The excerpts from Seth Wickersham's ESPN the Magazine profile of Tony Gonzalez kicked off a small firestorm. Fans excoriated Gonzalez for wanting a trade but not asking for one, and in turn fans excoriated other fans for doubting Gonzalez.
I've now read the entire piece, and I wanted to share what I could to help clear up some of the context issues that naturally surround a few quotes making their way into the Internet and giving birth to controversy.
Wickersham was with Gonzalez throughout the 2013 season, so he had a rare glimpse into what Gonzalez was thinking and feeling during what he vowed would be his last NFL season. Here's what I gleaned from the piece:
Nobody takes losing harder than Tony Gonzalez. He beats himself up, he's wracked with doubts, he chews his nail and he vents to his cousin. The profile paints a picture of an insanely competitive, insanely tough human being who isn't good at bottling his emotions.
It's clear that even early on, Gonzalez was waffling on his return a bit. He's so powerfully driven to be keep himself in peak physical condition that, as Wickersham puts it, "his body seems to be outlasting his will, rather than the reverse." Interestingly, Gonzalez was inspired enough by a Mike Smith pre-season speech about the desire to be great that he carried a notebook with notes jotted down by that speech with him.
His workouts, by the way, are nuts. He caught 500 passes a week out of breaks.
The losing was killing him. One quote: "Nobody could have foreseen this. If I knew this was going to happen, I wouldn't be here." After the first game of the season, he was stewing but trying to find his optimism. It didn't really get better from there, with Gonzalez worrying early on that Matt Ryan was being indecisive with the ball and that the injuries were decimating the team's lines.
Leadership is not something he embraces readily. In fact, he seems fearful of that particular role, something Wickersham traces back to schoolboy experiences with a pair of bullies who used to beat him up. He talks about being intimidated by Will Shields of the Chiefs during his regular season, and Wickersham points out that he has never addressed the team or "demanded of them what he demands from himself."
The Falcons were 2-5, the season was falling apart and Gonzalez was torn between not wanting to ask for a trade and wanting to go to a contender. Thomas Dimitroff had no intent to trade him, worrying about the message it would send to the locker room and concerned that it would take away Ryan's last viable target in the passing game.
This renders any discussion of potential draft picks moot. Dimitroff's flat refusal to entertain trade offers for Gonzalez is foolish on its face, even if I think his reasons for doing so are logical enough.
The Burnett comment is interesting, but I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it. For the record, it's not clear A) who heard the comment and B) that Burnett even said it, since he denies it. It well have been Jarrett Bush, who has a mouthier reputation and a similar number.
Gonzalez was ticked, per the article, but he did what he always does: Got it out and kept rolling. Smith gave a fiery (!) speech to the Falcons shortly after the deadline, saying they needed to not feel sorry for themselves. Gonzo said that's what he needed to hear, and that is the last mention of him grousing in any way, shape or form in the article. So it appears that, again, he was mad when it happened, but rolled past it like a professional. Here's the relevant quote from the moment he found out:
"Minutes pass, and Gonzalez's phone is quiet.At 4:01, an agonizing truth."Welp," Gonzalez says to Tobie, stifling hisanger, "we're staying here.""Well, shit," she says."
He's despondent through the week in Wickersham's telling, saying he acted like a pissed-off kid and even adding "I'm just going to leave. They're never going to see me again. I'm not going to care about them." With the whole team frustrated and angry, Smith "unloads" on the team, telling them to stop feeling sorry for themselves and saying they still had a chance to turn it around. Gonzalez appears to take that to heart, and this is the last mention of him complaining in the entire article.
In fact, he goes on to say that it was exactly what he needed to hear and with nine games left, "I'm not going to go out there and put shit on tape."
At the end of the year, Smith asked him to address the team. Gonzo and several Falcons tear up, and he receives a standing ovation when he's done. Keep in mind that this was the first time Gonzalez had to get up in front of the entire locker room and do this, per the article.
He told the team, in so many words, that they had failed, but there was opportunity for learning and growth in that failure.
Ryan said "if we're 10-0 next year, maybe we'll have you back" during Gonzo's retirement party. If he wanted to come back, the Falcons would welcome him back. Make no mistake about that.
What's most astonishing about this piece is that Gonzalez is, by this account, not a confident person. He is someone who is devastated, repeatedly during the 2013 season, by losses and setbacks. He says things like "I'm tired of the roller coaster" and "it's completely the opposite of what I thought it would be" repeatedly. When you're someone who takes everything that hard, it's not easy to get out of bed in the morning, but Gonzo repeatedly builds his hope back up, goes through his training routine and plays hard and plays well in Falcons games during a horrible season.
If we're going to admire the guy, let's not do so based on a fairy tale image of a man without faults. Let's do so because he worked insanely hard to overcome his faults and his fears and became the greatest tight end in NFL history. That's a great story.
Your thoughts on the piece? Remember it'll be available online next week, and it's on newsstands today.
UPDATE: Tony Gonzalez was on the Doug Gottlieb Show on CBS Sports Radio and had a few interesting comments.
On the last season: "The process of learning through adversity." He spoke of the losing being agonizing and blamed much of the team's struggles on injury. Repeatedly noted the injuries were a major issue throughout the season and felt it cost the team games.
On the trade deadline: "I never asked for a trade." Said he would never go up there and demand a trade. "If it is something that was on the table, yes, of course, I'd be willing to listen to it." He said that knowing it was his last year, and that the reason he came back was to get a Super Bowl, it would be something that he would have at least listened to. "Put yourself in my shoes," he said, and alluded to his strong desire to win.
He copped to being frustrated after the deadline, but not truly upset. He said he felt that way for "an hour," and he was back to playing football for the Falcons. He asked listeners to put themselves into the organization's shoes, as well, and noted that trading him away would have been akin to throwing in the towel. He said he understood the decision completely, particularly after the frustration passed.
On Matt Ryan: "He is an unbelievable talent, and he has unbelievable skill...there is no stopping him." Alluded to the offensive line issues and injuries to Julio Jones and Roddy White, holding him back. "He is an inch away" from being elite. Says "It's somewhat embarrassing on their part" of those who don't believe Ryan is an upper echelon quarterback. He was pretty effusive, in short.
On returning in 2014: Didn't rule out returning in 2014 if the Falcons were 10-0. Duh.
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