Tony Gonzalez's third act -- From HOF tight end to analyst to aspiring actor

Tony Gonzalez plays the father of a female athlete in Spectrum Network's "Long Slow Exhale." Brittney Elena, right, plays Corrine, his daughter, in the show. Crystal Power/Spectrum/BET

Tony Gonzalez arrived for the audition, sat down and tried to begin speaking. He had memorized what he was supposed to say. He thought he knew it but now he's frozen.

Gonzalez started sweating. He looked down and away and did anything but make eye contact with the camera or the casting director in the room. He had prepared and worked for this chance. And now, he had forgotten everything he was supposed to say.

"I just wanted to get the hell out of that damn room as quickly as possible," Gonzalez said. "And I get done with it, and I look at the lady, and I'm like, 'You know what, I'm so sorry. That was, that was f---ing awful. Awful.'

"She goes, 'Yeah, you're right. That was awful.'"

Then, Gonzalez said, the casting director laughed. Told him to try again. It wasn't much better. Gonzalez apologized again. He read a third time -- it still wasn't good -- before the casting director surprised him. She put her arms out and gave him a hug.

Gonzalez didn't get the part, playing a villain in one of the CW's DC Comics shows. Telling the story to actors later, he found out it happens to everyone. Not the hug part, but the soul-sucking, forget-everything, crawl-into-yourself feeling.

A Hall of Fame tight end with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons before retiring in 2013, Gonzalez had been a broadcaster for CBS and Fox. But it is here, in acting classes and auditions, where Gonzalez found his post-football passion.

Honest-to-god, put-in-the-work, take-the-rejection acting has turned into the third act for Gonzalez.

After three years of auditions and not getting any roles, Gonzalez landed the part of Desmond Porter in the Spectrum Network original series "Long Slow Exhale," which debuted April 4.

"It's elation," Gonzalez said. "I felt like going into a corner and just staring up, like I can't believe I finally got something."

Gonzalez is quick to make clear this isn't a pass-the-time-in-retirement endeavor. Acting, in some form, has been part of what he has wanted to do with his life ever since the fourth grade, when he landed a role in a school play as Christopher Columbus' brother.

In junior high school, he took acting classes. In college at Cal, he took an acting course. Early in his NFL career, he took acting classes in the offseason. As a famous football player, he landed commercials and cameos in HBO's "Arli$$" and ABC's "Married to the Kellys."

"My plan back then was to be a football player, and then also acting in the offseason in whatever movies I can get," Gonzalez said. "Looking back, it was foolish thinking.

"Also, I was putting in the work, but I wasn't putting in the work. I was taking the class, but I was just kind of showing up thinking, 'Where are all these parts?'"

The parts he wanted -- real ones, ones with heft -- weren't coming. As his football career flourished, he said forget it. Acting wouldn't happen. Football came first, with 14 Pro Bowls, six All-Pro selections, 1,325 career catches, 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns.

Then, in retirement, he became an analyst, first for CBS -- also appearing in four episodes of "NCIS" as Special Agent Tony Francis between 2014 and 2016 -- and then doing analysis on Fox until 2021.

There were multiple reasons for leaving Fox before last season. Among them was wanting to focus on acting and his new role. By then, Gonzalez had been an audition veteran with years of acting classes and a seriousness about being a thespian. In some ways, Gonzalez chased a familiar feeling. Not fame or adulation. He could have that with broadcasting. This was something else. This was about what pushed him to put in the work. When he started this -- before he briefly stepped away from broadcasting -- he heard the questions from everyone about why he wanted to do this.

"I put him through the wringer," said his wife, October. "Time after time, he continues to tell me that the reason he loves it is because nothing else gives him the feeling that acting does. Nothing else. He doesn't want to get up and do anything else.

"He only wants to study acting. He only wants to do this craft."

The current iteration of his passion started in 2016, when he was cast as Paul Donovan in "xXx: Return of Xander Cage," starring Vin Diesel. After one scene Gonzalez was having trouble with, Gonzalez said Diesel's sister, Samantha, approached him, told him he had done well and should be proud of his work.

After the movie wrapped, he met with director D.J. Caruso and asked if he had a future in acting. Caruso told Gonzalez he had potential.

"That was the first time I went home saying, 'You know what, I think I can do this,'" Gonzalez said. "Things only got worse after that, though. It only got harder before it got better for me."

Gonzalez sought advice from everywhere -- took more classes, read book after book about acting and dove down the wormhole of YouTube tutorials.

At some points, it was too much information. Too many conflicting thoughts -- because acting is art and therefore subjective -- messing with his mind. It made him worse until he could streamline what worked best for him.

Living in Southern California -- combined with his NFL fame -- put him in different circles of influence. It allowed him to create relationships he could learn from, too, including a fast friendship with James Van Der Beek, best known for his work as Dawson Leery in the long-running TV series "Dawson's Creek," and Johnny Moxon from the cult-favorite football film "Varsity Blues."

They were the same age, and as Van Der Beek explained, had mutual admiration. When Gonzalez became more serious about acting, he called Van Der Beek and asked for feedback on what he was told in an audition.

"It was not great feedback," Van Der Beek said. "But I was able to, having gone through my share of rejection over the years as an actor, translate the rejection into something actionable."

Van Der Beek explained Gonzalez had to look at auditioning differently than he did the NFL. In football, there might be three or four tight ends on a team, and there are 32 teams in the NFL. In acting, there is one part, one winner, and he wasn't going to be a fit for everything.

Plus, it's more than skill and whether you nail the audition. It's chemistry with other actors, a look the production might be seeking and myriad other things.

"There could be eight million reasons why they went with somebody over you, so you just can't take it personally," Van Der Beek said. "And, you know, all you can do is just enjoy the audition process. Look at the audition process as, 'Oh, cool, I get to play this role with this tiny little audience in this room.'

"And if that's fun for you, then maybe acting is something that you'll enjoy."

The arc of how Gonzalez handled football and acting had similarities. The NFL was a slow beginning. He didn't start as a rookie. His second season, he caught only 57.8% of his targets.

He had that basics of how he approached improvement for his new career, too. After bouncing from class to class, he connected with Brian Reise, who has a long list of successful clients. In pre-pandemic times -- Reise's acting studio has been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic started -- he taught hundreds of hopefuls, from beginners to established actors.

Gonzalez walked into the room the first day and saw people in the class who had real roles in movies and television. It made him realize how many good actors there are who haven't gotten their breaks.

The way Reise taught helped him. He'd have a partner, 20 to 30 minutes to figure out a scene, and then perform it in front of a class. Reise had worked with athletes attempting to transition to acting before and appreciated Gonzalez understanding of the work needed for success.

"For him, it was much more of a confidence thing than a talent thing," Reise said. "You know, it's trying to build that same confidence that he has on the field and try to build that in front of the camera, essentially."

It was about trusting his instincts and making the right character choices. Six months in, Gonzalez performed an intense "Sons of Anarchy" scene in class. The acting student he worked with was very good. The two performed the scene expertly and got an ovation from the rest of the class.

"That was the first time I'm like, 'Man, I can do this. I can hang with her,'" Gonzalez said. "That was an 'aha' moment. That's what you're searching for."

Even though Gonzalez continued improving, he didn't land substantial roles. He had auditions, good and bad -- at least two dozen in recent years. He went from 2017, with "xXx," until "Long Slow Exhale" without landing a sizable part. When COVID came, October became his off-screen reading partner for submitted auditions, since they couldn't meet in person.

He kept studying. He broke down scenes of actors he admired, including Matthew McConaughey, Mark Wahlberg, Marlon Brando, Matt Damon, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Lawrence and the back-and-forth between Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in "Heat."

Gonzalez started understanding acting nuance and detail, like in football, the small pieces that might get overlooked but are actually the keys to success. Like route running, it didn't have to be formulaic.

"What he's come to realize is that there's no right way or one certain way to be a great actor," October said. "Everyone has their own thing. You have to figure out what works for you and resonates with you to be great.

"That's the process he's in now, finding out all the ways that resonate with him and taking pieces from all the people that he admires and respects in the acting world and figuring that out on his own."

Still, Gonzalez almost walked away from acting last year. Frustrated, he thought maybe it was not going to happen. Last March, he ended up at a party for Jessica Alba's husband, Cash Warren. While there, he met director Anton Cropper, who told him about a show he was working on and suggested he read for a role. It was a part Gonzalez could relate to -- former player, father -- but one with some real dramatic work attached.

Gonzalez shot an audition in his California home and another in a makeshift studio in his friend's home in Miami before submitting for "Long Slow Exhale."

Series creator Pam Veasey, a former writer on "In Living Color," executive producer on "CSI: NY" and the mother of Atlanta Falcons cornerback Avery Williams, said they sent three candidates to the studio for approval, and the studio approved Gonzalez.

"We were like, 'OK, hey, he actually made us believe this,'" Veasey said. "And then I talked to him about where the character came from. And he really related to some of that legacy idea, sort of being a relatively tame or extremely tame version of LaVar Ball (who has two sons in the NBA and another in the G League)."

When Gonzalez landed the role, he voice-texted Van Der Beek and he heard the excitement. The time he'd put in manifested in something tangible. Now, he'd actually have to get to work.

Gonzalez's first scene, coming in the second episode, might feel familiar. It sounds like a demanding speech he could have given in a locker room, but he delivered it to his daughter, Corrine, played by another relative newcomer, Brittney Elena.

Veasey said viewers aren't supposed to like Gonzalez's character, a hard-charging father named Desmond Porter. Gonzalez sold it while slow-playing layers that would reveal themselves later in the show.

"It was a complicated role because he had to keep a secret, be supportive, be demanding," Veasey said. "There were a lot of levels to this character, and to make this your first role is a challenge."

Gonzalez prepared like he did for football. He memorized his lines -- and the lines of everyone else in scenes with him. Instead of watching television in off hours, he wrote notes to himself, like he was game-planning. He researched everything he could and saw the parallels between his first act, football, and his third, acting. He wanted to show he deserved this, the years of rejection paying off.

Gonzalez often went to Veasey with questions. He learned as he worked, improving each scene. He and Elena encouraged each other if one was having issues.

By the end of shooting, Gonzalez was comfortable with what he'd done. He'd seen some of the scenes and felt proud of the work. About what it meant for him to reach this point and what it could mean for his future. Sure, he might flub auditions again. He might have gaps between roles. But this ... this was the break he craved, one he got not because of his football laurels but because of his acting chops.

"I wanted to put the time in and the work," Gonzalez said. "And it also means I'm willing to get embarrassed, and I'm willing to get my ass kicked over and over again and beat my head against the wall and doubt myself and finally get to the point where you finally have these breakthroughs.

"I hope people are inspired to see that."