the league today talk about what they’re looking for in a tight end, they point to Tony Gonzalez and say, “Get me someone like that!” How does it feel to be called a prototype for the position?
TG: It’s always a goal to be the best, of course, but I never put much emphasis on comparing myself to other great tight ends, either from the past or today. But if that’s what people want to say about me, I’m obviously doing something right.
There has been a change [at the position], but it started long before I got into the league. Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates had a lot to do with the “receiving” tight end. Those guys started something I’d like to keep going by catching a lot of balls.
FD: Does it seem to you, though, that there aren’t as many quality tight ends in the league today as there were maybe a decade ago?
TG: I don’t think there are, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe one reason is the emphasis people are putting on defensive ends. I know when I went to college [at the University of California], they considered moving me to D-end. That’s where they’re putting some of the most athletic guys today. I know on our team, Eric Hicks [a super-quick 6’6″, 285-pound defensive end] would be a great tight end. Derrick Thomas would have been a super tight end.
FD: I’d think coaches would rather have a 6’4″ guy who can jump, has soft hands, knows how to use his body to get open, and is a proven producer.
TG: Well, if they’re talking about me, I’m happy to hear those kinds of comments. But the thing about me is that I can still get better, and I want to get better. I caught 93 balls last year, and I don’t know if I’ll do that again this year. But I do know I can improve as a player. I’m only 25 years old–I’ve got to keep getting better.
FD: You’re 25, handsome, reasonably rich–the world is yours. As a young kid in Southern California, did you imagine that it could get this good?
TG: Not really. But you know, the older I get, the more things change as to what is important. What used to be important then is not so important now.
FD: What’s important now?
TG: Relationships. Having love in your life. I’ve read a lot of books on personal improvements, everything from Tony Robbins to Mike Shanahan, trying to help form who I am as a person. And from all that wisdom, I’ve come to realize that the thing in life that’s important, the reason we’re all here, is to love and do well for each other.
That’s why I’ve been trying to get involved in the community a little bit more. I mean, I always did [charity] things before, but now when I go out, it means a little more to me. I found there’s no feeling like the one you get when you do something for somebody else.
FD: Are you suggesting you’re getting ready to settle down at age 25?
TG: [Chuckles] I still like to have a good time. I just think it’s important to have close relationships with your family or your wife and kids or whoever you’re dating.
FQ: Won’t that shatter the image Sports Illustrated presented of this young, available hunk posing with super models in the swimsuit edition?
TG: Hey, I can still do that stuff! Don’t get me wrong–if they want me to pose with Heidi Klum or Tyra Banks, give me a call!
FD: You’ve done some modeling, you’ve dabbled in TV. It must be fun being Tony Gonzalez right now.
TG: It is, but I can’t get sidetracked either. Football is still the top priority. I’m able to do all these other things because I work hard and do well on the football field. I’ve got to keep doing that.
FD: And yet you’ve always talked about wanting to give basketball a serious try. You did, after all, play college basketball at California. Is that still on the dream list?
TG: It’s still there. I play a lot of basketball, almost every single day in the off-season. It keeps me in shape, and it actually helps me on the football field. It’s something I really enjoy doing, and I do pretty well at it. I play against pro guys all the time [in a Southern California summer league], and I hold my own against some of them.
FD: Several of your coaches have encouraged you to think about tight end in the same way you played center in the college. They say getting open for a pass involves much the same technique as getting open for a pass into the pivot or getting into position for a rebound.
TG: That’s something [new Chiefs offensive coordinator] Al Saunders emphasizes all the time. He’ll say, “This cut is the same as those one-on-one basketball moves you love.” I’ll be doing a lot more of that in this offense, where you’ve got to beat people one-on-one.
Basketball carries over into football and helps me more than people realize. Some people don’t want to believe it, but I’m always telling guys on my team, “If you really want to get into shape, have fun and work on your coordination–play basketball.”
FD: One suspects your coaches cringe every time they hear you itching to play in some pickup game.
TG: They shouldn’t. When I play, I don’t always play in games. Some of them get pretty competitive, and sometimes you find a guy who thinks he’s got something to prove, and he wants to prove it against me. So a lot of the time I play by myself.
Really, a lot of the finesse moves I learned in basketball I’ve brought to football. Too many tight ends are just brutes. They run down the field, try to knock you over, and then just turn around. No real moves at all. I think the better receiving tight ends are the ones who can finesse a defender, who can control his body and his movements and get open that way.
FD: In catching 93 balls last year, you fell just. three short of tying Coates’ record for most receptions by a tight end in a season. Do you think a triple-figure season is possible?
TG: Last year, I started thinking about that as I got closer to it. But I don’t want to worry about things like that. One of those [self-help] books had a great analogy: It said not to worry about things happening, just let them happen like flowers growing in the sun. They open on their own. I figure if I keep up my work habits, keep football first and keep up my love for this game, sooner or later I’ll get something like that.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group