The Toughest Route of Anthony Gonzalez’s Life

The former Ohio State Buckeye and Indianapolis Colt is today a Republican legislator from Ohio who acknowledges the gravity of the January 6 insurrection and voted for the impeachment of Donald Trump. Now he’s in the former president's crosshairs.

By Stanley Kay | Sports Illustrated | Originally Posted July 8, 2021

It takes guts to be a good receiver. Sure, it takes other stuff, too: agility, speed, supernatural hand-eye coordination, the ability to leap over a small skyscraper. Uncommon strength is helpful, as is the surname Moss. But to come across the middle at full speed, look back at the quarterback and extend your arms to catch a pass, knowing full well that what awaits is a devastating blow from a linebacker or safety, whose sole purpose in that moment is to make you think twice about catching that ball and possibly even your decision to step on the field that day (or your decision to play football in the first place) with a hit so hard that you drop to the ground like roadkill—well, that takes guts.

Anthony Gonzalez has guts. Even people who do not like Anthony Gonzalez—and nowadays, there are many people who do not like Anthony Gonzalez—would have a hard time disagreeing with that. He was, after all, a receiver, and a very good one: Ohio State standout, first-round draft pick, five-year NFL veteran. He played in an era before targeting rules, when we marveled, instead of cringed, over big hits. So Gonzo, as teammates called him, understands better than almost anyone what it takes to come across the middle and do the thing he’s committed himself to doing, knowing with absolute certainty what’s coming.

“He could stare down the barrel and not blink,” says 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, his quarterback at Ohio State.

Gonzalez retired from the NFL in 2012, but his nerve is being tested more than ever these days. In January, Gonzalez—now a Republican legislator representing a contorted slice of northeast Ohio in the House of Representatives—voted to impeach a president of his own party for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, following that president’s Hail Mary attempt to overturn his electoral defeat. To some, Gonzalez’s vote was an act of courage. For others, including many of his own voters, it was the ultimate betrayal.

Either way, targeting isn’t against the rules in politics, and Gonzalez now finds himself in the crosshairs not just of his own state party, but of a vengeful former president hell-bent on delivering a knockout blow. In a red district of an increasingly red state, a Buckeye hero who bleeds scarlet and gray—beloved not just for his erstwhile tormenting of that hated team up north but, at least before 2021, for his rock-ribbed conservatism—is in a vitriolic battle for his political life that makes the animosity between Ohio State and Michigan look tame. It would have been easier, no doubt, to take a different path, one forged by calculation over conviction—and one that wouldn’t lead straight to electoral ruin. Politicians do it all the time. Avoid the hit and live to play another down. Gonzo chose otherwise.

On a blustery November day in 2005, Anthony Gonzalez secured his place in Buckeye lore. Few would have guessed he’d become an Ohio State hero, and not just because he was sometimes overshadowed by teammates like Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. Growing up he was, as he puts it, the “biggest Michigan fan you could find.”

It’s the sort of admission that would force most Ohioans to seek refuge across state lines, but Gonzalez had good reason to support the Wolverines. His father, Eduardo, played tailback under Bo Schembechler in the 1970s, rooming with an offensive guard named Les Miles. The first football game Gonzalez attended, when he was just 4 years old, was the ’89 Rose Bowl, a 22–14 Michigan win over USC. A few years later, Chris Webber’s infamous timeout in the ’93 men’s basketball national championship so devastated him that he nearly skipped school the next day. At the Gonzalez household in Ohio, a flag bearing the famous—or, in those parts, infamous—block “M” hung on the wall.

As a standout cornerback and receiver at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, where he won state championships in both football and track under legendary coach Chuck Kyle, Gonzalez was naturally interested in playing at Michigan. But the interest wasn’t mutual. On a junior day visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan’s coaches mistook him for a kicker. “It was pretty clear they had no clue who I was,” Gonzalez recalls. “The guys they were recruiting were guys I had already played against and beaten.”

Two weeks later, he was meeting with Jim Tressel in Columbus. Gonzalez was sold, and, after persuading his abuela, the person with whom he was closest, that Ohio State was right for him—she was convinced his late grandfather would have wanted him to attend Michigan—he committed to the Buckeyes.

Once Gonzalez got on the field in Columbus, it didn’t take long for him to punish his former tribe. At the 2004 game at the Horseshoe, the redshirt freshman caught his first collegiate touchdown, a 68-yard strike from Smith that helped Ohio State upset Michigan 37–21. But the next year in Ann Arbor, Gonzalez made the play that would secure his legacy, a moment known in Buckeye lore merely as “The Catch.”

With the Wolverines leading 21–19 and only 47 seconds remaining, Smith lined up in the shotgun on the Michigan 31-yard line. After taking the snap and briefly scanning the field, he stepped up to scramble, quickly retreating after linebacker David Harris nearly sacked him with a diving tackle, which sent Smith back out of the pocket. Gonzalez, meanwhile, had run a 5-yard out route before turning upfield, sensing the space in front of him. Smith rolled right and heaved a deep ball “perfectly framed in the sky,” as Gonzalez recalls, but it was underthrown, forcing a streaking Gonzalez to come back and make a leaping grab over Michigan cornerback Grant Mason, who upended him inside the 5-yard line. Somehow, Gonzalez hung on to the ball. Two plays later, Ohio State scored the winning touchdown, sealing a memorable 25–21 win over its archrival.

These were the early days of a new era of Buckeye hegemony, a dominant rivalry run yet to end. Since Gonzalez committed to Ohio State in 2003, the Buckeyes have won 15 of 17 games in the rivalry, whereas the Wolverines won 12 of 19 contests during Gonzalez’s childhood as a Michigan fan. The balance of power shifted from blue to red for many reasons, but among them was Gonzalez’s change in allegiance: In three games against Michigan, he caught 10 passes for 202 yards and two scores, winning all three contests, including an ’06 classic between the top two teams in the country.

“The ability to make a play during the crucial moments is the hardest thing to do,” Smith says. “He made a career out of making the great plays at crucial times.”