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Tony Gonzalez on the Pro Bowl and more

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Our Jeanna Thomas caught up with Tony Gonzalez to get his thoughts on the evolution of the tight end position, the Pro Bowl, and more.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

After a long and storied NFL career, Tony Gonzalez has successfully made the transition to broadcasting. I had the opportunity to catch up with Gonzalez about his transition to the booth, the Pro Bowl, and more.

During his time in the NFL, Gonzalez had a reputation for always being mentally and physically prepared for game days. He says that focus has helped him bridge the gap between the NFL and the booth, and that he brings that same focus on preparedness to his current endeavors.

"That's kind of been my mentality going into it. I've tried to create what I did in football and trying to do that with what I'm doing in broadcasting, meaning the work ethic," Gonzalez said. "And a lot of people think, well, you just show up there and you get to talk about football, and that's not the case at all. it is tough, and you have to be prepared and you have to constantly be working at it."

Gonzalez is going the extra mile to make sure he brings his best to the booth. "I hired a vocal awareness guy to come teach me. It's a guy named Arthur Joseph out of LA. He's done a great job of helping me out - finding my voice, I guess - and then I ask questions," Gonzalez said. "I ask Michael Strahan questions. I ask Boomer Esiason questions. I asked anybody that would talk to me who's made that transition, who's done it before, what does it take to be good at it? And they all say one thing. Just like in the NFL, you've got to work your butt off and you've got to keep constantly asking questions. So that's been my approach. I work with some really, really good guys, and they've helped me with that transition."

Gonzalez's competitive nature comes into play in the way that he approaches his new broadcasting career as well. "It's going to be just like the NFL," Gonzalez said. "I will always try to have that attitude toward this business, or whatever other business, until they fire me or I decide to walk away from it, I'm going to have that attitude of trying to get better week in and week out."

For decades, tight ends in the NFL were basically extra offensive linemen, valued primarily for their blocking. That position has evolved, and Gonzalez is a big part of the reason. Gonzalez said he expects to continue to see an emphasis on tight ends as receivers because they're so difficult to defend. "It's become a focal point of each team's offense," Gonzalez said. "You've got to have a guy, one, or they're going to two of them now, because of the matchup that it creates. You can't guard it, pretty much, unless you get the [same] guys to start playing defense."

Why is it so difficult to guard today's receiving tight ends? "You look at a guy like Rob Gronkowski, and he's probably the extreme example, because he's like a Shaquille O'Neal of the NFL where he's bigger and stronger than anybody else out there," Gonzalez said. "So even if you can guard him, you've got a Hall of Famer throwing [him] the football, like with Tom Brady, and he's going to make the catch."

The guys who are most dominant at the tight end position today might not even have been considered for that position back in the day. "You see Jimmy Graham - 6'7", 265 pounds - huge, huge guys that are athletic, and maybe these guys back in the day would have played defensive end," Gonzalez said. "You know, coaches would have put that as his position, but now they're putting them out there. They're saying, let's just line these guys up outside."

Gonzalez was one of the first players to start this shift, and it is a trend that continues to gain momentum. "I was at the genesis of that. I wasn't the first one to do it," Gonzalez said. "I think Kellen Winslow, Sr. was the first one to do it. And let's just throw the ball up in the air and these guys will come down with it. So it's something that everybody is moving towards. You see the Indianapolis Colts, they've got two of them. Luke Willson is coming on strong for the Seattle Seahawks, and obviously Gronkowski and Tim Wright - those guys create those matchups. It's hard for teams to deal with."

During his time in the NFL, Gonzalez was certainly known for his durability. Several years in, a renewed emphasis on proper nutrition and conditioning helped extend his career, but Gonzalez primarily attributes his durability to health and good genes. "When it comes to staying healthy, I guess I'd thank my mama. She'll take credit for the genetics to be able to bounce back after that, but it's the NFL. It's hard," Gonzalez said. "You've heard the old 'Not For Long,' and anything can happen on any given play, and it could be over for you. So I was just very fortunate."

Gonzalez did have some injuries over his career, but he was very fortunate that the timing kept him from missing much time. "I never had any major, major-type injuries where they keep you out for months at a time," Gonzalez said. "I have torn my MCL four times and had foot surgery, but all this stuff happened during the offseason."

Gonzalez has counseled younger players to take care of their bodies to maximize their chances of staying on the field, because it's the only element they can control. "During the season, you take care of your body - you try to - but I didn't start doing that until year ten, and I'm glad I did, because that's the reason, I think, I was able to play a couple of those extra years - extra three, four years. You've got to eat right. You've got to get the proper rest. You've got to stay in the weight room. You've got to keep stretching, and this is what I always tell the young guys to do, but anything can happen. A guy can just take a shot at your knee and you're out for a year. So it's tough."

Gonzalez, a 14-time Pro Bowler, thinks the new format for the Pro Bowl is exciting for fans and players alike. "The only reason they're doing this - make no mistake about it - is just to create more fan interest, to get them into it and make it more fun for the fan experience, when they're watching it," Gonzalez said. "I think it's great. I was a part of it last year, the first time they did it, and it's a good time. And the guys enjoy it, too. That's another thing. Michael Irvin and Cris Carter, right now, they're having a great time over there doing it. So it's fun, and if it's fun for them, you know it's going to be fun for the fans."

Now that he's retired, Gonzalez still finds he's drawn to the tight end position when he's watching games. "I love watching great quarterback play. I love watching tight ends. I love watching Gronkowski, Jason Witten - just pretty much if the game is on, I'm looking at the tight end position a lot."

Like many of us, Gonzalez is impressed by J.J. Watt. "I had the most fun watching [J.J. Watt] this year because of the way he played," Gonzalez said. "I think he was the MVP this year, though obviously Aaron Rodgers is probably going to get that. But you had to double team this guy. You could not guard him one on one. He was so dominant. He was the most dominant player in the NFL this year in terms of position."

The distance between J.J. Watt and the second-best defensive end in the league is so vast, and that's the reason Gonzalez believes he should be this season's MVP. "It was J.J. Watt, and then the next-best player at his position, it's not even close, where Aaron Rodgers - you could make the argument that Aaron Rodgers is really good," Gonzalez said. "Tom Brady's really good, Peyton, Andrew Luck - all these great quarterbacks, I'll take any one of them. But J.J. Watt, he is the man, and I love watching him play, because he just kicks everybody's butt in front of him. He went up and down the defensive line, you never knew where he was coming from, and if I was on that offensive line, every time he lined up over me I would take a big gulp and say, wow. Why me?"

As far as players in NFL history who helped shape Gonzalez's love for the game, his answer shouldn't surprise anyone. "Bo Jackson. I grew up here in Southern California, and he was my guy. He was my hero," Gonzalez said. "I read his book in seventh grade, and watching his style, his tenacity - I loved it. I'm not going to say he made me play football, but he was my first hero, I guess, and I loved the two-sport thing with him, too. Obviously, he played baseball, I played basketball. But he was my guy. It was the poster up on the wall, it was him."

Gonzalez has fond memories of his interactions with fans in Atlanta. "When I think of Falcons fans, I loved walking into the stadium, and as soon as you opened the door there would be this big crowd in unison saying, 'Rise Up!' I used to love that. I get a kick out that. It'd get me going as I walked into the stadium. They're passionate."

A Tony Gonzalez fan in Kansas City went above and beyond to demonstrate his passion. "I had a fan out there one time, he wanted me to sign his arm, and he went out and came back the next year - he had gotten a tattoo," Gonzalez said. "He got my signature tattooed on him. Now that's some passion right there. That's dedication right there."

Gonzalez continues to engage with fans in retirement, and this week he is working with Marriott Rewards to reward the winners of their Most Passionate Fans contest. Fans submitted 30-second videos to demonstrate the depth of their passion and fandom, and six were chosen to receive the Ultimate Pro Bowl Experience, which includes an all-expenses paid trip to Arizona for the Pro Bowl, two tickets to the Pro Bowl, and a chance to hang out with Tony Gonzalez and other players.

Gonzalez is pleased to be a part of such a fun fan experience. "[Saturday] I'll be out in Phoenix hosting a party with the six winners, and Odell Beckham, Jr. will be there, Antonio Brown, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will be there, Travis Kelce, John Brown, and future Hall of Famer Demarcus Ware will be there," Gonzalez said. "I'm hosting the event, and we're going to do a little fan tailgate for these winners, and it's all about Marriott Rewards creating these lasting memories - these once in a lifetime memories where these six individuals and their guests get to hang out with their heroes, and we're going to have a good time doing it."