He grew up to be one of the best tight ends to ever strap on an NFL helmet. But Tony Gonzalez had several false starts in his early career, and he quit his youth team in his first season because he was the worst player on the field.
During eighth grade, Gonzalez was on the receiving end of bullying. “Because of that, I had no social life,” the now 43-year-old Fox Sports analyst remembers.
When the bully showed up at his junior high graduation, Gonzalez ran and hid after the ceremony. That moment of terror became a turning point.
“After my family found me and I saw the look on their faces, I felt so ashamed and I was so tired of being afraid,” he says. “I decided that I never wanted to run from things or be looked at that way again, so I found the courage to let go of my fear and stand up for myself.”
Learning that he could take and deliver a hit helped Gonzalez embrace the physicality of football, and he developed into a top high school talent. In 1997 he was drafted in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Gonzalez made an impact as a rookie — and throughout his 17-season career. In fact, many football insiders credit him with revolutionizing the position of tight end, from pass-blocking and pass protection to becoming a legitimate receiving threat.
When Gonzalez hung up his cleats in 2013, he left the field holding numerous NFL records for tight ends, including most receiving yards (15,127), most 100-yard receiving games (31), and most career receptions (1,325), second only to fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (1,549). Gonzalez is a six-time NFL All-Pro and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019.
These days he’s still facing down his fears and contributing to initiatives larger than himself. He’s joined the team at Scholars’ Hope Foundation, helping kids in his old neighborhood, and he has other projects in the works.
“I’ve been taking acting classes and I’m considering doing a podcast focusing on helping people — especially men — learn how to be vulnerable, how to forgive yourself, and how to really excel at life.”
Experience Life | What was your biggest challenge in your football career?
Tony Gonzalez | I’m a perfectionist — I want to be great and please everybody — and in that process, you’re going to screw up. So what’s really important is that you forgive yourself.
I learned that in my second year in the league. During that season, I led the NFL in dropped passes. Crowds booed me and I got a lot of bad press. I was beating myself up, and the reason I kept dropping balls wasn’t because I wasn’t working hard, because I was. It was because I was in a negative headspace.
I had to learn to have what they call a “one-snap” mentality — meaning that each snap or play is its own moment. Whatever happened during that snap, you leave it behind and focus on the next snap. It’s part of being present, but in order to be present, you have to forgive yourself, no matter what, and know that it’s OK to screw up but also to focus on getting it right this time.
That took me awhile. All this stuff is easier said than done. But it’s a process and you have to be willing to go through it. Whether it’s football or anything you want to do, you’ve got to sit there and be scared and vulnerable because that’s where growth lives.
EL | What helped you develop that one-snap mentality?
TG | I did a lot of visualization where I would sit down and close my eyes the night before and right before a game. I would visualize myself doing great things on the football field, doing great things on the practice field, and it carried over.
Now I meditate at least once or twice a day — usually every morning and every evening.
I practice six-phase meditation, created by Vishen Lakhiani. It’s a guided meditation that I did for about a month straight, and then I started doing it on my own.
It’s a great practice — you spend three minutes in each phase. You do three minutes on forgiveness and then three minutes on awareness or the light inside you that’s connected to the world. Then you do three minutes on what you’re grateful for from the day before. It can be anything — something good that happened to you or your family or seeing a beautiful sunset or tree.
The fourth stage is looking to the future: Here, you think about where you will be in three years. Go wild with that!
During the fifth stage, you focus on what you need to do today in order to make those things come into your life in three years. You see yourself going about your day accomplishing those things.
The sixth phase is saying thank you to a higher power like God or whatever you believe in.
EL | What has been key to your success on and off the field?
TG | Before I was anything, I was curious and I always wanted to keep learning. No matter where you’re at in life, you have to keep asking yourself, Is what I’m doing working for me? Is this where I want to be?
You also have to be willing to be honest with yourself when answering. The greatest gift you can give to yourself is honesty, and if the answer is no, then you’ve got to keep searching and keep trying to expand.
While my attitude is always about trying to get better, I try to balance that with trying to be happy where I’m at. You can’t get caught up in the past, and you can’t get caught up in your goals. Set your goals, but then let them go. Let’s be happy now, because that’s where we’re developed. If you’re not taking care of your business right now, then you’ll never get to where you want to go.
I also love reading. Books have been my biggest teachers. In my third season in the NFL, I got into reading motivational books, biographies about coaches, such as Vince Lombardi, Lou Holtz, and Phil Jackson, and reading about players like Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice. Then I started reading books on spirituality by people like Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra.
Concentrating on developing who I am as a person no doubt made me a better football player.
EL | How and why did you get involved with Scholars’ Hope Foundation?
TG | The organization was originally called El Viento, which means “the wind” in Spanish. It’s a local charity that’s been around for about 20 years in Huntington Beach, Calif., where there’s a square-mile radius that is one of the poorest districts in all of America. It’s a predominantly Mexican community where two and three generations of families live in little apartments. The organization developed a kids’-advancement program centered around math, science, and English, but also on developing emotional intelligence, grit, curiosity, and belief in yourself, as well as forgiveness of yourself.
These are all things that I’m a big believer in. I don’t care how smart you are: If you don’t have a full circle that includes joy, happiness, and willingness to go through and learn from what you fear, then you can’t be a successful person.
The organization is expanding into different communities, which is why they changed the name so that it would feel more like something everyone can relate to. When I found out about the expansion, I jumped at the chance to get onboard, because I believe that what’s holding the world back can be changed through developing the mind and hearts of kids in second and third grade. That’s where you can start to change generations.