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.”
At Ohio State, Gonzalez was known to be uniquely driven. Famously, he slept in a hyperbaric chamber, a plastic tent designed to simulate the environment at 8,000 feet of altitude, helping the body build endurance by increasing oxygen levels. He also became obsessed with learning the technical nuances of the receiver position. In Columbus, Gonzalez committed himself to becoming the best route runner in the country, reasoning that if he was successful, he’d earn a place in the NFL. Indeed, in 2007, the Super Bowl champion Colts selected Gonzalez with the 32nd pick in the first round of the NFL draft, partnering him with his boyhood receiving idol, Marvin Harrison.
Gonzalez’s time in the NFL started well enough. In 2008, his second year in the league, he played all 16 games, catching 57 passes for 664 yards and four touchdowns as his quarterback, Peyton Manning, won league MVP. But a slew of injuries derailed his career. He played just one game in ’09, when the Colts reached the Super Bowl. “It’s a special torture to watch your team play in the Super Bowl, knowing that’s the game you wanted to play in your whole life and it’s right there,” he says. “But because you can’t find a way to get healthy, you’re just not able to do it.”
Instead of soaking in the joys of that season, Gonzalez struggled with depression. “Growing up in Cleveland, you were very attuned to what a first-round bust is. That’s sort of the last thing on earth you want once you become a first-round draft pick,” he says. “Your job is to perform and to make yourself worthy of the selection.” It wouldn’t be the last time he had such feelings. In 2012, after two more injury-riddled seasons, he had finally had enough of football. The end of his playing days, though, didn’t bring much clarity. Instead, as he tried to reconceive his place in the world, he spiraled into another period of darkness.
It’s not that Gonzalez hadn’t thought about a future beyond football. Quite the opposite, in fact: While at Ohio State, the philosophy major was already mulling his post-playing days, musing about becoming a Rhodes Scholar or running for office. He talked to Tressel about those aspirations, even floating the possibility of someday running for president (“the musings of a silly college kid,” Gonzalez says now). “He was very serious about becoming as good a football player and perhaps playing in the NFL, but he was also very serious about his future career,” Tressel recalls.
Gonzalez emerged from his depression after deciding to pursue his MBA at Stanford, despite interest from the Dolphins. Turning down Miami’s overture firmly closed the door on football, giving him the clarity he sought. In Palo Alto, he met the woman who would become his wife, a former Stanford swimmer, and graduated, taking a job with an education technology company.
But his home state of Ohio beckoned, as did politics. He had been a conservative his entire life, views he owed in part to his paternal grandparents’ fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime in 1960. “I think just culturally, if you have Cuban roots, it’s really, really difficult to be a Democrat because anything that even smells like or looks even remotely like socialism or communism, you’re going to run away from it as fast as humanly possible,” Gonzalez says. “So the idea of limited government, individual rights, pushing autonomy to the family—those are things that naturally I’m wired to gravitate towards.”
In 2017, having moved back to Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland on the shore of Lake Erie, Gonzalez decided—after much deliberation, including a day spent discussing the idea with Tressel at Youngstown State, where the former coach serves as university president—to run for the House of Representatives as a Republican in the state’s 16th congressional district, the incumbent Jim Renacci (R) having resigned to run for U.S. Senate. (“I was wondering at what point you were going to come tell me this,” Gonzalez recalls Tressel’s saying.) He presented himself as a fairly typical Reagan Republican, preaching the merits of legal immigration, warning against the ballooning federal debt and talking plenty about jobs for a region hit hard by industrial atrophy. In the spring of 2018, he prevailed in the Republican primary, earning 53% of the vote in a three-way race; he won November’s general election comfortably, beating his Democratic opponent by 13 points.
At just 34 years old, he had become one of the youngest members of Congress. Armed with strong conservative roots, the compelling narrative of his grandparents’ leaving communist Cuba to seek the American dream and his family’s quintessential Rust Belt success story in the steel business—not to mention his scarlet-and-gray past, no small thing in a Buckeye-mad state—the possibilities of his political future seemed limitless.
“This is a candidate from central casting for Republicans,” says David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. “If you could have designed a Republican candidate, you couldn’t have done much better than Anthony Gonzalez.”
In his D.C. office, Gonzalez keeps a book of Frederick Douglass speeches. He also displays an Ohio State helmet and an NFL game ball, earned after scoring two touchdowns in a 44–20 Sunday Night Football win over the Ravens his rookie year. Like his time in the NFL, his tenure on Capitol Hill started smoothly, despite the volatility of the Trump presidency. Democrats had captured the House of Representatives in 2018, confining Gonzalez to the minority, but he still managed to get more bills passed than any other Republican freshman. He joined the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group devoted to finding common ground. He took a strong interest in combating China, warning against its manipulation of international organizations and abuse of human rights. During last summer’s unrest and demonstrations for racial justice, he quietly reached out to his former Colts coach, Tony Dungy, for advice. He carefully researched policy issues, taking the same methodical approach he once took to mastering the nuances of football—still intent, as Troy Smith describes Gonzalez’s college ethos, on “saying less and doing more.”
Perhaps most notably, inspired by his time at Ohio State and his wife’s experience at Stanford, he sought to deploy his new power on behalf of college athletes. In part a response to spate of new state laws across the country, the Student Athlete Level Playing Field Act, cowritten with Missouri Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D) and reintroduced this year before the NCAA enacted its new NIL rules, would set a federal standard for allowing college athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness without classifying them as university employees. (“I actually like him,” Cleaver says of Gonzalez. “Like, for real like him, not the Washington ‘like.’ ”) It’s all part of a measured approach to his new job that eschews the bombast of cable news hits for the less glamorous business of legislating.
“He’s not the guy who wants to be on the talk shows and all that,” Tressel says. “He wants to toil—not in anonymity, but in impactful ways.”
Even in an age of extreme partisanship and presidential tweets, Gonzalez’s first term, spanning 2019 and ’20—coinciding with just the third-ever presidential impeachment trial and a pandemic—was largely uncontroversial. The result of his reelection campaign, like an Ohio State home game against Rutgers, was never in doubt. After running unopposed in the primary, he prevailed in the general election by nearly 27 percentage points.
The trouble started after the election, when Gonzalez, who voted for Trump, acknowledged Joe Biden had won the presidency. In the weeks and months that followed Nov. 3, Trump and his allies had started spreading what’s become known as the “big lie”—the false notion that he, not Biden, had won the election, a baseless conspiracy theory that became the pretext for an all-out campaign to overturn the results. The effort was clumsy at times, but it was remarkably successful in undermining confidence in the vote: A majority of Republican voters came to believe some version of the lie. Politicians responded in turn. When The Washington Post surveyed all 249 congressional Republicans about the results of the election in early December, nearly a month after Biden’s victory became clear, Gonzalez was one of just 27 to acknowledge reality.
The lie kept growing, even after the Electoral College officially confirmed Biden’s win, prompting a number of elected Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to at last recognize the president-elect. At the turn of the new year, with Biden’s inauguration less than three weeks away, the furious campaign to nullify the results continued.
“When I saw the rhetoric and I saw what people on our side were saying without any regard for reality,” Gonzalez says of the weeks after the election, “it started to scare me.”
As it turned out, he was right to be afraid.
On the afternoon of Jan. 6, Anthony Gonzalez was barricaded in his office. He had changed out of his suit and into plainclothes and a hat. Thousands of protesters, believing the lie and urged on by the president, had marched to the U.S. Capitol that day, and now many of them had violently stormed the building, prompting a frantic evacuation of both chambers, which had convened to formally certify Biden’s victory. Gonzalez’s plan, if anyone tried to breach his office, was to dash for whichever door they didn’t use and sprint for his life.
He wasn’t sure he would make it out alive. He had, after all, already announced his intention to certify the vote, and many rioters were there expressly to stop the vote from being certified, by any means necessary. He followed the chaos online, watching as outmanned Capitol police officers were attacked by the mob. If they were willing to do that to police officers, he thought, what would they be willing to do to a member of Congress? Fearing the worst, Gonzalez—father to two young kids—wrote a goodbye letter to his wife.
“In that moment, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “And I wanted the last word for me and my family.” The note—unread by his wife—remains in his desk.
Five people died in the Capitol riot, none of them lawmakers. It quickly became clear, however, that had the chain of events unfolded any differently, the insurrection could have easily been far more deadly. That night, Congress formally certified Biden’s win, with a majority of House Republicans still objecting to the results.
When Democrats moved to impeach Trump for incitement of insurrection, Gonzalez had a decision to make. Intellectually and constitutionally—for him, that part was straightforward. Personally and politically? Not so much. It was the toughest choice he’d have to make in his political career, but it resembled a choice he had made countless times before. Would he do what he felt was necessary, despite knowing he’d take a hit?
A week after the insurrection, Gonzalez announced his decision. He would vote for impeachment.
To those who know Representative Gonzalez as Gonzo, his stance was hardly surprising, even as only nine other House Republicans joined him. “It’s the easy thing to conform, and just fall into the masses,” says his friend and former Ohio State teammate Brian Hartline. “Where his heart’s at, it’s not to just fall in line—he’s really trying to take an analytical position and do what he feels is right.”
Adds Smith: “He was always about telling the truth.”
Says Kyle, the longtime Saint Ignatius coach: “It didn’t surprise me that even though it would cause questions, he felt he had to do what he felt was right—that’s what he is.”
That’s not to say it was easy. Gonzalez says voting to impeach a president, whether Republican or Democrat, was the last thing he ever wanted to do. And there’s no denying the hard political reality that he represents a district as red as Ohio Stadium on fall Saturdays. “For these 10 representatives, it really is a kind of test of what matters to them, what kind of pressure they’re willing to put up with, what they’re willing to endure,” says Charlie Sykes, the anti-Trump conservative commentator and author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. “Because there are a lot of other Republicans who have been disgusted by what’s happened, but frankly they don’t have the intestinal fortitude to be able to take the flak.”
Gonzalez didn’t back impeachment the first time around, in late 2019, and during his first term, nearly 86% of his votes aligned with Trump, including voting against a bill that would have restored key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted in ’13. But this—an assault on the democratic process, fomented at least in part by the president of the United States—was different.
“If you don’t have a peaceful transfer of power, you don’t have a democracy,” Gonzalez says. “My charge and my oath requires me to defend the democracy at all times. So that’s what I did.”
But there’s a reason so few Republicans joined Gonzalez: Many of their voters don’t think Trump did anything wrong. And in deep-red districts where the biggest threat to reelection is a primary, disloyalty begets demise.
“It’s not a complicated equation,” Niven says. “You cannot question Trump as an Ohio Republican and remain in good standing in the party.”
At Ohio State, the hardest hits Gonzalez took were in practice from his own teammate, future Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner. So it wasn’t a totally unfamiliar feeling these last few months as his fellow Republicans lined up to unload on him. Josh Mandel, a candidate for Senate, branded Gonzalez a “traitor” and called for him to be “eradicated from the Republican Party.” Another Senate candidate, Jane Timken, initially said Gonzalez had a “rational reason why he voted that way” on impeachment, calling him an “effective legislator” and a “very good person,” but she reversed field faster than Ted Ginn Jr. to demand his resignation. The Strongsville GOP, a grassroots organization based in Gonzalez’s district, collected signatures on a resignation petition, and the state Republican Party voted overwhelmingly to censure the second-term representative, likewise calling for him to step down. At a May event in Gonzalez’s district, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, currently under federal investigation for sex trafficking (he denies the allegations and has not been charged with a crime), mused: “Is it likely that the Anthony Gonzalez congressional career might mirror the Anthony Gonzalez NFL career? Whole lot of hype, first round draft pick, out in four years.”
Shannon Burns, the president of the Strongsville GOP, likens Gonzalez’s impeachment vote to “running down the wrong tunnel and ending up in the other team’s locker room”—Michigan’s locker room, to be clear (if that wasn’t obvious). “I think the one thing the Republican base is really aware of now is that just because you wear the Buckeyes uniform doesn’t mean you’re our hero,” he says.
To Burns, Gonzalez’s vote was a betrayal, especially after a Zoom call with the board of the Strongsville GOP the night of Jan. 6, hours after the “supposed riot.” According to Burns, Gonzalez said he believed “elite society has conspired to take down our president, Donald Trump,” and that he wouldn’t stand for it, only to vote for impeachment a week later.
Gonzalez doubts he put it exactly like that, but he doesn’t feel the sentiment is necessarily at odds with his vote. “My belief is my oath required me to vote the way that I did. I stand by that—I’ll always stand by it,” he says. “The fact that the media and social media and elite society in many ways wanted the president to lose doesn’t excuse the fact that he summoned and inspired a group of people to attack the Capitol to prevent the constitutionally mandated electoral process from completing itself. If that’s not impeachable, I don’t know what is.”
Most ominous for the sake of Gonzalez’s political future is Trump’s eagerness to intervene in next year’s election. “Anthony Gonzalez should not be representing the people of the 16th district because he does not represent their interest or their heart,” the former president, whom the Senate failed to convict, decreed just weeks after departing the White House. He bestowed his endorsement on Max Miller, a 32-year-old former aide and 2020 deputy campaign manager who led Gonzalez comfortably in a March poll commissioned by the Miller-backing Club for Growth.
With vengeance on his mind, Trump held his first mass rally since Jan. 6 late last month in Wellington, Ohio, just outside Gonzalez’s district. Stumping for Miller, Trump repeated his typical election falsehoods and attacked the “sellout” incumbent, branding him a “a fake Republican and a disgrace to your state.” Miller, too, declared Gonzalez’s impeachment vote a “betrayal he can never turn back from” and mocked the length of his pro football career. It was like hearing the comments from a mid-aughts Michigan fan message board read out loud.
Gonzalez, despite the physical threats he’s received in recent months, shrugs off the former president’s attention. “I don’t think about it,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got other things on my mind. He’s going to do what he’s going to do—I’ll figure it out.” (Gonzalez worries, however, that Trump’s election rhetoric could lead to further violence.) He’s far fro