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The Transformative Power of Tony Gonzalez
August 03, 2009
Is he the best tight end ever? That's up for debate. What isn't in question is his determination to help turn the upstart Falcons into Super Bowl contenders
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August 03, 2009

The Transformative Power Of Tony Gonzalez

Is he the best tight end ever? That's up for debate. What isn't in question is his determination to help turn the upstart Falcons into Super Bowl contenders

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The security guard manning the checkpoint of the gated community overlooking the Pacific is pleased to inform you that your name is on the list. A series of lefts brings you to the street where Tony Gonzalez lives, in a Spanish-style home that, while not gauche or over the top, isn't quite small enough to be called a McMansion. ¶ As you pull up to the house, a stunning woman in a white Range Rover is pulling out. Tony's wife, October, bestows a dazzling smile upon you. The family is off to Italy the next day, and she has errands to run. ¶ You walk up the driveway and enter a small courtyard, past the garage containing, among other items, a tandem bike and a set of free weights. Following a path to the left, you come upon a backyard that is part Mediterranean hideaway, part Tony G's Water Park 'n' Fun Zone. A putting green abuts the basketball court, hard by the grass volleyball court, from where it is but a short walk to the hot tub, which serves as the headwaters for a miniwaterfall that gurgles into the pool.

The cars, the toys, the smoking-hot wife, the theme park posing as a backyard—it's all par for the course (or putting green) for today's professional athlete. Gonzalez hasn't come out of his house yet, but you feel as if you already have a handle on the guy. Then he appears on his patio, invites you to sit and starts answering questions. Over the next hour you are reminded again and again why it's a bad idea to judge people before you get to know them.

Gonzalez, 33, is one of the best tight ends in NFL history. In 12 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs he caught 916 passes for 10,940 yards and 76 touchdowns. Twenty-six times he had more than 100 yards receiving in a game. All these are NFL records for his position. But on the Thursday before last spring's NFL draft, the Chiefs traded their 10-time Pro Bowl selection to the Atlanta Falcons for a second-round pick next year. When training camp opens this week, Gonzalez will be wearing a uniform other than the Chiefs' for the first time since his college days as a football and basketball star at Cal.

It bears noting that Gonzalez is thinking of franchising his Xtreme Clean 88, a commercial cleaning business. "We do carpet cleaning, construction cleanup, even crime-scene cleanup," he says. In that case the company's services might be required in the Chiefs' offices, because a lot of people think the Falcons stole Gonzalez.

First-year Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli dealt the future Hall of Famer in part because Gonzalez wanted to put the franchise in his rearview mirror. He was not at the end of his career, but he could see it from Kansas City last season, as the Chiefs lost 14 games, worst in the AFC and most in team history. "While we were struggling," he recalls, "I was reading My Losing Season, by Pat Conroy. It was about his college [basketball] team. They were horrible, but he learned a lot about himself during that time. I agree—you do learn the most about yourself, you grow as a person, when you go through tough times. And I feel I've done enough learning and growing to last me the next five years."

Conroy's is the first of a half-dozen books Gonzalez mentions during the conversation—not including the two he's cowritten. The first was Catch & Connect, a children's book in which he detailed his diverse ancestry ("My mother's family includes African-Americans, Caucasians and Native Americans. My father's heritage is Jamaican, Portuguese and Scottish") and his struggles growing up ("There was a time when playing football frightened me.... I was kind of a geek and a coward. Girls ignored me").

His second book, The All-Pro Diet, will be released on Aug. 18. Written with his nutritionist, Mitzi Dulan, it is Gonzo's guide to "losing weight, gaining muscle and living a healthier life." His regimen is not the sort that Artie Donovan, for one, might have appreciated. Three years ago, Gonzalez says, he switched to a "whole foods, plant-based diet—completely vegan. At first I had to learn to get my protein. I wasn't getting enough lentils." He eventually concluded that veganism might not be wise for someone whose job includes power-blocking 290-pound defensive ends. "So I started educating myself on how much meat is O.K., what types of meat are O.K.," he says. "It's been a learning process."

Gonzalez did not casually make the decision to alter his diet so radically. He had two triggering events. Before recounting them, he asks a visitor if he has read The Transformative Power of Crisis, by Robert M. Alter and Jane Alter. No? He recommends it.

Three years ago, after suffering a two-day headache, Gonzalez began to feel numb on the right side of his face. He responded to this alarming development by ... waiting for it to go away. Finally October told him, "Something's wrong. You could be having a stroke. You're going to the hospital." Gonzalez received a diagnosis of Bell's Palsy, a facial paralysis caused by a malfunctioning nerve. The condition responded well to acupuncture, and he has not had a recurrence.

A bigger scare came at a minicamp about a month later. After having blood drawn during a team physical, Gonzalez was approached by an anguished-looking Chiefs trainer, who told him he needed a second test. "Something came up in your blood," the trainer said. The more Gonzalez pressed him to be specific ("F------ TELL ME!"), the more evasive the trainer was. After giving blood a second time, Gonzalez took a call from a doctor who'd analyzed the first results. "There's something very wrong here," the doctor said. Gonzalez's white-blood-cell count was way off. How did he feel? Was his energy low? Was he bruising easily?

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