Tony Gonzalez: The other side of fear

photo of Tony Gonzalez
Cal Athletics/Courtesy

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I
n the summer of 1996, Tony Gonzalez moved into a small apartment in Southside. The cramped, 800-square-foot studio was hardly big enough for the 6’5” tight end and power forward, and certainly not big enough for an additional guest.

It didn’t need to be big enough for guests, anyway. Gonzalez, who had spent his first two years in Berkeley at the Clark Kerr dorms, had moved into a studio just off Telegraph Avenue in order to refocus his attention on athletics and classwork. The dorms, while enjoyable, were full of distractions.

It was the first time Gonzalez had ever lived alone. At least, it was the first time he thought he lived alone.

“I remember a couple times during the year, I would feel, as I was sleeping or napping, somebody sitting at the end of my bed,” Gonzalez said. “One night, I was sleeping and somebody started rocking me back and forth. Like literally, physically where it woke me up. And as I’m waking up and rocking back and forth, I can feel hands on me like somebody’s feeling and pushing me. And I’m like, ‘holy s—.’ It scared the s— out of me. I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

By this time, Gonzalez was a surefire first-round draft choice in the 1997 NFL draft and the most highly rated tight end in the country. He had just helped Cal to its most recent Sweet 16 appearance after dropping 23 points in the Bears’ round of 32 matchup against Villanova. The 1996 Consensus All-American football player had made up his mind — he would leave Cal and enter his name into the NFL draft. But not before finding out who had secretly kept him company all year.

“My landlord was walking me out to my car, and he’s like: ‘Hey, good luck to you.’ He knew I was going to get drafted at that point,” Gonzalez said. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, it’s a shame about that lady and what happened to her before.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? What lady? What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘Oh, the lady that lived there before you. She died in the apartment and was there for about three weeks before we smelled her.’ ”

When asked if he was sure it was the lady’s ghost who had shaken him in his sleep, the 45- year-old former NFL star with four children was unhesitating and based on his tone, still shaken by the experience.

“I’m telling you, something else was in there,” Gonzalez said. “I absolutely believe in ghosts now because of that experience.”

It’s somewhat fitting that Gonzalez had to fend off a ghost before leaving Berkeley. As the all-time great likes to tell his children, “life takes off on the other side of fear.” And for Cal student-athlete Tony Gonzalez, that adage could not have been more true.

B
y the end of Gonzalez’s senior year football season at Huntington Beach High School, it’s likely that every college coach in the nation knew his name. The two-sport phenomenon held offers from all of the biggest football and basketball programs in the country. Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida State, Syracuse and Michigan State, to name a few, all wanted the future Hall-of-Famer on both their football and basketball teams.

Despite the dizzying number of options, by the middle of his senior year, Gonzalez had made up his mind and verbally committed to Arizona.

Gonzalez made sure to mention the fact that, unlike today, Arizona was a powerhouse in both football and basketball in the mid-’90s — an obvious attraction for the big-name recruit. Future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, who was on the verge of coaching the Wildcats to a second Final Four appearance under his tenure, recruited Gonzalez hard during his senior year of high school and for good reason. Gonzalez averaged 27 points per game in his last year at Huntington Beach High, which remains one of the highest averages in state history. Arizona’s football program, which was notorious at the time for its stifling ‘Desert Swarm’ defense under head coach Dick Tomey, had finished the 1993 season ranked No. 10 in the country after a walloping finish against Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.

At the time, Cal was hardly on the teenager’s radar.

“Cal was okay, but it wasn’t, you know, like a football power,” Gonzalez said. “So I was taking (Cal) kind of seriously, but not really.”

But while sitting in his living room at home one night, Gonzalez’s stepfather suggested that he explore some more options. He still hadn’t used all of his official visits, and Berkeley was a relatively short drive away.

When the high-rated recruit made his way up to Berkeley, then-head basketball coach Todd Bozeman pulled out all the stops — future NBA Hall of Famer Jason Kidd hosted Gonzalez during his visit and took him to watch a Golden State Warriors basketball game at the Oakland Arena, the team’s home court at the time. Kidd, who was named a consensus All-American in 1993, and Lamond Murray, who had made the All Pac-10 first team for the last years running, had led Cal to a Sweet 16 appearance two years prior. A starstruck Gonzalez began to see the potential of teaming up with some of the best college basketball players in the nation on a program that was on the rise.

Tremaine Fowlkes, a highly rated forward whom Gonzalez had played against while Fowlkes was at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, and Jelani Gardner, a McDonald’s All-American guard from St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, were also considering heading to Cal, which enticed 18-year-old Gonzalez even more. According to Gonzalez, the three recruits ended up deciding collectively to team up in Berkeley.

It wasn’t until later on that Gonzalez expressed a real interest in Cal’s football program.

“Dave Barr was there and he was a Heisman hopeful. And I’m like, ‘this is the perfect place,’ ” Gonzalez said. “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.’ ”

Those who do not know about Tony Gonzalez’s past might reasonably assume that the next part of the story has the generational talent sauntering onto campus and lighting up scoreboards from day one before leaving a few years later. But his time at college was far from a walk in the park. It was more like, well, a nightmare at The Farm.

O
n Nov. 18, 1995, Cal played Stanford in the 98th Big Game. It was the final game of the 1995 season for Gonzalez and the Bears, as their meager three wins did not qualify them for any bowl game.

Much like the program, Gonzalez was struggling. The first-team All-American in high school had not made the All-Pac-10 team in either of his first two seasons at Cal and did not even receive an honorable mention, a point he made sure to emphasize.

But on that afternoon in Palo Alto, Gonzalez played the game of his life. The tight-end had a career-best 10 receptions for 150 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinal, which remains one of his best-ever statistical performances at any level. The sophomore was finally coming into his own.

Down 17-23 in the fourth quarter, Cal had the ball at around its own 20-yard line with just under 9 minutes to play. Gonzalez ran a quick out route to the right side, and quarterback Pat Barnes found him right behind the line of scrimmage.

Suddenly the ball was on the turf, and Stanford recovered it. The Cardinal had stripped Gonzalez of the football and the Bears of victory.

“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 endzone, I want to start crying.”

Stanford scored a touchdown, failed to convert the 2-point conversion and Cal ran out of time, losing by a final score of 29-24. The sophomore tight end was inconsolable.

“I remember being in the locker room. I was crying while the coach was talking to us. I’m sitting on the ground with my head between my knees. And I’m not even really listening to what the coach is saying,” Gonzalez said. “And then after they break everybody, I stayed right there and I just could not stop crying. It’s probably one of the biggest cries I’ve ever had in my life.”

You read that right: Gonzalez cried “uncontrollably” while Keith Gilbertson delivered what would be his final postgame speech as the Bears’ head coach. It’s safe to assume that the sophomore’s distress was caused not by Gilberston’s imminent departure but rather by arguably costing Cal the Big Game.

That was what Gonzalez thought he felt at the time — frustration from having let his team down. But 35 years later, Gonzalez, who describes himself as a “very self-reflective person” and attributes much of his success to his ability to self-reflect, has a better understanding now of what he was actually experiencing.

Something else had been subconsciously troubling the 19-year-old. As it turns out, Gonzalez had been afraid of something much scarier than any ghost or fumbling the football in a rivalry game. He was deathly afraid of what he could do if only he tried.

B
efore he became the legendary Tony Gonzalez, he was the Tony Gonzalez who lived at the Clark Kerr dorms and ate at the Cal dining halls.

“I had my little card on me to go get lunch,” Gonzalez said. “It was awful back then.”

Maybe some things never change. Aside from the food, Gonzalez enjoyed himself — sometimes a little too much — as one might expect of any star college athlete.

“I liked to get something to drink and some other stuff. The legal stuff now,” Gonzalez said with a chuckle. “And play video games. (I was) absolutely wasting a lot of my time. That’s what I did my first two years.”

Playing NBA Live with the mid-1990s Bulls teams “and some other stuff” is what the two-sport athlete did in his limited free time. Between year-round practice, early morning workouts and attending the best public university in the world, it’s a miracle that Gonzalez had any free time at all.

The intensity of his schedule, along with the other innumerable stresses that come with being a college student, took a serious toll on Gonzalez.

“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.”

Attending class simply was not on the underclassman’s long list of priorities. The Tony Gonzalez of today is an avid reader and dogged learner, and would not dare skip classes, let alone classes taught by campus professors who, to his constant amazement, often “write the damn textbooks.”

At the time, though, anything that got in the way of football, basketball or “dankin’ and drinkin’,” as he called it, was a nuisance.

“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.’ ”

Football was where Gonzalez was supposed to show up and perform. But even then, for much of his first two years on campus, the tight end struggled to live up to his “No. 1 football recruit” title.

Getting matched up against fourth- and fifth-year defensive ends didn’t help his confidence. Neither did playing against players such as fellow freshman and future NFL defensive back Brandon Whiting, who quickly broke into Cal’s starting lineup. Gonzalez was supposed to be the young star, and the frustration grew.

The problem, as Gonzalez recalls, was that he was afraid of getting hit. To be fair, the freshman had to line up against some of the scariest defensive ends in the conference day after day. Gonzalez remembers one in particular: defensive end Andy Jacobs.

“I think he was on some other stuff. And he was on our team. I mean, he was crazy,” Gonzalez said. “He was always just yelling in these half cut-off shirts. I remember watching him lift in the weight room. He’s yelling and screaming lifting 500 pounds, it seemed like, and he’s the guy I have to go up against to block.”

His “welcome to college football” moment, as a matter of fact, was getting pushed 5 yards into the backfield by Jacobs in a 9-on-7 drill. Gonzalez recalls not being able to walk after Jacobs put him in the dirt.

There was hardly any time to recover, either. As soon as football season ended, Gonzalez was out on the basketball court. Unfortunately for him, all the talent in the world could not prepare him for a Division I basketball season after playing football exclusively for months before.

“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.”

Metaphorically speaking, that was life in a nutshell for the future NFL star for at least a few years: getting flattened by Jacobs day after day and then expecting to be one of the best athletes in the conference year-round.

The problem, though, was not his schedule. Gonzalez was more than capable of handling the pressure and expectations. His work ethic, or lack thereof, is what stood in his way. But before he could start applying himself, he had to stop being afraid of his own potential.

“You just know it when you’re doing the best you can, and you know when you’re not, and sometimes you try to keep running from it,” Gonzalez said. “I was in a pressure situation looking back. … I had so many people telling me, ‘you have so much potential,’ and I would show flashes, too. That was the thing. You know when you’ve got it. Talent can’t help but show up every once in a while.”

One night during his sophomore year, shortly after his nightmarish Big Game mistake, Gonzalez finally stopped running. He had been out late with some friends, enjoying himself “Berkeley style,” as he called it, and decided to take a hike up into the Berkeley Hills.

He recalls looking out over the Bay and seeing planes taking off from Oakland Airport. It was then that Gonzalez woke up.

“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.”

Gonzalez started going to class regularly, something he had not been in the habit of doing. For his third year, he moved into that haunted apartment on Southside and stopped doing “a lot of that recreational stuff.” Moving in on his own provided Gonzalez with time and (some) space to clear his head and self-reflect.

About six months later, after being named a consensus All-American tight end, he was drafted No. 13 overall in the NFL Draft and hopped on a plane to Kansas City.

N
ow in his mid-40s, Gonzalez is a family man. He and his family are currently in the middle of a move from Beverly Hills to Austin, Texas. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2019 and recently stepped down from his position as an NFL analyst for Fox Sports to pursue a career in TV and film.

He is a different Tony Gonzalez from the one who fumbled the football in the Big Game nearly three decades ago. But perhaps what has changed most about Gonzalez since his early college years is his relationship with fear.

The fear of Jacobs tearing him in half, getting walloped by Whiting on a crossing route or fumbling the football in a high-intensity situation held him back for so long. More broadly speaking, it was the fear of disappointing all of the people who knew just how talented and promising he was — his family, his coaches and his teammates — that plagued him for his first two rather hellish years at Cal.

And even after gaining confidence in his third year and becoming the first tight end taken in the 1997 NFL Draft, Gonzalez did not rid himself of fear, to be sure. It was present throughout his first few years in the league, during which he struggled with dropped passes and mental errors.

But the self-reflective Gonzalez of today can see clearly that those struggles were not impediments to his success. Rather, they were vital to it.

“Life takes off on the other side of fear,” Gonzalez said.

Indeed, Gonzalez’s life took off after his third year in Berkeley. While it’s still unclear whether or not his time with his invisible guest scared him into becoming one of the greatest football players of all time, it doesn’t really matter. A little fear never hurt anyone.

The other side isn’t half bad, either. Or so I’ve heard.

William Cooke covers football. Contact him at [email protected].