Kansas City Chiefs

Why overheated Chiefs fans should chill and embrace Tony Gonzalez

When Tony Gonzalez went to Utah last month to sit and be measured and otherwise probed for his Pro Football Hall of Fame bust by artist Blair Buswell, he understood that Buswell sought to convey his essence instead of his mere appearance.

Part of that meant simply asking Gonzalez what expression he wanted to project on a representation that Gonzalez figures “could be there for 1,000 years.” He considered the options presented by Buswell, who has molded some 100 of these for the Hall of Fame as its primary sculptor since 1983 and has been known to dissuade open-mouthed smiles for the bronzing — what with brown teeth seeming unappealing and all.

While Gonzalez wondered on Twitter if he should “mean mug or smile,” there never really was a question.

“Smile,” he said, in fact smiling from across a table at his home on Wednesday. “I’ve got to just go with me.”

So that’s how the man who refined, if not redefined, the tight end position with the Chiefs (and, yes, continued doing so with the Falcons) will appear when he’s inducted on Aug. 3 in Canton, Ohio, along with seven others including Chiefs’ safety extraordinaire Johnny Robinson.

And here’s hoping that some disillusioned Chiefs fans will now smile back, stop fixating on ultimately puny grievances and just go with him on this journey.

His impulsive sound bite that it “made my career” to play with the Falcons, stated in Atlanta with an Atlanta audience in mind in the emotional afterglow of being elected to the Hall of Fame there on Feb. 2, needn’t make him dead to you … as has become trendy to say one way or another on social media and likely beyond in some circles.

Seems like it should count that around the same time that day Gonzalez said, “The KC Chiefs, the fans out there. I hope they’re proud because we’re proud. We’re proud to be Chiefs.

And that he cared enough about how it was taken that he promptly tweeted out a video calling Kansas City fans second to none and writing that he “wouldn’t be here without you.”

A cynic might call that “walking it back,” but I remember feeling funny about it all at the time. But a more measured view would be that he thought it was important to try to clarify or atone. Don’t we all blurt out things we might regret?

Resent him if you want, of course, but it’s a waste of energy and what’s the point?

Maybe the simple truth is that, sure, he wishes he’d chosen his words “a little bit better” in February. But he doesn’t think either city is “better or worse” than the other. They each stand for two different places and stages of his life that had profound impacts on him.

One certainly doesn’t erase the other or mean that he means this any less: “I love Kansas City; I became a man in Kansas City; I grew up in Kansas City,” he said Wednesday. “I mean, I was there for 12 years. That’s a long time. A whole career worth. More than a career.”

Maybe it would be different if Gonzalez really did pick a side … and decided on the wrong one. (Sorry, Atlanta.)

But let’s remember that he doesn’t get to (or have to, as the case may be) choose an official affiliation for this.

“An enshrinee … is is not asked to ‘declare,’ nor does the Hall of Fame ‘choose’ a team under which a new member is enshrined,” the Hall of Fame writes. “When elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an individual is recognized for accomplishments as a player, coach, or contributor.”

Of course, some of the adverse reaction might have been because of the reason his career didn’t actually end in Kansas City. So let’s look back at that, too.

Does the fact that he sought a trade from a then-flailing Chiefs organization to a competitive team with the clock turning towards the twilight of his career make him a traitor, as some gripe?

Or just somebody who wanted … to play … in a Super Bowl?

As a wise friend of mine put it, that notion to go elsewhere reasonably precludes him from approaching consideration for the regional sports Mt. Rushmore status enjoyed by the likes of George Brett and Len Dawson because of their long careers in Kansas City, championship legacies and major presences here after retirement.

But should the aging Gonzalez really be persona non grata for wanting to leave an organization that went 6-26 in his last two years, 95-97 in 12 regular seasons, 0-3 in the playoffs in that span and was about to hire the fifth coach in his time here?

If that still is lodged in your craw, hear him out about why he was seeking a trade during the 2-14 2008 season.

“Because I didn’t know how much longer I have (to play), and I can’t rebuild — I don’t have time to rebuild,” he said. “You can’t tell the 80-year-old man or woman, ‘Let’s settle down and have a family.’ …

“I was the 80-year-old man on the team. They literally called me ‘Old Man.’”

Laughing at himself as he roamed deeper into the analogies, he added, “This old man’s got to go get it now. … I’ve got to marry the lady who has kids that are already grown.”

No doubt the awkward way it played out didn’t help perception. Gonzalez was on the verge of being traded mid-season 2008 when prospective deals fell through for one reason or another depending on who you ask.

Suffice to say Gonzalez was angry at then-president and general manager Carl Peterson. But that has long since healed and they have a meaningful relationship to this day. Over time, Gonzalez even came to understand Peterson’s reluctance.

“’If I let you go, what does that tell the fans?’ Stuff like that,” Gonzalez said. “Business is business; I get it. I probably wouldn’t have let me go either.”

Trouble was, with the request and his disappointment known, critics blasted him. So Gonzalez did what seems an admirable thing: He asked coach Herm Edwards permission to address the team.

Gonzalez recalled telling his teammates he wasn’t pouting or giving up and that he was fully invested in playing with and for them. Question that, but his statistics backed it up: His 96 catches, 10 touchdowns and 1,058 yards made it among the most productive seasons of his prolific career.

After a regime change, new general manager Scott Pioli in 2009 at last traded Gonzalez for a second-round pick that became cornerback Javier Arenas, who later was traded to Arizona for fullback and current Chief Anthony Sherman.

In hindsight, Gonzalez feels fortunate he got out not only because of how he felt in Atlanta but also because he wouldn’t have adapted well to the Pioli-Todd Haley dramas that foretold the bizarre chaos ahead.

“We would never have mixed personalities,” said Gonzalez, 43, now a broadcaster for Fox among many other pursuits. “Nothing against those guys, because I don’t know them that well. I just know what I heard (about) the way their styles were, I would have retired anyway …

“I’m not saying it doesn’t work. Maybe it works for some people. But that point, I’m too old (for that).”

It sure seems like a lot of work to see this all as grudge-worthy. Or to invalidate his time here.

What should resonate more than anything is that the longest and most substantial part of his passage was through the Chiefs, who drafted him 13th overall in 1997 when Peterson traded up.

It was in Kansas City that Gonzalez morphed into a superstar by infusing his natural gifts with a quenchless thirst to get better after dropping 16 passes (even while catching 59) his second season.

It was in Kansas City that he made his name as a five-time All-Pro, after all, Kansas City where he launched a career that included 111 touchdowns on 1,325 career receptions (second in NFL history) and 15,127 yards (the most by a tight end).

Most of those totals, naturally, were amassed here: 916 catches for 10,940 yards and 76 touchdowns.

His remarkable durability, missing just two career starts after his rookie year, includes the overlooked distinction that only one player, Hall of Famer Will Shields, has started more games for the Chiefs (174 to Shields’ 223).

Think about that a second.

So he’d doubtless be bound for Canton even if he never played for Atlanta, where he appeared in more playoff games (with the Falcons going 1-3) in his first four seasons than he did in a dozen in Kansas City before retiring after the 2013 season.

This is a time of deep reflection for the pensive Gonzalez, who is thinking about how he got here, all the pivot points and the people along the way, something we’ll explore in-depth soon.

But know this now: When he goes into the Hall of Fame, it will be with reverence for having been a Chief, deep appreciation for the organization even if he at times was at odds with it and cherishing that he’s going in with Robinson.

The blend of the senior candidate who waited decades for this and Gonzalez in the first year he was eligible makes for a relatively rare occurrence with the Pro Football Hall of Fame: two people best known for their time with one organization being inducted on the same day.

“How cool is that, KC? We’ve been blessed with all the players who’ve come through there — and look what’s happening now,” Gonzalez said, adding that he “couldn’t be happier” about the rise of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and seeing the development of such stars as tight end Travis Kelce. “He’s on his way to being a first-ballot guy, too.”

So isn’t it OK if he appreciates his time in Atlanta, too?

Forgive him if he could have chosen his words better that day, and he’s sorry to anyone he offended.

But remember he still has “a lot of people on the ground in Kansas City,” including relatives, and still is part of some philanthropic causes here (such as Shadow Buddies) and certainly knows this team and this area played a crucial role in who he is today.

“You’ll see me walking around that city for the rest of my life,” he said. “Every once in a while, you’ll see me there.”

Since we all know Kansas City, well, made his career.

And that’s the thing to go with here.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.