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Gonzo Receiving: The Fear and Loathing of Tony Gonzalez

November 25, 2011

We were somewhere around Fredericksburg, not on the edge of the desert but of suburbia. Our cars had been loaded down with Miller Lite and Yuengling six-packs, football magazines, and notebooks. We sat around the kitchen table in quiet. Then one of us would speak. . . there would be a roar. . . And then it would get quiet again, and that ebb and flow of noise that was fantasy football at the beginning of the 2000s for a group of callow college kids has now become a microcosm of one fantasy League’s journey to the abyss of a decade come and gone: a volcano erupted with message board taunts, hateful voice mails, and back room deals now lies dormant, and drafts are carried out electronically and with less profanity.
My team’s general manager, yes, there were two of us in charge of personnel operations ten years ago, had taken his jacket off, but he was not pouring beer down his chest. His fingertips were covered in synthetic Nacho cheese--Damn Doritos!--and everything he touched turned orange as the sun, fading, dying, going belly up as a fish might. Stevo had never won anything, and I don’t know why I agreed to being his partner; desperation never makes for sound decision making.   We had been at this for hours. The salt shakers, on the table, were filled with actual salt, but we were still snorting heavy stat lines, seeing “Visions of Johanna,” and straining to picture the perfect fantasy lineup. . . neither of us able to agree on anything, which made us ripe to settle on tradition.

And there is no better place for the drug of tradition than a fantasy draft: establish the ground game by picking a running back, snatch up a quarterback, and find a wide receiver who is the picture of precision, perhaps even one that plays on the same team as your quarterback. Fantasies--it turns out--can be rather predictable, that is until you or your partner slides an index card across the table with the words is it too early to take Gonzo? scrawled across it in a smear of orange cheese Nacho blood, and dry as any desert’s heart.  


And that’s when it happened--the feeding frenzy that is a fantasy draft. Dr. Stevo tapped his finger on the question. . . Is it too early to take Gonzo? I looked around the table at our scaly adversaries, fangs chomping at the bit--they wanted their teeth in our necks, wanted us dead--and I nodded. A half hour later tight ends were an extinct species on the crust of the fantasy earth, and the crap shoot that was and is fantasy football had begun--we were now sorting through the riffraff, the vagabonds, the spot players, the sleepers and zombies, the men without homes, the players without teams, and we couldn’t feel a thing as the carousel of the draft order spun round and round because we had the testicular fortitude to pick Tony Gonzalez first, which meant we had found a way to make the sure highs of the early rounds’ picks last even longer, like mescaline coming on slow after the ether fumes have dissipated.

In a world of football fandom, where players ingratiate themselves to the fans as much with their fantasy stats as they do with their performances on the field, a player like Tony Gonzalez is the spinal column that links mind to body, and because he is that bridge between two worlds, the position of tight end is the only position for a player like Tony.  No one dreams of being a tight end. A tight end is a wide receiver that has out grown himself; something funny. . . like a centaur, but not in the traditional sense. . . a tight end is more like a centaur whose top half is the body of a horse riding on the scrawny legs of a human. In other words, the tight end is an offensive lineman that was left in the dryer, has shrunk, and now fits his old position like a sweater that is too small and makes pectoral muscles sag like a woman’s breasts. Tight ends are cast offs of another position, part one thing, part another, a linebacker with more hands and less meanness, and they are always referred to as safety blankets, as if only a quarterback whose maturity is stunted would ever throw to them.


But Tony Gonzalez changed all that, sort of, making the act of being stunted a liberating experience, as if results in a digital world could do more than some guru’s mystic ohms in the way of transmuting a sphere of sweat and blood into some sort of lotus blossom, because that’s what Gonzo was humming all those Sundays in Arrowhead Stadium: digital ohms.

Prior to Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense the tight end position wasn’t much of anything, but Walsh made it into something; and in the 1990s teams like the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers, and the Denver Broncos all made use of the position by borrowing strands of San Francisco’s flower power fetishes, but Jay Novacek, Mark Chmura, and even the great Shannon Sharpe were still just system outlets of a quarterback’s fear, riding a wave that could only carry their individual names as far as the system, the team, or the quarterback’s arm could go: In the ‘90s, if a tight end’s team lost, then that tight end was forgotten, like some cyclone torn apart by the very wind that birthed it.

Mass movements, once they pass, almost always strand (in Vegas) the individuals who truly believed in them with vitriolic emotions such as loathing, and my general manager and I. . . we always latched our fantasy hopes to the very real anger that we believed was burning in the gut of a player like Tony Gonzalez, who, as a tight end on so many mediocre to bad teams, shouldn’t have even registered in our hippocampus. Thank God for fantasy football and Dick Vermeil’s sanskrit tears!

Damn the swine! Novacek, Chmura, and Sharpe all won Super Bowls. Hell, Sharpe won three, but Mr. Gonzo, Tony himself, has eclipsed all of them without ever having played in even his conference’s championship game. He’s a legend without the legendary moment, brand, or vehicle. He made his own way, which in a strange bit of forced coincidence aligns the clean cut kid from Southern Cal with the rebel rousing, drug-induced journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, who without being a part of the traditional school of journalism was still able to see things, just as Tony Gonzalez was able to catch things.

Thompson welded the identity of the writer to the story, torpedoing the idea of objective journalism and lacing it with wild profanity, while Tony Gonzalez took a position that was anchored to the idea of being an objective cog in an offense, mainly blocking and preventing quarterbacks from pissing on themselves, and made it a springboard for becoming the equivalent of an NFL cult hero. And just as Thompson’s efforts at blazing new paths in journalism may have come up short if his personality had not been that of a cocaine-induced machine gun, one can also assume that without the rise of fantasy football, over the last decade, Tony Gonzalez would have remained just another tight end, marginalized by playing most of his career in the corn deserts of middle America.

Who would have guessed it? At age thirty-four and after fourteen and a half seasons,  the name after Jerry Rice on the all-time receptions list would be that of a tight end’s. The next tight end on the list is Shannon Sharpe at number twenty-two, followed by Jason Witten at number forty-three. The list is littered with several second and third tier receivers who are blessed to have played in a pass-happy era of the League, but there is something telling about the fact that Gonzalez is one of only two players in the top thirteen who has not played in a Super Bowl (the other is Chris Carter), which says something not only about how much of a receiver’s success is tied to a quarterback’s and, therefore, to a team’s success, but also causes one to wonder just what Gonzo’s numbers even mean in the grand scheme of things. . . . After all, Gonzalez has nothing real to polish other than the hallucinated trophies of fantasy football junkies.


And as for the receptions list, it will continue to evolve, and the new rules, that limit what a defender can and can't do, will split it open like a grapefruit, to rot; and even other tight ends, as they are already doing around the League, will rise up out of the coasts and heartlands, writing and catching themselves into the story, but remember that the first “Man on the Move” was Tony Gonzalez, just as the first true blogger was Hunter S. Thompson . . . and everyone else is swine riding a wave that may have already peaked, marking not the walls of the Georgia Dome but some forgotten place along the I-35 corridor that splits America like a concrete knife. . . the harsh reality versus the blithe fantasy, and a man who is little bit of both.

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.

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