Tony Gonzalez: Future Hall of Famer and so much more

Tony Gonzalez says he is lucky to be with the Falcons. "In the end, knowing what I know now, this is the best place I could have been."

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Tony Gonzalez says he is lucky to be with the Falcons. "In the end, knowing what I know now, this is the best place I could have been."

Need that impossible catch, the one that makes the SportsCenter crew speak in tongues?

If that’s all, just throw the ball up. And if Tony Gonzalez is anywhere around, he’ll more than likely grab it. Gonzalez, traded to the Falcons in April, is the NFL’s most accomplished tight end, already owning Hall of Fame numbers. He creates more mismatches than a Vegas wedding chapel.

According to the reviews traveling south with the Falcons new toy at tight end, the NFC South’s defensive coordinators should be developing a noticeable nervous tic about now.

“There’s nobody who can catch a ball or adjust to a ball in the air like (Gonzalez) can, probably not even wide receivers. You throw it to him when he’s covered. He always has the advantage in those situations,” said Dick Vermeil, his coach at Kansas City for five seasons.

But Gonzalez prides himself on being a man who runs deeper than any quick slant pattern. After all, he has exchanged book tips with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama — who recommended to Gonzalez Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season.” And he has co-starred with Oprah on the short-lived “Oprah’s Big Give” reality show. Obviously, there’s a lot more going on here other than football.

He’s not the ‘food police’

What if, say, you’re in the market for a little nutritional intervention?

Gonzalez is all over that, too, with his book released last week, “The All-Pro Diet.” It’s the perfect Labor Day gift for anyone seeking the physique of a “300” extra or a few new recipe uses for hemp milk.

Gonzalez is 33 now and got serious about his food a couple years ago. The result, he said, has been “a little bit extra energy and little better recovery than others” — just the kind of edge needed by a guy 10 Pro Bowls deep into a career.

Gonzalez experimented with being a strict vegan, but discovered he couldn’t fight off clingy linebackers with just carrot sticks. His diet required a little tweak, a protein boost, which wasn’t great news within the fish and fowl communities.

He may shoot a disapproving look at a teammate who loads up on pizza and cheesesteak, especially the night before a game. But he says he tries to keep his zeal on a leash: “I’m not the food police, I went through that stage.”

Particularly dedicated carnivores, football players are among the most resistant to Gonzalez’s message. As one of his training camp roommates, receiver Brian Finneran, vowed, “I like my filet mignon, my cowboy ribeyes. He’s not going to convert me.”

So you aren’t really looking for nutritional advice either? Let’s say you need another kind of food intervention.

Gonzalez has that covered. He can Heimlich like a pro.

It happened last July, in a restaurant near his home in Huntington Beach, Calif. A man — a San Diego fan, no less — began choking on a piece of steak and turning a bad shade of Chargers blue. Everyone froze, except the tall, hero-looking fella. Gonzalez bear-hugged the struggling diner, out popped the killer meat and everyone lived happily ever after.

Of course, none of it would have happened if the guy had ordered the black bean burger.

A coalition of cultures

The Falcons also have themselves a diversity instructor, should the need arise.

“One of the most common questions I get in my lifetime, and Tony gets it too: What are you?” said Gonzalez’s older brother, Chris, who is a fireman-in-training in California. “I just say we’re mixed – black, white, Jamaican, Hispanic, Portuguese.”

The Gonzalez family figures its coalition of cultures gives everyone in it an advantage in relating to just about anyone. That has to be a particular advantage to a football player fitting into a new locker room and a new city.

“We seem to have a commonality with everyone,” Chris said. “We can maintain who we are. But, at the same time, we can hang out with anybody.”

One grandfather was part African American, part Native American. Another came from Cape Verde, a Portugese Island off the African coast. His last name was Goncals, which an immigration agent changed to Gonzalez when he arrived in the U.S.

The genetic stew seems to have a long shelf life, which is useful information for a team that just traded for a 33-year-old tight end. His mother, Judy Gonzalez, is 62 and still works full time as a marketing director for an orthopedic rehab center. Her mother is 92 and lives on her own in the home Tony bought her and is as much a volunteer as a visitor at the local senior center.

In a pinch, Tony also could pitch in as a family counselor, testifying to the importance of support at home.

Growing up in SoCal, he wasn’t marked for athletic greatness; his family had no tradition in that area. His brother Chris was the pathfinder to the ballfield.

A football player from the time he was thigh pad high, Chris more or less insisted his younger brother play along. Disinterested, at best, in football, Tony had to be provoked into action.

“I had to rattle and push him to go to practice,” Chris said.

“Plenty of time, I wanted to go outside and throw some passes and he didn’t want to do it. So I would literally start a fight with him just to get him (angry) and get him up. Then, once he was already up, he’d say, ‘OK, let’s go outside and play.’”

“He idolized his big brother, and I think they are still the best friends in the world,” said Gonzalez’s stepfather, Michael Saltzman.

The younger Gonzalez would go on to Cal, growing into such an athlete that he played both football and basketball there, loving the latter but realizing a paycheck rested with the former.

But the lessons he learned at home were some of the real enduring ones.

How about this one: A future 6-5, 240-pound NFL star had to learn not to back down. A local tough terrorized Gonzalez through eighth grade, until, finally, after hiding out for most of his middle school graduation, Tony decided to face down the bigger boy. “That bully changed his life forever. After that, he was afraid of nothing,” Saltzman said.

And the lesson about having enough love in your heart to loan some out on demand: The Gonzalez household got a little crowded during Tony’s teenage years, when his mother and stepfather took in three of Chris’ friends who were in troubled homes. It was an informal arrangement, done because the kids seemingly had nowhere else to go.

“We started feeding them and taking care of them just like they were one of them (Tony and Chris). It was really good because all those boys are very successful now,” Judy said.

This is one interesting, multi-faceted tight end. He is a voracious reader, travels the world (it was Italy this off-season), is married to a stunning one-time singer named October, whose father was in the old Native American group Redbone (“Come and Get Your Love.”)

Plus, he is a father of two, with one more on the way. And a model — posing with his wife for an upcoming “I’d Rather be Naked than Wear Fur” PETA ad. He even found time to tend a garden back at his California home earlier this year.

Falcons are a nice fit

As far as the Falcons go, though, it gets back to the whole catching-everything-in-sight part of the package.

Just like a necklace can never have too many pearls, an offense can never have enough playmakers. The Falcons have a huge one, a player whose presence affects everyone else on the field.

“He’s generally bigger than most guys (who try to cover him), faster than most guys,” said Falcons free agent linebacker Jamie Winborn, a former Charger who regularly game-planned against him. “He creates mismatches everywhere.”

And Gonzalez needed a team with a future, having never won a playoff game in Kansas City. He became the all-time leading tight end in receptions (916), yards (10,940) and touchdowns (76) in the company of such quarterbacks as Elvis Grbac, Trent Green, Damon Huard and Tyler Thigpen. Think what he might accomplish with an ever-improving Matt Ryan.

“I wanted to go to team that had a good quarterback and had a good shot at the playoffs,” Gonzalez said. “There were about three teams I was looking at (hoping to be traded to). In the end, knowing what I know now, this is the best place I could have been. I got lucky.

“It really is a dream offense.”

It could be a dream situation for fans, as well, on the field and off. Beyond the receptions, everything else you get from Gonzalez is gravy. (Or, mango salsa, to those on the All-Pro diet).