RIVER FALLS, Wis. – Tony Gonzalez heard the frantic screams – "He can't breathe! He can't breathe!" a woman sitting behind him in a Southern California restaurant was yelling last month – and whisked around to see a man turning blue. Within seconds, the Kansas City Chiefs' perennial All-Pro tight end was standing behind the stricken diner and administering the Heimlich maneuver, a lifesaving technique for which he'd never received any formal training.
As a chunk of filet mignon shot out of 45-year-old shipping company manager Ken Hunter's mouth and onto the restaurant floor, the first thought Gonzalez had was, "Thank God he's alive."
His second thought?
I'll bet that beef is full of antibiotics.
An exaggeration? If so it's only a slight stretch. Of all the NFL stars who could've saved a man from choking, he may have been the only one who'd be quite so grossed out by the food he managed to dislodge. Just ask Gonzalez's teammates, who've grown so accustomed to his neo-vegan diet and the accompanying lectures that they sometimes shy away from him during meals.
"Eating with Tony is a great way to ruin your appetite," veteran quarterback Damon Huard said last Saturday from the team's training camp. "You'll be biting into a piece of meat, and he'll say, 'You know that cow was probably corn-fed. And because of that, they had to give it antibiotics, and that probably gave it ulcers. I don't even want to think about what might be in there.' By then you're pretty much ready to clear your plate."
An hour later, as he sat in the cafeteria at the team's University of Wisconsin-River Falls headquarters, Gonzalez expanded upon the carefully crafted dietary approach that has fueled his second decade of excellence. A year-and-a-half after swearing off most dairy products and meat, the 6-foot-5, 251-pounder is laying waste to the stereotype of the scrawny, wimpy herbivore.
Coming off a stellar campaign that included 99 receptions for 1,172 yards (leaving him 179 yards behind Shannon Sharpe for the NFL's all time lead among tight ends) and earned him a ninth consecutive Pro Bowl invitation, the 32-year-old Gonzalez insists he's at his physical peak, with no sign of a decline.
AccuScore on the Chiefs
The Chiefs defense allowed 20.9 points per game last season and is forecasted for an identical 20.9 points allowed this season. The team lost Jared Allen, but added Glenn Dorsey to the defensive line. The good news offensively is the Chiefs are forecasted for 25 percent more points in 2008 with the combo of Larry Johnson and rookie Jamaal Charles generating more than 120 rushing yards and 16 rushing TDs this season. However, a 25-percent increase only results in a 17 point per game average (up from 14 last season) and an average margin of victory of nearly negative 4 points per game. The Chiefs are winning an average of 6.5 games per season simulation, up from 4 last year, but it is still only good enough for third in the AFC West.
The big question in fantasy football is what kind of year can Johnson have. AccuScore expects Johnson to average nearly 4.5 ypc in 2008, which is significantly higher than his 3.5 in eight games in 2007. If Johnson struggles and averages under 3.8 ypc, the Chiefs average season win total falls to 4 and their chances of making the playoffs plummet to 2 percent.
Projected Record: 6-10
Playoff Probability: 12%
"It's unbelievable how good I feel," Gonzalez said. "Seriously, my recovery is so much better than it's ever been, and my endurance is tremendous. The best part is that during games I really don't get tired. I have more focus, too. I'm even staying awake in meetings."
There were times last season when Gonzalez felt like closing his eyes during film sessions, especially during Kansas City's nine-game losing streak to complete a 4-12 campaign. Frustrated by the motion-laden yet inflexible schemes of offensive coordinator Mike Solari, Gonzalez chafed as opponents such as Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga correctly called out his routes before they were run.
"Sometimes we'd do all that shifting and defenses wouldn't move," Gonzalez recalled. "They'd just sit there and wait, and we'd run the ball into an eight-man front and get stuffed. Even when we had a mismatch, the quarterback didn't have the freedom to change the play at the line. It's dumbfounding that we didn't do that."
With Chan Gailey having replaced the fired Solari and an influx of young players that includes rookie left tackle Branden Albert, the 15th overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, the rebuilding Chiefs have reason for optimism. If star halfback Johnson comes back strong from the foot injury that short-circuited his '07 season, wideout Dwayne Bowe builds upon the breakout flashes he showed as a rookie and third-year quarterback Brodie Croyle justifies the faith coach Herm Edwards has shown in him, Chiefs fans could at least experience some offensive excitement.
It's a given that Gonzalez, fresh off his fifth consecutive season with at least 900 receiving yards, will do his part. "He's not slowing down at all," Vikings safety Darren Sharper says of Gonzalez. "Plus he's such a crafty tight end – he knows all the little push-off moves, and how to use his body and post you up."
Another standout Vikings defender, recently acquired All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen, says his former Chiefs teammate is "one of my biggest role models in the NFL, because of his work ethic. A lot of people don't see that – they see Tony Gonzalez, superstar pretty boy, the guy who has to be dressed just right and have his hair done before he does anything. But the guy works – he's out there catching 100 balls a day; he never drops a ball in practice and never lets up. He's an absolute machine."
For Gonzalez, it all goes back to nutrition. When he decided to eliminate dairy and red meat from his largely organic diet – he still eats fish and the occasional chicken dish – Gonzalez's peers were highly skeptical.
"They'd tell me, 'You're gonna get crushed. You're gonna get your ass kicked,'" Gonzalez recalled. "They still think that, too, because I look so skinny, but I weigh what I've always weighed."
Gonzalez is currently collaborating with a nutritionist on a book detailing his dietary philosophies, though not necessarily from a vegan perspective, that will tentatively be published toward the end of '08. Gonzalez, who was so moved by scientific tome "The China Study" that he met with author T. Colin Campbell, has spoken to children about the benefits of maintaining proper nutritional habits, something on which he wants to expand in the coming years.
In the meantime he is more than willing to lecture his teammates.
"Anything I eat, he'll tell me what's in it," Croyle said. "I tell him, 'Man, I'm from Alabama. I just eat. Leave me alone.' When I hear him ask, 'Could you cook that in olive oil instead of butter?' I say, 'Dude, if you went to Alabama and said that stuff, they'd ask you to leave.'"
Said Edwards, the Chiefs' third-year coach: "Tony and (veteran linebacker Donnie Edwards), they both get on each other. They're each on diets, but different kind of diets, and they argue about which one is better. I walk by and go, 'You guys are like two women.' "
Bowe, who caught 70 passes for 995 yards as a rookie in '07, is well-acquainted with The Lecture. "At least twice a week he'll be like, 'Man, what are you eating?' " Bowe said. "I'll look down and say, 'Fried chicken? Cheese?' and then he'll stop eating his big ol' salad and give me the talk. He'll say, '1 or 13? You can eat like that and play one year or eat like this play 13.' And you know what – I listen."
Perhaps, but Gonzalez isn't close to satisfied. As he paused to inspect a piece of tortellini to ensure that no cheese was inside, the tight end noted that two nights earlier in a preseason victory over the Bears, the Chiefs had moved 81 yards in 16 plays in the game's first 8:45.
"I wasn't tired at all," Gonzalez said, "but Dwayne Bowe is out there tapping his helmet saying, 'Come get me.' And he's in his second year! I was like, 'Bowe, you're killing me.'"
Spoken like a true lifesaver.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Jets fans used to congregating at Gate D during halftime of home games will soon be experiencing a different kind of bust at Giants Stadium. … Sometime in the very distant future, the world will achieve a level of technological advancement that spares gymnasts from wearing those ridiculous, safety-pin-affixed number bibs while performing perilous maneuvers. … After displaying the heart of a champion in defeating Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry to win her second consecutive gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke, Natalie Coughlin, aka the Golden Girl, will reclaim her world record in the event while leading off the 400-meter medley relay for the U.S. on Sunday morning.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. After winning his eighth gold medal, Michael Phelps will be shocked to learn that his real father is Cris Collinsworth.
2. Chagrined by the insensitivity of the Spanish basketball team, Yao Ming vowed to retaliate by screaming "Olé" every time an opposing player drives to the hoop on Pau Gasol.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
In light of Daunte Culpepper's delusional insistence on competing for a starting job in Pittsburgh, the former Vikings/Dolphins/Raiders quarterback clearly needs a straight-out reality check from his agent … wait, that's also Daunte Culpepper. Never mind.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
New ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who was better than you think at his old job and will be fabulous at his new one. Since I sat down for pizza with Dilfer during his junior year at Fresno State – and came up for air four hours and about 10 half-second pauses later – I've known all about his gift for gab, and the story he told about his final athletic triumph as an active athlete was no exception.
In June Dilfer, still contemplating overtures from the Oakland Raiders to return for a 15th NFL season, was vacationing with family and friends at a dude ranch in Estes Park, Colo. One evening he became engaged in a heated game of "Knockout" with Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, his close friend and ex-teammate, as well as former NFL passers Danny Wuerffel and Steve Stenstrom and one-time Seahawks kicker Todd Peterson. They battled furiously until, on the final shot of the last game of the night, Dilfer went up for the fallaway from behind the free throw line that would give him the victory and overall championship. On the way up, Dilfer heard a pop. He knew what that meant. Dilfer had torn his right Achilles tendon in 2002 after beating out Hasselbeck for the starting job; this time, his left Achilles has suffered a similar fate. As the shot went down, Dilfer smiled and thought, "Well, at least I've got some clarity on my situation."
He'll be clearing up plenty of NFL happenings for viewers and looking back proudly on a career that included a Super Bowl XXXV victory with the Baltimore Ravens. "I drained my last shot and went out a winner," Dilfer says. "I can live with that."
I could tell you all about the Golden Girl – or incoming freshman Sara Isakovic, who won a silver medal for Slovenia in the 200 free – but instead let's give it up for some really smart people who can make them both disappear. Take that, Harry Potter.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Isaac Hayes Shaft live
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
As my colleague Dan Wetzel so adroitly opined, Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta, had an unseemly case of the whines after the U.S. was defeated by China in the team gymnastics competition in Beijing on Wednesday morning. Naturally, we take it one step further in our farcical land of mangled music: Here's Bela copping to his fetish, with David Bowie's "China Girl" blaring in the background.
Oh oh oh ohoo little China girl
Oh oh oh ohoo little China girl
I could escape this feeling, with my China Girl
I could sing a duet with my, little China Girl
I see her lip-synching, quiet as lightning
Saw the world smiling
I'm a mess without my little China Girl
Sit next to Bob Costas, where's my, little China Girl?
I see old Sacramone keeling over
I saw our hopes crashing down
I'm feelin' tragic like I'm Olga Korbut
When I look at my China Girl
I could pretend that I thought Nadia was too young
When I look at my China Girl
I stumble into town like a demonic clown
Visions of Kerri Strug in my head
Railing at everyone
It's in the hairs of my 'stache
My little China Girl
You shouldn't mess with me
I'll ruin everything you are
I'll give you endless workouts
I'll give you stress fractures
I'll knock those baby teeth right down your throat
And when I get excited
My little China Girl says
Oh baby just you shut your mouth
She says … shh
She says … shh
She says …