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 all kinds."
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.