Making a living the hard way. Photo by Julie Jacobson, Associated Press
*Independence, MO Examiner, February 21, 2009
as "A Favorite Player Deserves the Fans Best Wishes"
as "A Favorite Player Deserves the Fans Best Wishes"
Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey
In the last year, Tony Gonzalez has become a figure of some controversy. For him, it has been an unusual role, to say the least. For his entire career, the Kansas City Chief’s number 88 has been the NFL version of the good soldier; the battlefield hero. He took to the field in 190 NFL games, turning his competitive fire into a blowtorch, leaving behind the smoking ruins of many a defensive secondary. In nearly all that time, his behavior on and off the field has been beyond reproach. There are several dominant receivers in the league, but when you compare the unmatched professionalism of Gonzalez to characters like Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Ocho Cinco you cannot help but respect the man.
It’s not just the stats he’s put up, although they are considerable. Consider this:
• In 12 seasons of stellar blocking and catching passes in that allegorical mine field we all know as “across the middle,” he’s missed two games. Two.
• He fumbled three times in his second year, twice in his third, but only once in the last nine seasons.
• Four times he’s topped the 1,000-yard mark. Four additional times, he was within 100 yards of that benchmark. Across a 16-game season, that’s less than 7 additional yards per game.
• His public comments over the years have always been marked by maturity; supportive of his teammates, his coaches, and the Chiefs Nation, and until lately, remarkably free of the whining and discontent we’ve almost come to expect from star professional athletes.
All this while NFL officials stood by and watched him get mugged mercilessly by defenders who knew of no other way to stop him.
While he has achieved greatness and earned the respect of all, there is one brass ring that has eluded him: a Super Bowl.
To the average fan, that particular desire seems unimportant. After all, he's famous, has millions in the bank and lives a lifestyle most of us can only dream about. What’s not to like? But the average fan will never understand the competitive fire that burns inside professional athletes. If that fire, that desire for greatness burned as intensely inside the rest of us, this country would not have a drug problem, or a welfare problem, or a jobs problem. The average fan--in fact the average person--utterly fails to realize that greatness in any endeavor requires the same quality of effort and dedication…and personal discipline, exhibited by people like Tony Gonzalez. He could have had a nice career being competent and average. But he chose excellence instead.
This month, Tony will turn 33, approaching physical senescence for a professional football player, even one as cut and conditioned as this one. Now, with his team obviously in a rebuilding mode and the days passing rapidly, he wants a shot at that last brass ring. Reading the blogs, some of us look at this as the ultimate betrayal, leaving the city that has grown used to looking to him as a pillar of excellence in a sea of mediocrity; the one diamond on a table full of worthless quartz. After all, we reason, without Tony, who’s left to watch? Who’s left to give us those few moments of excitement out of the 60-minute snooze that Chiefs games have become lately? And is there anybody else whose effort in those 60 minutes can be utterly unquestioned?
Tony Gonzalez has preserved a measure of fame and dignity for a franchise that has fallen on hard times. And because we fans live our lives vicariously through our teams, we fear the loss of such an icon. We fear that without him, those hard times will now be reflected back upon us. The escape that this football team has provided us in these difficult days of economic stress may now simply become a dark reflection of our own hard-scrabble lives.
From a practical standpoint, it’s unlikely that the Chiefs will reach the playoffs in the next two or three years, and the odds of a Super Bowl in that span are cosmically remote. Whether he stays or goes will not change those odds. In fact, with players like Missouri’s Chase Coffman entering the draft, it may make more sense to start over with a younger player. It would give that young guy a chance to develop as the Chiefs work their way back to competitiveness.
I, for one, respect Tony Gonzalez. He was, and still is one of the few real class acts in the public arena. Because of that respect and my appreciation of his accomplishments, I am of the opinion that Tony should be freed to pursue this last dream, while he still possesses the ability to do so. For us to take any other attitude is the height of selfishness. He has earned this. And if we truly respect him; if we truly honor his accomplishments and class, then we, as fans, as a city, must let him go. Will it be difficult? You bet. But it is also eminently fair. As we have followed rocky road of Derrick Thomas into Canton, we know that not having that championship can affect a player’s standing among those voters. Derrick didn’t deserve that treatment. Neither does Tony.
In 12 seasons, Tony Gonzalez has left an indelible imprint on the history of Kansas City sports, and in the hearts of her fans. Regardless of where he goes, what uniform he wears, he will always be a Chief in our hearts.
As long as he doesn’t end up in Denver.