There is no hiding in the game of football.
"You earn or lose respect on every play in the NFL," Tony Gonzalez, 37, said. "I've seen players go from dominating to dominated in a heartbeat."
Gonzalez learned early on that you can't hide in the game of life either.
"Eighth grade was my worst year. Two older kids bullied me," he recalls. "I didn't hang out after school. I was scared and figured it wasn't worth a confrontation. At my middle school graduation, one of the bullies showed up and I ran behind a wall. My mother and brother saw me hiding—I'll never forget the look of disappointment in their eyes. I vowed to never run away again."
Gonzalez is sticking with that vow: He earned his 13th trip to the Pro Bowl last season, and he's back with the Falcons this year because of a push from his 12-year-old son.
"Nikko told me, 'You're on a great team. Try to win the Super Bowl.'"
(Learn to overcome your fears with these simple tips.)
1. Upgrade the Fuel
Early in his career, Gonzalez ran on pizza, cheeseburgers, and milkshakes.
But several years ago, three unrelated health issues—Bell's palsy caused by damage to a facial nerve, a mistaken-identity cancer scare, and general fatigue—prompted him to reevaluate his diet with the help of Mitzi Dulan, R.D.
"I became much stricter about what I put in my body," he said. "I follow the 80/20 rule: Eighty percent of the time I eat whole foods, organic produce, wild fish, and organic chicken; 20 percent is red meat and dairy."
Now he has an herb garden the size of a tennis court, makes pesto and tomato sauce from scratch, and is a regular at the farmers' market. He jokes that when he cooks, he often risks the wrath of vegan friends by slipping fresh mozzarella balls into his eggplant ragu. He simmers the ragu for four hours until it's "gooey and pulpy," and then pours it over whole grain pasta.
(What foods should you avoid? Start with these 25 New “Healthy” Foods That Aren’t.)
GO BEYOND BROWN RICE
Exotic whole grains increase your nutrient diversity, deliver valuable fiber, and help prevent diet fatigue. Gonzalez loves these three. Here's how much fiber and protein a cup of each provides.
A grassy, peppery grain, it's about the size of a poppy seed. (protein 9g, fiber 5g)
Technically a seed and not a grain, nutty-tasting quinoa fluffs up when you cook it. (protein 8g, fiber 5g)
An ancient grain with a sweet taste, this is often sold as Kamut. (protein 11g, fiber 7g)
Saute 1 chopped small onion and 4 chopped garlic cloves in olive oil. Add 1 cup of the grain, but replace the recommended amount of water with vegetable stock or chicken broth. When it's cooked, toss with fresh cilantro, basil, and lemon. For dessert, combine 1 cup quinoa and 10 ounces acai juice in a saucepan and simmer until the liquid is absorbed. Chill the quinoa; add fresh blueberries. (Find these grains at bobsredmill.com.)
(For more smart power food suggestions, stock up on these 125 Best Foods for Men.)
Use the Ultimate Utility Player
Baby spinach, one of Gonzalez's staples, is loaded with phytonutrients. He adds a handful to smoothies, soups, scrambled eggs, red sauce, and pasta.
Use Caution in the Red-Meat Zone
"I cut out processed meat and fast-food burgers," he says. "When I eat red meat, it's wild boar, grass-fed beef or lamb, or organic pork."
Run This Protein Play
Gonzalez doesn't track calories or protein anymore. He simply tries to eat balanced meals. His nutritionist is more specific, recommending 0.7 to 0.9 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
1 cup steel-cut oatmeal with a scoop of whey protein (29 g); 3-egg scramble with 1 1/4 cups sauteed baby spinach, bell pepper, tomato, and onion (26 g)
(Don't start your day with a diet disaster. Avoid the 18 Worst Breakfasts in America.)
Cut-up apple, banana, and celery with 2 Tbsp almond butter (9 g)
12 ounces black bean soup and a whole wheat roll (19 g); 1 1/2 chicken breasts with a side salad (42 g)
16-ounce fruit smoothie with a scoop of whey protein powder (29 g)
7 ounces wild salmon (54 g); 1 cup quinoa salad (8 g)
TOTAL PROTEIN: 216g
2. Extend the Peak
Gonzalez's approach to fitness evolves off the field so he can hold his own while he's on it.
"As you get older, you have to work harder and smarter," he said.
In the off-season, he lifts three times a week and plays basketball with faster, younger players for cardio conditioning. One key change is that he now spends as much time warming up and cooling down as he does working out. The easy part is game day.
"I'm like the 100-year-old dude in the kung-fu movies with the beard down to his crotch. Other guys are jumping all over the place while he barely moves, yet he still kicks butt! That's how I feel about football: I can exert less energy and earn the same results."
BUILD ALL-PRO MUSCLE
Forge explosive total-body strength and stamina in 60 minutes.
(Turn up your muscle gains outside the gym. These 18 Ways to Build Muscle All Day will help you shed fat, sculpt muscle, and accelerate recovery.)
Jump rope: 4 × 100 reps with 30 seconds rest between sets; dynamic stretching.
Dumbbell bench press, dumbbell squat, pullup, dumbbell power clean
Do 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps for each of the following exercises, using a weight that makes completing the set challenging (probably 65 to 85 percent of your 1-rep max). Gonzalez likes dumbbells because they help him strengthen both sides of the body equally.
Begin the move as you would a squat: Brace your abs, push your hips back, bend your knees slightly, and lower the dumbbells to midshin level. Then, in one continuous motion, thrust your hips forward explosively, pull the dumbbells up to your collarbone, shrug your shoulders, and "catch" the weights at shoulder height.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and do kettlebell swings. When your form falters, rest. Then do another set of swings to failure. Alternate double-and single-arm swings.
Gonzalez finishes up with dynamic body-weight exercises (sometimes with light kettlebells), stretches, foam-rolling, and Swiss ball work to gently cool down his muscles.
3. Forge Mental Fortitude
A self-described "big, oafy kid," Gonzalez says his eighth-grade bully crisis taught him to stand up for himself. His mom, Judy, grew up on Chicago's South Side and learned that lesson as a child.
"I was raised to never back down, which is why Tony's graduation made me mad," she said. "But Tony's demeanor was different. He wasn't a brawler. He learned the importance of holding his ground then and later through sports."
Judy says her stepdad, a WWII vet, also taught her that you either do something right or not at all.
She passed that on to her son: "Tony's work ethic started with chores, but he applied it to sports, and now he's passing it on to his kids too," she said.
On and off the field, Tony Gonzalez is constantly learning.
Inspire your team
Gonzalez benefited from coach Dick Vermeil's stint with the Chiefs.
"My leadership concept centers around making sure everyone knows you really care," Vermeil said. "If the players know you care, they will care about their teammates. Tony is naturally a very caring person. He brought a lot of physical and emotional energy to the locker room."
Define your goals
Gonzalez sets annual goals for the season (receptions, yards, touchdowns) as well as his personal life (to be a better father and husband).
"It's important to write them down so you're accountable to yourself," he said. "It makes you think about self-improvement and being more considerate, and it helps you focus in the moment."
Study your heritage
"I tell my kids we're all confused," joked Gonzalez, whose heritage is part Portuguese—plus Jamaican, Scottish, African American, Mexican, and Native American. "I want to see—and I want my kids to see—all the places we have roots."
He also wants his family to learn Spanish, which is why they spent a month in Mexico last summer.
Gonzalez is a bookworm. Now he's reading: "Parting the Waters" (Taylor Branch), "Super Crunchers" (Ian Ayres), and "Cooked" (Michael Pollan).
These four books also changed his life:
"Sex at dawn"
Takeaway: Men have "souped-up genitals" and "spermatic firepower" that's consistent with promiscuous apes.
"The social animal"
Takeaway: A happy life has a recurring rhythm from difficulty to harmony. It's driven by limerence, the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh.
"The China study"
Takeaway: What you eat every day is a more powerful determinant of your health than your DNA. (The follow-up, "Whole," is out now.)
"The transformative power of crisis"
Takeaway: Getting your soul right requires engaging in an inner journey of looking at all your negative stuff. . .and then ultimately letting go of it all.