In college, the 6’5”, 240-pound Gonzalez played basketball and football for the Cal Golden Bears.
He used his freakish athleticism to create notable mismatches with defenders.
Then, after becoming a first-round NFL draft pick, Gonzalez spent 17 years re-writing the league record book for the position.
Kansas City Chiefs
NFL Seasons 1997 – 2013
— NFL en Español (@La_NFL_) September 2, 2020
By his retirement, Gonzalez was the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards for a tight end.
In 2019, his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame immortalized him.
This is the story of Tony Gonzalez.
Not a Great Start
Anthony “Tony” David Gonzalez was born on February 27, 1976, in Torrance, California.
Tony Gonzalez who in my opinion is the greatest tight end ever turns 47 today. pic.twitter.com/7xD39enAGL
— Miles Commodore (@miles_commodore) February 27, 2023
In sharp contrast to the public persona he displayed in later years, Gonzalez didn’t begin his life wanting anything to do with contact sports.
In fact, his older brother Chris made Tony go out for Pop Warner football. The result wasn’t positive.
“I was horrible—the worst kid on the team,” Gonzalez commented in 2015. “I actually quit my first year because I wasn’t playing. I’d come home from games just as clean as when I’d left the house. I didn’t like the contact. I was good on the playground, but as soon as I put on the pads, I became timid. It didn’t click until high school. Football is an attitude, and I wasn’t really an aggressive kid.”
In those days, Gonzalez tried his hand at running back and safety, but he spent most of his time running away from contact rather than running to it.
Things only got worse by the time Gonzalez reached middle school.
Not even close to the physical specimen he would become, other students picked on Gonzalez relentlessly.
“When I was in eighth grade, a couple kids from high school came to my junior high to beat me up every day,” Gonzalez recounted in 2005. “I would hide and run home after school. I had no life. It embarrassed me because I was a wimp.”
Gonzalez’s perspective about himself finally changed at his eighth-grade graduation.
“It culminated at eighth-grade graduation,” said Gonzalez. “My whole family was there, I graduated, we threw off our hats, and then I saw one of the kids. I went to hide behind a wall, and my family saw me there. My mom didn’t say a word. She just gave me this look like she was disappointed. I promised myself I would never run from anything again.”
Change Comes Quickly
As he entered Huntington Beach High School, Gonzalez resolved to stop hiding from his fears and start facing them.
Along with his brother Chris’s encouragement to continue playing sports, Gonzalez befriended Josh Holland, who also attended HBHS and loved playing basketball.
Eventually, Tony started playing basketball with Josh and found himself taking more of an interest in football, even with the constant contact.
There was also a kick in the butt at times from role models who would remind Gonzalez of the importance of staying on top of academics.
“We saw early that he’d be special,” said 1993 Oilers’ head football coach George Pasco. “We were really hard on him that freshman year, making sure he’d go to class because we knew he’d be something special down the road.”
Part of that “something special” that Pasco mentioned was a growth spurt Gonzalez experienced that saw him reach 6’5” and well over 200 pounds.
It wasn’t just size that made Gonzalez special. He also became more athletic and developed quickness on the court and on the field.
Tony Gonzalez Huntington Beach High School pic.twitter.com/OM3F9jeg4S
— steve lewis (@surfcitysteve1) March 6, 2023
By the time he was a senior in 1993, college coaches throughout the West knew who Gonzalez was.
During the football season, he was a tight end and linebacker for the Oilers. Gonzalez led the team in tackles and also had 63 receptions for 945 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Huntington Beach made it to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) D2 championship where the team lost despite Gonzalez catching eight balls.
On the hardwood, Gonzalez was a man among boys and averaged 27 points per game.
He was selected as a High School All-American. Gonzalez was also a co-winner of the Orange County High School Athlete of the Year Award along with Western High School (Anaheim) golfer Tiger Woods.
Gonzalez Chooses Cal
As the number of college offers came pouring in, Gonzalez was torn about where to go and what to play in college.
He loved basketball and football and wanted to play both at the next level.
However, Gonzalez initially believed he would have to delay football for a year so he could acclimate to the demands of college hoops.
“Basketball is number one for the first couple of years until I see if I can play effectively at the Division I level,” he said at the time. “I know there aren’t many 6-6 tight ends though there are plenty of 6-6 forwards. I might take a year off of football because if you sit out of basketball a year you won’t have the ability to shoot as good, be in shape, dribble, etc. I think it would be much easier in football to come back.”
Most of the schools recruiting Gonzalez assured him he could play both sports for them, and he verbally committed to the University of Arizona.
At the time, the Wildcats were playing well on the field and the court. Gonzalez was excited to suit up for hoops coach Lute Olson.
Then, Gonzalez decided to take a visit to the University of California-Berkeley (Cal).
While at Cal, the coaches pulled out all the stops. Gonzalez met several prominent Golden Bears athletes such as future NBA star Jason Kidd.
Greatest #CFB Tight Ends of All Time 🐐 🏈
10. Tony Gonzalez, Cal (1994-96)
High School: Huntington Beach High (Hunt. Beach, CA)
Ht/Wt: 6-foot-5, 247 pounds
All-American, All-Pac-10, 10x NFL All-Pro, 14x Pro Bowl, NFL 100th Anniversary Teamhttps://t.co/P4lzOMa1s9 pic.twitter.com/ZiQuzAnE3E
— stadiumtalkcom (@stadiumtalkcom) March 1, 2023
He also met other Cal recruits from nearby high schools. By the time his visit came to an end, Gonzalez decided to stay in his home state.
“Dave Barr was there, and he was a Heisman hopeful. And I’m like, ‘this is the perfect place,’” Gonzalez said in 2021. “I was not thinking NFL. I was not thinking NBA. I was thinking, ‘Okay, that’s a long shot for me. I need to make sure I get a great degree. I’m close to home.’ Anyway, it just ticked all the boxes. Obviously, that’s why I changed my mind. I had to call Lute Olson and tell him, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake, but I’m actually going to Cal.’ ”
Adjusting to College Life
It’s difficult enough to participate in one college sport, let alone two, as Gonzalez soon realized.
Gonzalez spent most of his first year at Cal adjusting to the demands of playing two Division I sports and attending classes as well.
“Honestly, it was one of the hardest times of my life,” Gonzalez said. “I was doing both sports, so I didn’t get that college experience, even, let alone, from a student-athlete perspective, because I had friends that played football, obviously, so they had an offseason. They were able to just be students half of the year. Maybe they’d go do their workouts and stuff. But it wasn’t intense. For me, it was pretty much year-round. Well, it was. It wasn’t ‘pretty much.’ I had no time off. And it was so intense.”
With so little downtime, Gonzalez began skipping classes, something heavily frowned upon by his professors.
“It’s not Oklahoma or USC where they’d say ‘Yeah, Tony, don’t worry about it,’ ” Gonzalez said. “I remember saying to one of my professors, ‘Hey, I’ve got a mandatory scrimmage’ or something like that. And he said, ‘Well, that’s not my fault. … You came here. Are you a student-athlete or an athlete-student?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, okay, obviously these professors don’t give a damn.’”
On the football field, Gonzalez encountered several teammates his size. He had to get used to the daily pounding he took in practice.
When football season ended, Gonzalez reported to the Cal basketball team and realized he wasn’t in basketball shape.
“It was so frustrating for me because I would miss all of that building-up time,” Gonzalez said. “You know, that preseason work. And I would hit basketball and I’d be out of shape. I haven’t touched the basketball pretty much in four or five months. I haven’t shot. So you’re so rusty, and you’re tired and everybody else is in shape. They’re hitting the ground running.”
As a freshman in 1994, Gonzalez played in 11 of the Golden Bears’ contests and caught eight passes for 62 yards and one touchdown.
The only time Cal beat a Top-5 team on the road, Tony Gonzalez was a freshman (yes that Tony Gonzalez)
— ESPNU (@ESPNU) January 5, 2017
On the court, he averaged 7.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
As a sophomore in 1995, Gonzalez was getting a better handle on being a college multi-sport athlete.
During the Golden Bears 3-8 season, Gonzalez greatly improved as he got used to the brutal aspects of the game.
He caught 37 passes for 541 yards and two scores, but Gonzalez also had a crucial fumble in the final game of the year that cost Cal a win against rival Stanford.
“I remember sitting on the sideline after I fumbled it and watching Stanford’s offense march down the field,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to start crying right there. Every time they get closer to the end zone, I want to start crying.”
Still down in the dumps weeks later, Gonzalez had an epiphany while watching planes take off and land from nearby Oakland Airport.
“It was smacking me in the face and wouldn’t let me go. Wake up! Will you wake up and realize what this opportunity is, and how you’re wasting it?” Gonzalez said. “That’s what those planes were telling me where it’s like, ‘Hey, you can be on one of these things going on to someplace great or going back home. It’s up to you. You have that power. You’ve just got to change things up.’ It changed everything for me.”
Transformed almost overnight, Gonzalez began to buckle down.
Tony Gonzalez, tight end. Cal man! pic.twitter.com/5IxIWZPa
— dansteinberg (@dansteinberg) September 13, 2012
He stopped skipping classes and devoted himself to being the best student-athlete he could be.
After rejoining the basketball team, Gonzalez started seven games and averaged 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as Cal went 17-11 and lost in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament.
Having realized what it took to succeed at the Division I level, Gonzalez devoted his junior year to academics and athletics.
He even moved off campus and got an apartment by himself so he could significantly reduce distractions.
When the Golden Bears football season began, new head coach Steve Mariucci installed some NFL concepts he had learned in his previous stop as the Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach.
Cal and Gonzalez took to the changes, and the team jumped out to a 5-0 record in 1996, which included a win against 17th-ranked USC.
Unfortunately, the Golden Bears lost five of their last six games. They still qualified for the Aloha Bowl.
Although Gonzalez tied a school bowl record with nine catches, Cal would lose the high-scoring contest against Navy, 42-38, to end the year 6-6.
— Write for California (@WriteForCal) May 14, 2015
As a junior, Gonzalez had the best season of his college career and caught 44 passes for 699 yards and five touchdowns.
His stats led to accolades including first-team All-American and All-Pac 10.
On the hardwood, Gonzalez helped lead the Golden Bears to the NCAA Sweet 16 while averaging 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Top 7 NFL Players Who Actually Played College Basketballhttps://t.co/6yxAP491jQ
Tony Gonzalez (Cal) pic.twitter.com/5QyhIEV8j5
— Athlete WAG's (@AthIeteWAGs) April 17, 2016
By the end of the basketball season, NFL talent evaluators were claiming that Gonzalez would be the first tight end taken in the 1997 NFL Draft if he decided to leave school early.
With nothing left to prove, Gonzalez decided to forgo his senior year and enter the draft.
He ended his time as a collegian with 89 receptions for 1,302 yards and eight touchdowns.
Gonzalez also had hoops averages of 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest.
Kansas City Selects Gonzalez
NFL coaches and scouts salivated at the idea of Gonzalez playing in the pros.
Even more compelling than Gonzalez’s 6’5”, 250-pound frame was the fact that he had good speed and great hands.
Also, the athleticism he displayed on the basketball court in college would translate into wins for jump balls against defenders and the ability to “box out” safeties and corners.
Just weeks after he helped Cal basketball reach the Sweet 16, the Kansas City Chiefs picked Gonzalez with the 13th overall selection in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft.
Kansas City #Chiefs: On this day in 1997, we selected Tony Gonzalez with the 13th overall pick …
#AmericanFootballConference #AmericanFootballConferenceWestDivision #Football #KansasCity #KansasCityChiefs #Missouri #NationalFootballLeague #NFL pic.twitter.com/UuXd0uogFQ
— Raw Chili (@raw_chili) April 19, 2022
As expected, he was the first tight end taken off the board.
Gonzalez did not start a single game that season, but he played enough to snag 33 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns for 13-3 Kansas City.
The Chiefs lost in the Divisional round to Denver and then went 7-9 in 1998.
Gonzalez’s second NFL campaign was marked by several dropped passes which messed with his confidence and psyche.
“A lot of self-loathing. A lot of self-doubt,” Gonzalez said in 2022. “That’s such a bad place to be in, but it’s such a good place, too—if you can get through it.”
He learned to put the drops behind him and concentrate on what he did best.
Gonzalez started every game that season and collected 59 receptions for 621 yards and two scores.
Gonzalez Is Recognized by His Peers
By Gonzalez’s third year in the NFL, it was evident that defenders had a difficult time covering him.
His size created mismatches with opponents and even linebackers found trying to knock Gonzalez off his routes was nearly impossible.
“I don’t care who the f— is out there,” Gonzalez said. “You cannot guard me.”
The Chiefs took advantage and passed him the ball 76 times for over 800 yards and a career-high 11 touchdowns.
In a tribute to his hoops background, Gonzalez often punctuated his touchdowns by dunking the pigskin over the goalpost, thrilling Chiefs fans.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) March 27, 2014
Gonzalez’s peers noticed how valuable he was to the Kansas City offense and voted him to the first of 14 Pro Bowls and the first of six first-team All-Pro selections.
In 2000, the Chiefs finished 7-9 under second-year coach Gunther Cunningham. This led to the coach’s firing.
While the team was struggling to win, Gonzalez caught 93 passes for over 1,200 yards and nine scores.
The Chiefs hired Former St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil in 2001, and despite Vermeil’s background helping to develop “The Greatest Show on Turf” offense, KC continued to underwhelm in the win department.
Finally, in 2003 the Chiefs went 13-3 but lost to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional round.
Gonzalez remained steady every year and blew the doors off opponents in 2004 when he corralled a career-high 102 passes for 1,258 yards and seven touchdowns.
His reception total led the NFL, was the most in Chiefs history for a single season, and also set an NFL single-season record for tight ends.
Gonzalez was then voted to his sixth Pro Bowl and was surprisingly named a second-team All-Pro.
Starring for an Inconsistent Team
For the next few seasons, Gonzalez became one of the few bright spots on the Chiefs roster.
While he was catching 73 to 99 passes between 2005 and 2008, Kansas City suffered through inconsistent quarterback play and constant turnover in coaching.
— Pro Sports Outlook (@PSO_Sports) October 5, 2022
In 2006, the Chiefs went to the playoffs after a 9-7 season led by first-year coach Herm Edwards.
However, as was becoming the norm whenever the franchise made the postseason, KC was eliminated immediately.
The losing finally came to a head in 2008 when KC lost a franchise-worst 14 games, costing Edwards his job.
That same year, Gonzalez miraculously had 96 receptions for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Trade to Atlanta
At that point, Gonzalez had had enough.
During his time in Kansas City, Gonzalez caught a ton of passes and earned his way to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls.
The problem was the wild inconsistency in team play and less-than-stellar performances at quarterback.
Gonzalez had a few good years with Trent Green, but the other signal callers the team employed weren’t anything special.
After a dozen years in the NFL, Gonzalez wanted to play for a Super Bowl contender and asked Chiefs management for a trade.
On the other side of the country, the Atlanta Falcons had just ended an 11-5 campaign in 2008 with new head coach Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.
The Falcons then traveled to Arizona and lost to the Cardinals in the Wild Card round, 30-24.
Wanting another offensive threat to advance further in the postseason, Atlanta traded for Gonzalez.
— Full Sport Press (@fullsportpress) April 23, 2015
His time in KC ended with Gonzalez leading the franchise and NFL all-time in several categories including receptions (916), receiving yards and touchdowns (10,940 and 76), and 100-yard games (26).
Furthermore, Gonzalez set an NFL record while a Chief by becoming the first tight end in league history to notch four 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Acclimating to the Falcons
Immediately after arriving in Atlanta, Gonzalez began winning over his new teammates and Coach Smith.
— Falcons Photos (@FalconsPhotos) September 6, 2013
His size, speed, and athleticism were stunning, and Smith thought of all the ways he could use Gonzalez.
“You can put him in-line, in the slot, in the backfield, even split him out,” the coach said. “We can put him all over the place to create mismatches.”
Falcons teammates agreed with their coach’s assessment of Gonzalez.
“Dude is a mismatch-makin’ machine,” declared linebacker Mike Peterson.
Rejuvenated by his fresh start, Gonzalez looked at the Falcons roster that included Ryan, running back Michael Turner, and receivers Michael Jenkins and Roddy White. He liked what he saw.
“We’re young,” he said of his new squad, “but not as young as we were in Kansas City. Here it’s a lot of third- and fourth- and fifth-year guys. They’re hungry; they’re desperate to make an impact. There are no prima donnas.”
Gonzalez Versus Mularkey
The only issue with his new team was that Gonzalez and then-offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (a former NFL tight end himself) didn’t see eye-to-eye.
Mularkey was a fan of ground-based offenses. He envisioned his tight ends as blockers who caught an occasional pass.
That was not Gonzalez’s forte, and he pushed back against his OC.
He had no problem with blocking and was known to pancake the unfortunate soul who crossed his path, but Gonzalez enjoyed catching the ball even more.
“Because he has that mentality. ‘We’re grunt work. We’re grunters. We don’t care about the notoriety. We don’t care about that stuff,’ ” Gonzalez said. “Well, I’m like, ‘Motherf—er, I do care about that. I want to score touchdowns.’ I had a nice reputation coming in. I had gone to the Pro Bowl 10 years in a row [with] Kansas City.”
Watching this play out was Brian Finneran, a receiver on the team at the time.
“Mike Mularkey tried to force it, and Tony didn’t like being told what to do,” Finneran said. “I love the guy. He was a great teammate and a great friend. But he also had that Hollywood aspect to him. A pretty-looking dude. Physically dominating. Best at his position in the world. Mularkey just had a mindset for tight ends, and Tony wasn’t in the mold of what he had in mind.”
During his first year with the club, the Falcons went 9-7. Gonzalez missed the Pro Bowl despite having 83 receptions for over 800 yards and six touchdowns.
— Falcons Photos (@FalconsPhotos) October 2, 2013
In the final game of the regular season, Gonzalez needed just four catches to reach 1,000 career receptions.
He had three in the first half before Mularkey changed the game plan in the second half and Gonzalez didn’t get the ball.
Atlanta still won the game, but Gonzalez went after his coach post game and accused Mularkey of preventing him from making his 1,000th catch.
Mularkey claimed that he didn’t realize Gonzalez was close to a milestone number but also reiterated how he ran an offense.
“I called plays to win the game,” Mularkey said. “I didn’t call plays to appease players. I don’t give a s— about that.”
Brink of a Super Bowl
As angry as Gonzalez was about not getting his 1,000 career reception that day, he passed the milestone and then some in 2010.
That year, the Falcons won 13 games (Mularkey received the Sporting News’ Offensive Coordinator of the Year award). Gonzalez caught 70 passes for over 600 yards and six touchdowns.
His numbers led to an 11th Pro Bowl.
Atlanta’s great season ended abruptly in the Divisional round when Green Bay came to town and thumped the Falcons, 48-21.
The team won 10 games in 2011 but lost again in the postseason, this time to the New York Giants, 24-2.
Gonzalez caught 80 passes that year and defenders were in awe that he was still nearly unstoppable.
“Exceptionally great hands,” then-Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “His hands are super soft, and anything that went his way, he was going to get. With the basketball, he could high-point the ball. So, even if I was covering him, I wasn’t covering him. There’s no way I can go up and get him.”
In 2012, everything nearly came together for Gonzalez and the Falcons.
Mularkey left before the season to become the head coach in Jacksonville. Gonzalez seemed to thrive without him, catching 93 passes for 939 yards and eight scores.
— Falcons Photos (@FalconsPhotos) October 16, 2013
With Ryan, Gonzalez, White, second-year receiver Julio Jones, Turner, and a physical defense, Atlanta went 13-3 and beat Seattle in the Divisional round.
The Falcons then hosted San Francisco in the NFC Championship game. The home team came out firing.
In the first half, Atlanta staked a 24-14 lead, partly the result of a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Gonzalez late in the second quarter.
Unfortunately, the second half was a complete reversal. The Niners shut out the Falcons, 14-0, leading to a final score of 28-24, San Francisco.
That left Atlanta at home instead of advancing to play in Super Bowl XLVII.
The agony of not reaching his first Super Bowl wore on Gonzalez, and he strongly considered retiring after 2012.
However, he came back for another year, hoping Atlanta could get one step closer to a world title.
Instead, the team went in the wrong direction and ended 2013 with a paltry 4-12 record.
— goforitradio (@goforitradiocom) August 9, 2019
Still, Gonzalez started every game and hauled in 83 passes for 859 yards and eight touchdowns.
His 14th Pro Bowl appearance set an all-time NFL record for a tight end and was the second most for any player in league history.
Gonzalez retired for good after 2013, although Tom Brady tried to coax him to return the following year.
In his long career, Gonzalez had 1,325 receptions, 15,127 yards, and 111 touchdowns.
He was a 14-time Pro Bowler, 10-time All-Pro, and led the NFL in receptions once.
Gonzalez’s receptions and receiving yards set NFL records for a tight end.
Even more astounding for someone who didn’t like contact as a kid, Gonzalez only missed two career starts due to injury.
After retirement, Gonzalez was named to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team, the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, and was inducted into the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame.
His induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019 cemented Tony Gonzalez’s legacy forever.
Busy in Retirement
Since retiring as a player, Gonzalez has stayed active as an actor and an NFL talking head.
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) February 18, 2014
As an analyst, Gonzalez has worked for CBS and Fox. He joined Amazon in 2022 as a Thursday Night Football commentator.
Gonzalez also enjoys acting. He has appeared in several television shows and movies including NCIS and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage.
Gonzalez and his wife, October, have three children, and he has another son from a previous relationship.
Arguably the best tight end in NFL history, Gonzalez’s career has inspired other franchises to look for athletes with talent similar to his.
This has led to a number of former college basketball players who have suited up for the NFL including Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Julius Peppers, and Julius Thomas.