He grew up to be one of the best tight ends to ever strap with an NFL helmet. But Tony Gonzalez had several false starts in his early career, and he quit his youth team in the first season because he was the worst player on the field.

During eighth grade, Gonzalez was around the receiving end of bullying. “For that reason, I had no social life,” the now 43-year-old Fox Sports analyst remembers.

When the bully showed up at his junior high graduation, Gonzalez ran and hid following the ceremony. That moment of terror became a turning point.

“After my family found me and that i saw the look on their faces, I felt so ashamed and I was so tired of being afraid,” he says. “I decided that I never desired to run from things or be looked at that way again, and so i found the courage to let go of my fear and fully stand up for myself.”

Learning that he could take and deliver a hit helped Gonzalez embrace the physicality of football, and he developed into a top high school talent. In 1997 he was drafted in the first round by the Gambling.

Gonzalez made an impact as a rookie — and throughout his 17-season career. In fact, many football insiders credit him with revolutionizing the positioning of tight end, from pass-blocking and pass protection to becoming a legitimate receiving threat.

When Gonzalez stuck his cleats in 2021, he left the field holding numerous NFL records for tight ends, including most receiving yards (15,127), most 100-yard receiving games (31), and most career receptions (1,325), second simply to fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (1,549). Gonzalez is really a six-time NFL All-Pro and was awarded with a Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021.

These days he’s still facing down his fears and adding to initiatives larger than himself. He’s joined the team at Scholars’ Hope Foundation, helping kids in the old neighborhood, and he has other projects in the works.

“I’ve been taking acting classes and I’m considering doing a podcast focusing on helping people — especially men — learn to be vulnerable, how to forgive yourself, and how to really excel at life.”

Experience Life | That which was your biggest challenge inside your football career?

Tony Gonzalez | I’m a perfectionist — I wish to be great and please everybody — and in that process, you’re likely to screw up. So what’s really important is that you forgive yourself.

I found that in my second year within the league. During that season, I led the NFL in dropped passes. Crowds booed me and I got a lot of bad press. I had been beating myself up, and the reason I kept dropping balls wasn’t because I wasn’t working hard, because I was. It was because I was in a negative headspace.

I had to learn to have what they call a “one-snap” mentality — meaning that each snap or play is its very own moment. Whatever happened during that snap, you leave it behind and concentrate on the next snap. It’s part of being present, but in to be present, you have to forgive yourself, regardless of what, and know that it’s OK to screw up but also to focus on getting it right this time.

That took me awhile. All of this stuff is easier said than done. But it’s a process and you have to be willing to go through it. Whether it’s football or anything you like to do, you’ve got to sit there and be scared and vulnerable because that’s where growth lives.

EL | What helped you develop that one-snap mentality?

TG | Used to do a lot of visualization where I'd sit down and close my eyes the night before and right before a game title. I would visualize myself doing great things on the football field, doing great things on the practice field, also it carried over.

Now I meditate at least one time or twice a day — usually every day and every evening.

I practice six-phase meditation, developed by Vishen Lakhiani. It’s a guided meditation that I did for about a month straight, and then I started doing it on my own.

It’s a great practice — you spend three minutes in each phase. You do three minutes on forgiveness after which three minutes on awareness or the light inside you that’s connected to the world. Then you do three minutes on what you’re grateful for from the day before. It can be anything ­— something good that became of you or your family or visiting a beautiful sunset or tree.

The fourth stage looks to the future: Here, you consider where you will be in three years. Go wild with this!

During the fifth stage, you focus on what you ought to do today in order to make those things come into your life in 3 years. You see yourself going about your day accomplishing those things.

The sixth phase says thank you to a higher power like God or anything you believe in.

EL | What has been answer to your success on and off the field?

TG | Before I was anything, I was curious and I always wanted to keep learning. Wherever you’re at in life, you need to keep asking yourself, Is what I’m doing working for me? Is this where I want to be?

You also have to be willing to be honest with yourself when answering. The greatest gift you can give to yourself is honesty, and if the answer is no, then you’ve got to keep searching and keep attempting to expand.

While my attitude is always about trying to get better, I try to balance that with attempting to be happy where I’m at. You can’t get caught up in the past, and you can’t get caught up in your goals. Set your goals, but then let them go. Let’s be at liberty now, because that’s where we’re developed. If you’re not implementing care of your business right now, then you’ll never reach where you want to go.

I love reading. Books have been my biggest teachers. Within my third season in the NFL, I got into reading motivational books, biographies about coaches, such as Vince Lombardi, Lou Holtz, and Phil Jackson, and reading about players like Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice. Then I started reading books on spirituality by people like Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra.

Concentrating on developing who I'm as a person no doubt made me a better football player.

EL | Why and how did you get involved with Scholars’ Hope Foundation?

TG | The organization was originally called El Viento, meaning “the wind” in Spanish. It’s a nearby charity that’s been around for around 20 years in Huntington Beach, Calif., where there’s a square-mile radius that is one of the poorest districts throughout America. It’s a predominantly Mexican community where two and three generations of households live in little apartments. The business developed a kids’-advancement program centered around math, science, and English, but additionally on developing emotional intelligence, grit, curiosity, and belief in yourself, as well as forgiveness of yourself.

These are all things that I’m a big believer in. I don’t care how smart you are: If you don’t have a full circle that includes joy, happiness, and willingness to go through and learn from what you fear, then you can’t be a successful person.

The organization is expanding into different communities, and that's why they changed the name in order that it would feel more like something everyone can relate to. When I found out about the expansion, I jumped at the chance to get onboard, because I think that what’s holding the world back can be changed through developing the mind and hearts of kids in second and third grade. That’s where one can start to change generations.