Crossing Pattern

Tony Gonzalez went to Mexico to learn Spanish. He picked up a lot more than the language.

Originally Published: June 21, 2004
By by David Flemming | ESPN The Magazine

Like many Mexican towns, San Miguel de Allende is defined by two things: churches and bars. Tucked in the valley of the Sierra Madre, 267 miles northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel's most prominent building is the bizarre looking La Parroquia, a 17th-century church copied from French postcards and made of pink cantera stone. Depending on which local you ask, it's either a baroque masterpiece or a giant cement wedding cake. Down the street is the open-air market, where every step is marked by the smell of mangos, manure, sun flowers, sausage and raw sewage, some of the latter trickling in from El Gato Negro, a nearby tavern that has an aqueductlike urinal running under the length of the bar.

Just off the jardín -- the lush garden at the center of town -- you can feel the twitchy beats of salsa music pounding through the doors of Mama Mia's bar. Inside, in a space no bigger than a college dorm room, next to support beams that still have bark on them, the dance floor is packed with steamy bodies. In the middle is Tony Gonzalez, the Chiefs' All-Pro tight end, who has been in San Miguel for a month and who, on one of his last nights, is enjoying salsa lessons from a leopard-suited woman who contorts him in ways that Ray Lewis would admire.

As 10 o'clock nears, Gonzalez downs a cerveza to quench his post-salsa thirst. The beer in Mexico is safer than the water. Tequila is safer still. But Gonzalez is taking it easy. Not even pleas from the bassist of Pila Seca, a popular local funk band, will keep him from leaving. The musician, who's on crutches for an injury he says he sustained while making love to his wife, plays the sympathy card, but Gonzalez laughs him off. The 28-year-old tight end grabs his Spanish-language textbooks, shoves them underneath his arm and mouths the words "school night" to a friend before stepping out onto the 500-year-old cobblestone streets.

Gonzalez is in San Miguel, known as Mexico's cradle of independence, to connect with a Hispanic heritage he knows little about. His paternal grandfather, Joseph, was born in Portugal, then grew up in Spanish-speaking Argentina. But both of Gonzalez's parents were raised in the United States. And Gonzalez, a native of Huntington Beach, Calif., grew up ashamed that he barely knew the difference between adiós and hola. He became more embarrassed when, as a player, he'd make appearances and Hispanic kids would pepper him with questions in Spanish. His only response: "Lo siento no hablo." ("Sorry, I do not understand.")

Of course, Gonzalez's quest for knowledge isn't entirely altruistic. He knew enough Spanish to understand that a tilde turned sideways looks an awful lot like a dollar sign. With a deal already in place to go to Guadalajara and pitch Gatorade, Gonzalez wants to corner the Hispanic market in the NFL. "Let's face it," the seven-year vet says, "there isn't a whole lot of Latin influence in the NFL. Maybe I can change that."

Through a friend, Gonzalez learned of the Instituto Allende in San Miguel, which offers an intensive Spanish-language program, the linguistic equivalent of Dick Vermeil's hellish two-a-day training camp. Since the first week of April, Gonzalez has received intense one-on-one tutoring from local instructors. He's been in class five days a week, six hours a day, for four weeks. The course costs Gonzalez $154,000, if you add the $4,000 he paid in tuition to the $150,000 off-season workout bonus he passed up.

Gonzalez, though, says the lessons have been priceless, a realization that dawned on him four days into his trip. He'd just finished class and was wandering through Benito Juárez Park when he saw a little boy wearing a No. 88 Chiefs jersey. In this town of 80,000 Mexicans and 3,000 expats, people might watch one NFL game all year, the Super Bowl, and that's only if there isn't a decent soccer match on. Seeing a Chiefs fan is rare.

Gonzalez caught up to the boy, pointed at the flame-red jersey and then at himself. "He had no idea who I was," Gonzalez says. "And then it hit me. This little kid from another part of the world, who doesn't speak English or probably even own a TV, picked that jersey because it had a Latin name, my name, on it. That summed it all up for me."

Gonzalez knew no one in San Miguel. He immersed himself in the culture by living with a local family whose members spoke no English. He may have once gotten a $10 million signing bonus, but in San Miguel, Gonzalez was just another gringo who didn't know how to order a beer. When he first arrived, Gonzalez says his heart was beating "like it does in the locker room before a big game. I've always been open to new people and different cultures, but I knew right away that what I had done was a bit extreme."

In those first few days, Gonzalez walked everywhere in the hilly town, too uncomfortable to hail a cab. After tripping on a curb one morning, he turned quite a few heads when he shouted "cago" ("I take a crap") when he meant "caigo" ("I fall"). A teammate of Jason Kidd's on Cal's 1997 Sweet 16 team, Gonzalez thought he'd find his groove on the basketball court. But his game didn't translate. For starters, the pickup court in Benito Juárez Park has a tree close enough to the hoop to set a wicked baseline pick. Plus, the games are quick (first team to score three buckets wins), man-to-man D is not permitted and there's no such thing as traveling. (Can NBA expansion be far behind?) Oh yeah, and foreigners get no courtesy. Gonzalez had barely laced up his kicks when his first game was over.

But in his second game, it didn't take long for Gonzalez to rip down a board and dunk over three locals, who then began calling him "Cha-quil." They started hacking him like he was Shaq as well, poking at him like bullfighters on the attack. Rather than spark an international incident, Gonzalez called it quits after a few more games, switching his workouts to the safety of a local gym. "After the hoops," he says, "I was, like, what have I gotten myself into?"

He hadn't seen anything yet. The first weekend in town, Gonzalez bought himself a front-row seat behind the giant red gates of the Plaza de Toros, the local bullfighting ring. The third bull killed that day, a snorting, dusty earth-shaker, succumbed at Gonzalez's feet. The bull was close enough to Gonzalez that he could see the blood bubbling out of its nostrils; close enough that he jumped when the 900-pound beast took a last futile lunge at the matador before dropping dead. "Hard-core, man," he says. "Just blew my mind."

After that first week, though, life settled down. His new world was like a jigsaw puzzle, Gonzalez says. At first, nothing fit and he couldn't see the big picture. But piece by piece -- the culture, the language, the people -- it all started to come together, helped greatly by his new family.

LuLu Hermosillo and her kids, Mayra, 24, and Christian, 9, live in a two-story white adobe home. Divorced from her husband, LuLu's only source of income is the $25 a day she makes housing students. Their house sits in a dusty, crowded alley where stray dogs sleep in most doorways. Carrying his luggage to his room that first day, Gonzalez whacked his head on LuLu's low ceiling. About a third of his 6'4'' frame hung over his twin bed. The water nozzle was so low that Christian offered Gonzalez a chair to bring into the shower. The first taste of LuLu's spicy tortilla soup nearly set the Californian's tongue ablaze. But Gonzalez couldn't have complained if he'd wanted to, because no one understood him. "We all just sat around," he says. "Like mutes."

That quickly changed. The big meal in Mexico is lunch, and by nightfall the 250-pound Gonzalez was often starving. As soon as he worked up the nerve and the vocabulary, he told Christian he was "muy, muy hambre." Christian is a wiry and curious bundle of energy, with a thick mop of feathered black hair and a robust indifference to the NFL -- even Los Jefes de Kansas City. To him, Gonzalez was just the big, hungry guy rummaging through his kitchen. The first time Gonzalez mentioned his empty stomach, Christian put down his pocket GameBoy and took him to a hamburger joint called El Fogón. They ate like kings for 50 pesos ($4), and became fast friends. They developed their own secret handshake. They thumb wrestled. After classes they played hoops on the roof between a line of laundry and the TV antenna as Christian quizzed Gonzalez in Spanish.

Each morning at 8:30, LuLu, a short, matronly woman with smile creases in the corner of her eyes and a general's demeanor in the kitchen, would serve eggs, beans and fresh mango. Then the two "boys" would grab their backpacks and set out in opposite directions for school. Gonzalez loved this time of day. He walked through still-cool streets alone, with no one asking for autographs. He walked past historic churches and art galleries and the town's ubiquitous ochre walls. "This put things into perspective," he says. "It humbled me. It was a highlight of my life."

A month after arriving in San Miguel, Gonzalez is no longer just another American without a clue. He has his own key to the Hermosillo home. One afternoon a few days before he is to leave Mexico, Gonzalez walks into the kitchen, high-fives Christian and, in Spanish, asks the boy about school. Talking a mile a minute, he kisses LuLu on the cheek and tastes the soup simmering on the stove. He shouts "¡Muy picante!" (very hot), which cracks everyone up. LuLu points to Gonzalez. "He is a good boy," she says.

The next morning, Gonzalez heads to his last day of classes. He strolls between the enormous gray stone walls of the instituto wearing orange shorts and a brown Sid Vicious T-shirt. Weaving his way back to the garden behind the school (originally a 17th-century palace), Gonzalez greets profesora Elvira Sierra. She's wearing librarian glasses and a thick, blue-wool sweater. Her black, French-braided hair is connected in one four-foot loop, which hangs over each shoulder like a scarf. She begins grilling Gonzalez on the verb gustar, which means "to like." Gonzalez's biggest problem with Spanish is its passivity. It's just so un-American, so unlike the NFL. Put another way: in English, Tony likes touchdowns; in Spanish, the touchdowns are liked by Tony.

In the afternoon, Gonzalez finishes up with profesora Maria Elena Sánchez, whose orange dress matches her orange hair, orange lipstick and sunny disposition, which Gonzalez is testing. Although she has incorporated football into her final lesson, making Gonzalez tell her in Spanish how he prepares for the game and what he does afterward, the player's mind is wandering. He's thinking about his 3-year-old son (from a past relationship), his two brothers and his mother, all of whom will arrive tonight from Los Angeles. He's also distracted by a steady stream of chicas in summer dresses, who walk the garden paths and totally ignore him. This is a long way from Kansas City. Sanchez puts her hands up to her eyes like blinders. "Focus please, Tony," she says.

Early in his lessons, Gonzalez heard a lot of "repite, por favor" ("repeat, please"). But today the teacher's final comments are mostly "¡Correcto! ¡Perfecto! Muy bien, Tony." His profesoras say Gonzalez is on his way to mastering the language. Tellingly, when a giant black fly lands on his neck, Gonzalez yells, "¡Ay, mosca!" not "Damn fly," while swatting at it.

That evening, Gonzalez takes his family to celebrate graduation at his favorite hangout. "I'm like the Norm of Mama Mia's," he says. On cue, the lead singer of Pila Seca dedicates an original song to "our new friend, Tony Gonzalez," who promptly goal-line blocks everyone down to the dance floor.

Shouting in Spanish over Pila Seca's righteous rendition of "Play That Funky Music ... Gringo," Tony asks older brother Chris, for the third time, if he wants another beer. Chris, whose Spanish is limited, yells back in English: "No, for the last time, I do not have to go to the bathroom." Undeterred, Tony feeds Chris some lines for the doe-eyed, raven-haired beauty dancing next to him. But, "You have beautiful eyes (ojos)" accidentally becomes, "You have beautiful sons (hijos)."

An hour later, the brothers are still laughing over the mishap and elbowing each other in the gut when the family spills out into the jardín. Under perfectly trimmed trees that look like giant maracas, Tony corrals an eight-piece mariachi band playing nearby. They're wearing matching black suits with rhinestone studs, and several of them seem to be connected like a string of paper cutout dolls by their silver handlebar mustaches.

Lured by the music, crowds of people move off the benches and form a semicircle around the band. The locals mix in seamlessly with the Gonzalez family. Some clap. Others sing. The band is playing the perfect song for the setting, "Cielito Lindo." Pretty little heaven. Everyone dances in a big circle, and once again the man in the middle is Tony Gonzalez.

The look on his face needs no translation.

This article appears in the June 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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