Tony Gonzalez is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, playing 17 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. It’s easy to forget that Gonzalez, 42, also played college basketball at Cal, advancing to the Sweet 16 in the 1997 NCAA Tournament. We caught up with the two-sport star to talk hoops, Martyball, life philosophy and a great guacamole recipe.
You played football and basketball at Cal. Did those two worlds ever collide?
I remember [Cal] playing Stanford in basketball. I'm in the middle of a basketball game and I look over and [Kansas City Chiefs coach] Marty Schottenheimer's there scouting me, which was one of the coolest things that every happened.
Did somebody point him out to you?
I knew who he was. I saw those big old thick glasses sitting in the front row, checking me out. Marty was great, honestly. I only had him for two years and he never got to see the best of me. I'm probably one of the reasons he got fired. My second year was not that good. But he was a legend. He was a lot of fun.
Do you ever watch basketball and think certain players on the court would be great on the football field?
I see it all the time. There are guys from the college level that will never make it to the NBA that I look at and say, “If you just worked on defensive end or worked on tight end or worked on receiver you could play in the NFL. Just from an athletic standpoint.”
Every small forward in the NBA, every point guard. Imagine Kobe [Bryant] playing receiver. Imagine [Allen] Iverson. Shoot, Russell Westbrook! What if he played receiver? There's so many guys out there. Jason Kidd, he was 6'4", 220 pounds, that guy would have been an unbelievable quarterback.
Who’s the best tight end today, the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski or Chiefs’ Travis Kelce?
Nobody's like Gronk. Because he is 6' 7", 270 pounds, you just throw the ball up in the air. In term of athleticism and running with the ball after the catch, I love what Kelce does. I think he's the best tight end in the league at doing that.
Both of those guys have had injury issues. What was the secret to your durability?
Luck is first and foremost. But after that, learning how to run with the ball. I studied that, too. When I'd get the ball in my hands after the catch I always knew how to get out of the way. I was never a fan of players who catch the ball and go down before they get hit. I'm not doing that, but I'll just move out of the way. I think my basketball background really helped me be able to avoid that straight-on hit from getting tackled.
I read an interview you did with Esquire, where you said your motto is “Life takes off on the other side of fear.” Explain that philosophy…
Whatever makes you afraid that you want to do, then that's what you have to do. The feeling that you get when you conquer your fear, it's unbelievable. It's the reason why usually young players, you see them when they make a catch over the middle and they come down and they go nuts and they start celebrating and you hear people saying “Why is he celebrating? He just made a catch, it's not that big of a deal.” But the reason he's celebrating so hard is because he's been preparing for that and he's been scared. Me, I can make that same catch and I'll throw the ball to the ref like it's no big deal because I've done it before. But I have to keep searching, keep looking for ways to keep challenging myself, keep going through that fear.
What particular fears have you had to overcome?
Shoot! How about just the transition to life after football? Presenting yourself on air, talking, saying a joke, asking a girl out… I was shy like every other guy out there. I'm not just talking sports. As human beings, there's stuff that you always have that fear behind. What if I do this wrong? Or what if I go for it? What if I set my goals too high? Or what if I never get there? It's going to devastate me. I'm going to disappoint a lot of people, so I might as well play it safe. So, that's what I meant by “Life takes off on the other side of fear.”
On a lighter note, you played for so long; did you ever see any good pranks in the locker room or on a road trip?
The greatest prank every pulled, I was there. Seriously, greatest prank ever. We're on a plane coming back from Tokyo. We played in Japan Bowl preseason against Brett Farve and the Packers. This is 1998 and we're flying back and the lottery was going on. All the guys on the team are playing the lottery, believe it or not. The lottery was up to like $200 million, the most ever up to that point.
So we're flying back and I'm sitting on an aisle seat and inside against the window is this quarterback named Pat Barnes. I actually played with him at Cal-Berkeley and he's the same year as me, we're second-year guys. The captain comes on and starts and says — remember, we're on like a 12-hour flight back to the states — and he goes, “I know you guys are out there playing the lottery. You guys want to know the numbers? They announced the numbers.” So the captain starts rattling off the numbers and all the guys are sitting in their seats marking the numbers off, seeing if they're going to win this $200 million or whatever.
Pat Barnes is sitting next to me and he's got like six, seven tickets in front of him. The captain rattles off all the numbers and he starts marking off and I see him start to get excited. And then he starts jumping up and down and then the captain finishes the numbers and he's looking at his ticket and he's like, “Holy shit!” He starts cussing and he's like “I fucking won! I fucking won!” And he looked at me and he goes, “Get the hell out of the way!” And he pushes me out of the way and starts going up and down the aisle yelling and screaming and goes up to his position coach and he's like “Fuck you! And fuck football! I hate this shit!” And then all of a sudden, the quarterbacks come. Rich Gannon and Elvis Grbac, they come, they had got his ticket and had given the numbers to the captain to rattle off. They had to grab him. And he got cut, he got cut like two weeks later.
Tony’s Touchdown Guacamole
“The cool thing about guacamole is the versatility,” says Gonzalez, a brand ambassador for Avocados from Mexico. “You can make mango guacamole, you can put shrimp in there, pomegranate seeds, all these different types of guacamole that you can come up with to create a nice healthy snack.”
Here’s a blank-canvas recipe, plus a BBQ peach twist as a tribute to Tony’s two NFL cities — Kansas City (BBQ dry rub) and Atlanta (peaches). “In honor of the teams I played for,” Gonzalez says. “A little Kansas City barbecue rub on top of some peaches to represent Atlanta. Mix that in with your guacamole and it is delicious.”
2 ripe Avocados from Mexico (halved, pitted, meat scooped out, roughly mashed or diced)
3 Tbsp chopped white onion
2 Tbsp coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
2 Tbsp finely chopped jalapeño or serrano chili
2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tsp kosher or coarse sea salt
BBQ Dry Rub:
2 Tbsp dry mustard powder
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cayenne chili powder
1 tsp ground black pepper
• Heat a grill pan over medium heat.
• Rub the BBQ Rub on 1 cup fresh or thawed frozen peach slices.
• Once grill pan is hot, brush with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil.
• Grill the peach slices a couple minutes per side. Remove from the heat.
• Once cool enough, coarsely chop and top over guacamole.