KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Growing up in an area of Orange County, California, with many other Latinos, Tony Gonzalez was never told he shouldn’t play football because of his name or heritage.
That came later.
“As I got older,” Gonzalez said, “when I went to Cal and even when I first got into the NFL, a lot of people were like, ‘Gonzalez?’
“I remember [former Kansas City Chiefs teammate] Victor Riley telling me he didn’t know Latinos played football. He’d ask me if I speak Mexican. There were guys from different parts of the country, and absolutely I heard, ‘Why are you playing football?’ You just didn’t see a Gonzalez out there or any kind of Latin name.”
Times have changed. Gonzalez’s 17-year NFL career as a tight end culminated last summer when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And the game’s popularity among Latinos will be on display when the Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers face off on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), which will be the NFL’s fourth regular-season game played in Mexico City.
Change has manifested in part because of successful players like Gonzalez and Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz. Gonzalez played 12 seasons with the Chiefs and five with the Atlanta Falcons before retiring in 2013 and had more career catches and yards than any tight end in NFL history.
“The game is exploding for Latinos. … They’ve embraced the game,” Gonzalez said. “When I go down to Mexico now, it’s not quite like I’m in Kansas City, but maybe it’s like when I’m in Atlanta the way I get recognized. That gives me a lot of pride.”
Munoz, who played 13 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals beginning in 1980, said he once met the son of former labor leader and Latino civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who told him his father turned into a big football fan after watching Munoz play.
“I hear that a lot: ‘Because you played in the NFL, because you were successful, it was something I strived to do knowing I could do that,'” Munoz said. “I still hear it now, that people appreciate what we did as Latinos. You get a lot of compliments for what you did and really showing that people could do it.”
Gonzalez said he also regularly hears from Latinos who were inspired to play football because of him.
“When I was younger, let’s face it, Latinos in the league were almost always kickers,” Gonzalez said. “But Anthony Munoz was definitely a guy I looked up to. I got to know him pretty well and [former Falcons and Chicago Bears lineman] Roberto Garza. But I always looked up to him and wanted to be like him. I was like him for awhile while I was playing and then it’s up to the next guy, like Victor Cruz.
“People, Latino people, come up to me and tell me all the time they played football because they watched me with the Chiefs and they looked up to me and they loved me when they were growing up. They thank me for representing Latinos in the NFL. They tell me I was their inspiration. I get that a lot.”
Tony Gonzalez thanks his mother, Judy, for everything she did to help him be successful and reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Alejandro Ibarra, who helps run a Chiefs fan club in Mexico City, said both players served as inspirations for Mexican football fans — those who were inspired to play and those who became interested in following the sport.
“Anthony Munoz was first,” Ibarra said. “He was a symbol of Mexico for us. Tony Gonzalez broke the barrier and showed everyone a Latino player could catch passes and score touchdowns. That made him more influential. They brought more attention to Latino football players. People could relate to them.”
Tom Flores is considered the first quarterback of Latino heritage. He played for three NFL teams in the 1960s, including a brief stay with the Chiefs.
He said he had no Latino role models for football when he was getting started in high school.
“I played because all my buddies did,” Flores said. “Most of our Hispanic or Latino heroes played baseball or were boxers. There weren’t any in football.”
Flores later was an NFL head coach for 12 seasons and won the Super Bowl twice with the Raiders.
“Latinos would come up to me and tell me they remembered me from coaching in the Super Bowl and it made them so proud they cried,” Flores said. “That was some of the feedback I got. It was very touching.”
As for Munoz and Gonzalez, Flores said, “There’s no question they helped advance the game for Latinos. I was a fan of those guys myself. Kids love to have heroes. It doesn’t matter what color they are, but it does help if it’s one of your own.”
Gonzalez has no Mexican blood. His Latino roots come from a great grandfather who was Portuguese and a grandfather from Argentina.
“He always had the Argentina flag,” Gonzalez said. “Everything was Argentinian culture with him. He drank mate tea. He went to his grave saying he was a full-blooded Argentinian.”
Seeing his grandfather’s passion for his Latin heritage and growing up in Southern California, where he said many of his friends were of Mexican descent, led Gonzalez to explore his own Latin roots.
“I identify with the Mexican people,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been a big part of who I am. It’s very important to me.”
Early in his time with the Chiefs, Gonzalez spent a month in the offseason in the central Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende to immerse himself in the culture.
“That’s real Mexico,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not like Cabo or something like that. It’s a beautiful little town up in the mountains.
“I remember when I went down to San Miguel that first time, I was in a little park in town and some little kid comes running right by me wearing a No. 88 Kansas City Chiefs jersey with my name on the back. He had no clue who I am but it hit me. It was humbling. It felt so special to be a leader in a community I didn’t even really know. From there it became even more important to me to be a part of that culture.”
Gonzalez lived with a local family that spoke no English. That forced him to learn Spanish.
“I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with this family every day,” he said. “I studied Spanish during the day and hung out with them at night.
“My grandfather spoke fluent Spanish. But my father never learned Spanish. It was always very important to me to do it, to honor my grandfather and my culture. I’m not fluent, but I’m pretty good. I’m conversational, small conversational.”