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Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Gonzalez embracing Chiefs' new look

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez holds NFL career records for receptions (820) and touchdowns (66) by a tight end.
KANSAS CITY -- Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez admits there were days when his team's current rebuilding process enraged him. He winced at the lack of signings during the unrestricted free-agent period. He held his tongue as management systematically bounced aging veterans out the door. He also knew that starting over with a young team, after 11 years in the NFL, was not something that excited him. The last thing he wanted was to end a Hall of Fame career with little or no shot at another playoff appearance.

But the 32-year-old Gonzalez was a different man when the Chiefs concluded a minicamp last weekend, one who was undeniably brimming with optimism. He wasn't griping or moping, and he definitely wasn't demanding a trade to a team with championship potential. He'd decided to do what professionals do -- which is worry about the things he actually can control -- and that philosophy has made life much easier for him to handle these days.

There's no question it's a struggle to be standing in Gonzalez's shoes. Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, a perennial Pro Bowler like Gonzalez, is facing a similar rebuilding process with his franchise, and it's already clear he wants no part of it. "You really do deal with this stuff in two ways," Gonzalez said. "First you get pissed off and you feel frustrated. It's tough because I'm not getting any younger and I want to win right now. But then I calmed down and started to accept it. It really was the only thing I could do."

Gonzalez hasn't just accepted the Chiefs' new look. He's completely bought into the plan that head coach Herm Edwards and general manager Carl Peterson laid out for a team that likely will be the youngest in the NFL this fall. Gonzalez has been impressed with Kansas City's strong draft class and he's been especially willing to reach out to the younger players. After a morning workout last Friday, he grabbed second-year wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and third-year quarterback Brodie Croyle to work on pass routes before heading into the locker room.

Gonzalez understands how vital it is for him to make such efforts. When he joined the Chiefs in 1997, Gonzalez looked up to future Hall of Famers such as Marcus Allen and later Warren Moon. Now he runs into younger players who openly tell him how much they enjoyed watching him, particularly when they were in junior high school.

"Warren Moon told me that I need to make myself available to these guys," Gonzalez said. "The important thing for me is that I have fun with this. If I wanted to complain about all the stuff I didn't like around here, that would be a really easy thing to do. But I'm enjoying myself because I only have so much time left to play this game."

Gonzalez's attitude has plenty to do with the point he's reached in his career. He's played in nine Pro Bowls. He holds NFL career records for receptions and touchdowns by a tight end and he remains just 179 yards shy of Shannon Sharpe's all-time mark for receiving yardage at that position. His domestic partner, October, also just recently gave birth to their daughter, Malia, meaning Gonzalez now has two children (he also has a six-year-old son named Nikko). In other words, he now has a more mature perspective about his life.

That doesn't mean Gonzalez is complacent, though. This is the same man who still awes his younger teammates with the attention he pays to his technique and his route-running. He also remains a dedicated vegan -- he gave up meat more than a year ago -- and the team's chefs now keep items such as whole wheat pasta on hand for him at training table. Nobody else touches those special menu items, but Gonzalez likes knowing he's altering the culture just a little bit.

What Gonzalez tries to impress upon his younger teammates is that a perfectionist attitude and specific lifestyle choices can help players excel in this league. Every time a rookie stops by his locker to ask for advice, Gonzalez offers that kind of wisdom.

"I tell them you have to refuse to be average," he said. "We all have to practice and lift weights and run in this league. That's what everybody is expected to do. But the key is what you're doing to get better after practice ends. You can only get away with playing on your natural ability for so long in this league."

It's great advice, but Gonzalez accepts that it might take a while for that to sink in with these players. He also understands that whatever frustration he felt earlier this offseason might pale in comparison to that which he'll face in the regular season. That's why he's already told his younger teammates to not spend much time watching the scoreboard this fall. He'd rather see them learning quickly from their mistakes instead of being deflated by the gap between themselves and more experienced teams.

Gonzalez recognizes the reality of this Chiefs roster: His teammates will have to grow up in a hurry. That's one reason he's embraced the challenge of speeding up their learning curve. But he also knows the best means of helping them along is by showing them how to be professional. Some of that comes from how he plays the game. And even more of it comes, as Gonzalez will attest, from how enthusiastically he approaches the game.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com