In 1997, before they drafted tight end Tony Gonzalez in the first round, the Kansas City Chiefs routinely put together highlight tapes of top prospects for their coaches and scouts. The Gonzalez reel included more than just football plays; it contained clips of him playing basketball for the University of California.
His hoops skills, in fact, made it clear to the Chiefs they might well draft Gonzalez. They decided Gonzalez would be their pick after then-general manager Carl Peterson and then-coach Marty Schottenheimer went to Cal to watch Gonzalez play a basketball game for the Bears.
“We looked at all aspects with regard to Tony and we knew he was a good college basketball player,” Peterson said recently. “It was just another way to check out his athleticism. It just confirmed for us what a really fine athlete he would be as a tight end. He was a rebounder who really knew how to use his body position. Any time he went up for a rebound in traffic, he would come down with the ball. We thought that ability would be useful playing for the Chiefs, and it was.”
After he became established with the Chiefs, Gonzalez spent some of his offseasons exploring his basketball potential. One year he even played on the Miami Heat‘s summer league team.
Gonzalez never made it to the NBA, but his basketball skills weren’t for nothing. They helped him over his 17 NFL seasons become the most prolific pass-catching tight end in league history — and last winter, he gained first-ballot entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gonzalez came late to football, and even after he was drafted in the first round some wondered — despite his athleticism — if he had the right stuff to play in the NFL. But the timing of his arrival was right. In 1997, the NFL was becoming more and more a passing league, and a tight end was becoming more valued for his receiving ability than his blocking skill.
Herm Edwards, who coached Gonzalez for the final three seasons of his Chiefs career from 2006 through 2008: “People were wondering if he could play tight end with the physicality of the position and all of that. But the tight end position had changed in a lot of ways and athletic tight ends became the bold thing. He was one of the guys where you could take him out of the core and line him up in different positions and get the [favorable] matchup. With Tony, you just felt you always had the edge. In third-down situations, you knew he was going to be a part of it. It didn’t matter if you were covering him or not. He was going to find a way to get position on you. That was no different than in the red zone. His basketball instincts and how to slide away from coverage. … I always told our quarterbacks that when they got in trouble, just find Tony.”
Former Chiefs quarterback Rich Gannon, who played with Gonzalez during the tight end’s first two NFL campaigns: “I remember Jim Erkenbeck was our tight ends coach, and he would give those guys a test every week. They had a bonus question, and the bonus question one time was, ‘Who was Pete Rozelle?’ Tony didn’t know. He answered, ‘the governor of Kansas’ or ‘the governor of Missouri’ or something like that, with a question mark. He just didn’t grow up playing football. He came to it kind of late. He had a lot to learn because of his basketball background. He had a lot to learn in terms of the NFL game. But he was such a dynamic player that he was able to overcome that.”
Football over basketball
History proved Gonzalez made the right choice to play pro football, but basketball was never far from his mind.
Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt, who played with Gonzalez for four seasons: “I think he picked football instead of basketball because it challenged him more. He was so fluid on the basketball court.”
Peterson: “He tried to use basketball against me every time we did a contract. The minute the draft was over with the year we picked Tony, his agent, Leigh Steinberg, calls me and says, ‘Carl, I just want you to know that to sign him, you’re going to have to give him a premium, because if we can’t get something worked out, he’ll go play in the NBA.’ I told him I would get back to him, and then I called Jerry Krause, who was the GM of the Chicago Bulls. I just asked Jerry what he had in his scouting report about Tony as far as basketball. He read it to me: ‘Tenacious defender, outstanding effort, good rebounder, poor shooter.’ He then said, ‘Carl, based on this, the young man better make his living in the NFL.'”
Gonzalez looked far from an eventual Hall of Famer as a rookie. He dropped a lot of passes and caught just 33, with two going for touchdowns. But he improved quickly after that.
Colquitt: “His weaknesses became his strengths. He was going to outwork you. That’s what he was known for. There wasn’t one practice in the years we were together here that I didn’t see him catching balls afterward, and like 100 balls, 150 balls. He took it to a whole different level.”
Peterson: “The thing I probably admired the most about him was his sincerity and his driven ability to try to be the very best. He would read motivational books on the charter flights. When we acquired [quarterback] Warren Moon, he went right up to him and asked him how he could become the best tight end in the National Football League. He would stay after practice all the time — rain, sleet, snow, heat, it didn’t matter — and catch 100 extra passes.”
The finished product
Gonzalez had at least 70 catches in 14 of his final 16 seasons, including the last five after being traded to the Atlanta Falcons.
Former Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, a teammate for four seasons: “I used to match up with him all the time in practice. There were times when I had him covered up, really covered. He still caught the ball. That would drive me nuts. That was all his basketball background. He would box you out, get that position, and even though I was all over him, he would still catch the ball, especially in the red zone.”
Edwards: “Just because Tony was covered, that didn’t mean he wasn’t open. Sometimes, we threw it to him just to let him make a play. He was as good as anybody at that. He loved man-to-man coverage because he was going to out-body you.”
Gannon: “At that level, it’s rare that you have somebody who’s just so much better than everybody else. Everybody in the NFL is a professional and a really good player, but Tony was just so much better than every other tight end. When he was at practice and there were three or four other tight ends, it was very noticeable the difference. I played 17 years in the NFL, but I never played with anybody who was so much better than everybody else. In traffic, there was nobody better. He was a natural when it came to adjusting to the ball in the air, like a back shoulder throw. He would outjump everybody. I got spoiled by the opportunity to play with him. Then I went to Oakland and we never had anybody like that. That made it a lot more difficult to attack the defense.”
Former Chiefs quarterback Trent Green: “One of the things I quickly learned was that Tony liked the ball up high. If you were going to miss with Tony, you wanted to miss high. If he was defended, and it didn’t matter if it was one or two guys, he would say, ‘Put it up high and I’ll get it.’ That’s where his advantage was.”
Even Gonzalez’s signature football move was a basketball play. He would dunk the ball over the goalpost after every one of his 111 touchdowns. It was wildly popular with Chiefs fans — except for the one time he dunked against the Chiefs, when Gonzalez was with the Falcons in 2012.
Johnson: “He did kind of a little swim move to get past me. I was there, but of course Tony grabbed it for a touchdown. He got me. Then he dunked it, and he dunked it on me. I don’t know if everybody in the stadium liked him dunking against the Chiefs. But we all knew that would happen. Right after the game, he told me, ‘You had me covered up, and I had to do something.’ But he didn’t say he was sorry for dunking on me.”