Tony Gonzalez never read when he was a kid. It wasn’t until he was going into his third year in the NFL that the All-Pro tight end for the Atlanta Falcons really started cracking open books, and he says it’s the best thing that ever happened to him.
“You have so much free time on your hands and you got to make use of it,” said Gonzalez, who admitted to squandering his spare time during his first two years in the League. “You can look at it and go stale in the brain, which a lot of guys do, or you can do like a couple of the guys do, and make the most of your time here. You never know how long it’s going to last.”
Going stale in the brain just wasn’t an option for Gonzalez. “It just clicked for me,” said Gonzalez. That’s when he started reading and traveling to explore his Latin roots. “When you’re reading something, you’re learning something. … I prefer books because they change your life so much.”
From that point on, Gonzalez has always had a book in his hand and usually reads three books at any given time. He confesses that he isn’t the quickest reader, but he finishes every book he starts. He calls books his mentors and loves reading biographies of the world’s most historic figures—Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. He also reads a lot of self-help books for motivation, including Dr. Phil.
At the center of the 14-year NFL veteran’s voracious appetite for learning is nutrition, an interest fueled by his incessant desire to perfect his healthy lifestyle and plant-based dietary regimen. He has leaned on his extensive knowledge on the subject to author a book called The All-Pro Diet and to launch his own all-natural supplement company called All-Pro Science.
Behind all of this is Gonzalez’s aspiration to spread his message—that anyone, not just professional athletes, can adopt his healthy lifestyle and get results.
Reading has been nothing short of life-altering for Gonzalez. After the future Hall of Famer experienced two serious health scares more than three years ago, he realized he had to make drastic changes to his diet and turned to books for guidance.
In early 2007, Gonzalez suffered a bout of facial paralysis. The right side of his face suddenly became numb and started drooping. Initially, doctors could not determine what was causing his symptoms and told him he might have suffered a stroke, a brain aneurysm, or meningitis. Later, he was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, a condition that results in the inability to control facial muscles on the affected side.
Gonzalez would eventually regain normal functioning in his face and make a full recovery in a few weeks, but it was a wakeup call that led him to take a serious look at his health. With no known causes for Bell’s Palsy, its unexpected onset was not only alarming for Gonzalez; it was an enigma for a professional athlete of his stature who kept himself in tip-top shape. The only aspect of his health that was somewhat questionable was his diet—Gonzalez, like many Americans, enjoyed eating fast food, processed foods, and meat products.
Uneasy about the uncertainty surrounding his encounter with Bell’s Palsy, Gonzalez wanted to dig deeper. He went out and purchased The China Study, a bestselling book about the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease. Its lesson: change your diet and dramatically reduce or reverse the risk or effects of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
In the middle of reading The China Study, Gonzalez experienced a second, unrelated health scare later that year that shook him to his core. At the time, Gonzalez was playing for the Chiefs and had routine blood work done for his annual physical exam prior to the 2007-08 regular season. When he returned to the team’s facilities the next day, Gonzalez says the Chief’s trainer told him, “Look, I think you need to go back to the hospital because stuff popped up on your blood work and it’s not good. It doesn’t look good at all.” Caught off guard, Gonzalez said he responded, “What do you mean? I’m not going to play football or what?”
That’s when his trainer dropped the bomb.
“Don’t even worry about football. We’re talking about your life here. It looks like there are not enough white blood cells in your blood.” A low white blood cell count, or leukopenia, is associated with leukemia.
Gonzalez was told he needed to go back to the hospital immediately and get some more tests done. While giving blood, the doctor told him his career was over unless the initial test results turned out to be wrong. Not only were they wrong, but the results belonged to another person who happened to be a cancer patient. Even though it turned out to be a huge a mix-up, it scared the hell out of Gonzalez. “It scared me enough to say ‘you know what, I felt like I just needed a change.’”
The New Lifestyle
Gonzalez captured news headlines when he decided to become vegan, as there had been few, if any instances of a professional football player adopting this type of diet. If you hear about a vegan in professional sports, it tends to be endurance-type athletes with slender physiques such as runners and cyclists.
Under the new regimen, many of the staples which he had come to rely on to provide a consistent source of protein were eliminated.
But not so fast…
This radical shift would be short-lived, as the 6’5”, 243-pound Gonzalez struggled to maintain his strength and prototypical NFL frame on the new meatless diet. He immediately lost 10 pounds. As a vegan, it became too onerous to sustain the high protein intake he needed to match his rigorous training schedule and retain his competitive edge.
“I lost too much weight, but I wasn’t doing it the right way. I want to make that clear. I think I could be vegan and play football. I know I could, but it would make a lot of extra work. I would have to get a lot a lot of extra calories, get my protein, but I could do it.”
After a month or so, Gonzalez recognized that veganism wasn’t a feasible lifestyle for an NFL player and that if he wanted to preserve his livelihood, he better modify his diet in a hurry. To regain his weight and strength, he had to shift to a plant-based diet that included minimal amounts of clean meat. He consulted with Dr. T. Collin Campbell, author of The China Study, who then put him in touch with Jon Hinds, a bodybuilder with a near-vegan regimen.
Both Campbell and Hinds recommended consuming a variety of pea, brown rice, and hemp protein as the best way for Gonzalez to supply the body with sufficient plant-based protein. He took these ingredients, along with flaxseeds and multivitamins, and combined them into a health shake that would later serve as the precursor for his signature all-natural protein supplement line.
Gonzalez also tapped the expertise of Kansas City Chief’s sports nutritionist Mitzi Dulan, R.D. “She’s been my ace in the hole,” said Gonzalez. “When I first went on this diet, obviously it was just me and reading the books that I did. She’s just made it a whole lot easier and more understandable for me in my journey through this whole health shift.” Dulan had plenty of experience in this arena, as she had been a vegetarian for 7 years and then started incorporating meat back into her diet. One of her biggest pieces of advice was eat lean cuts of meat and relegate it to a side dish. With the assistance of Dulan and others, he kept educating himself and tweaking his diet until it felt the best.
Once he had it nailed down, he collaborated with Dulan to write a book, The All-Pro Diet, which codified his new diet and made it available to the masses. “I wrote the book…because I want people to share that you don’t have to be an athlete to eat this way. It’s a lifestyle. It has nothing to do with just being an athlete. It’s for everybody.” His book is already making a huge impact helping people. Gonzalez learned that a 390-pound, morbidly obese truck driver from the Midwest says the book has dramatically changed his life after he lost 140 pounds by adopting The All-Pro Diet.
The All-Pro Diet
Gonzalez eats a plant-based, whole foods diet with sparing amounts of clean meat. The meat that he does eat is in its natural form—for example, he never eats farm-raised fish, only wild fish. Fish is a constant in his diet and he eats it every day. He also eats free-range chicken about 3 times a week. Only on rare occasions will he eat red meat, and when he does, it’s a petite cut of grass-fed filet or something similar. Occasionally, he will prepare some organic free-range egg whites.
For breakfast, he starts every day with a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with fresh fruit. Sometimes, he will eat cereal, but only if it is the Nature’s Path brand. He also drinks a smoothie that contains his special All-Pro veggie protein powder.
Dairy is pretty much a no-no in The All-Pro Diet. There is no cheese, butter, or milk. Instead, he uses vegan butter and rice milk as substitutes. Gonzalez admits to splurging once in a while. “On a very rare occasion, like if I’m in Italy and I see a piece of pizza, I might have it. Just a little taste of it.” These are just the basics of The All-Pro Diet, and it is more of a mindset and all-natural lifestyle that empowers people to make healthy food choices.
The only potential drawback Gonzalez sees with the The All-Pro Diet is that some individuals may find that it lacks taste, as they have grown accustomed to eating processed foods and experiencing the flavor they get from its high-sodium contents. They are also used to foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup. “The taste buds get used to that, so when you go to a diet like this, it becomes a little bit blander. But it really doesn’t have to if you learn how to cook the right way.”
He suggests taking a cooking course and boasts about the wide-variety of recipes included in his book that taste really good. While it took a considerable amount of research, picking the brains of experts, and trial and error before Gonzalez nailed down the right formula that best suited his needs, his deliberate approach brought results. “I made the change and I felt so much better for it, especially after I learned how to do it.”
With the new diet, Gonzalez says he felt his focus and endurance improved significantly. His vastly accelerated recovery time has made the most impact. He noticed that his body wasn’t nearly as sore after games and practices and his joints ached much less. Previously, Gonzalez’s chronic, arthritic-type foot that he had surgery on hurt so badly he could barely even practice, and then for games, he had to take Advil and shoot up with the anti-inflammatory drug toradol just to numb the pain. “Right now, I’m not pain free, but I feel a whole lot better than I did before, and I’m able to practice a lot better now, which helps for games.”
Gonzalez thinks it’s a no-brainer for athletes to eat this way. “It can help your career, help you play longer, help you play more effectively, and you don’t get as tired in the game,” he said. “I mean, all the way around, it’s that third piece: you have the weight room, x’s and o’s, and you got to make sure you got the proper nutrition and supplementation and you’re putting good things in your body.”
Now in the middle of his 14th season in the NFL (an acronym that people often joke about standing for “Not For Long”), Gonzalez attributes his longevity to changing his diet. “I just felt a whole lot better and it’s the reason, I’m playing today,” said Gonzalez. “And there is no way I think I could have been able to play this long and this effectively without changing my diet the way I did. So, all those scares... Everything happens for a reason and I know it helped me. And also, it gave me that whole health awareness and it helped me go out there and spread the word of health.”
Despite all the strides Gonzalez has made with his healthy lifestyle, he still considers his diet to be a work-in-progress and is in constant search of finding the optimal nutritional balance. “I still work at it. Right now, because I play football, sometimes I try to get as many calories as I can. So, I’ll over-indulge sometimes. Just being honest with you because I have to keep on weight and all that stuff. But when I get done playing, I could easily see myself moving even moreso toward that vegan club.”
Life as a Pro Athlete and Entrepreneur
Tony Gonzalez’s entrée to entrepreneurship came about as a result of him searching for a more efficient way to make his all-natural, plant-based protein. Every few weeks, Gonzalez would go to the store to purchase pea, brown rice and hemp protein, flaxseeds, and multivitamins in bulk amounts, and then grind it up in a big tub and mix it together into a powder that he scooped into his daily shakes. Not only was this a time-consuming and arduous process, it also carried a sizable price tag of around $250 every month. Gonzalez was frustrated and set out to find a product that contained these key ingredients. The problem was that nothing like it existed in the marketplace.
Gonzalez had been repeating his routine for months until a mutual friend introduced him to Paul Edalat, Chairman and C.E.O. of Scilabs Nutraceuticals, a leading nutritional science and manufacturing company. Gonzalez met with Edalat and told him about his inability to locate his magical formula in the marketplace. That’s when Edalat told Gonzalez that he had the perfect solution—he could not only produce his dream supplement, but his company could enhance it to provide optimum benefits. With its state-of-the-art, FDA approved laboratory, Edalat’s company could scientifically formulate protein supplements that contained premium ingredients and all-natural flavoring to improve the taste.
Edalat invited Gonzalez to his house to talk business. Edalat wanted to dive right in and start making the product. Gonzalez says Edalat asked him, “You ever thought about maybe selling this and getting this out to the people? You see how it makes you feel. What about getting it out there and seeing how it makes them feel?” Gonzalez was on board, but with one major caveat—anything that they produced had to be all-natural.
From there, All-Pro Science (APS) was born, and months later the company would make its first two all-natural products available to the public. It’s first two products were protein powders. One was the magic formula that consisted of a blend of 100% vegan proteins and the other incorporated a 100% whey protein derived from grass-fed cows. Gonzalez was named President of the fledgling company.
He admits that it’s been difficult balancing his dual career as an NFL star and budding entrepreneur, but he has adapted to his new challenge. “It’s tough, but you just deal with it. I guess it’s like anything else in life for me. You try to create a schedule that makes it easier on you and you just make time. You have to fight through it. You have to be uncomfortable at times and keep your eye on the prize I guess and know that hopefully, it’s all going to be worth it in the end because you’re spreading good health.”
He always possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, but it wasn’t until he assumed a leadership role in his new venture that he explored it. “I dabbled I guess, but I never got into it like this. No way.”
In the off-season, Gonzalez is at the company’s Newport Beach office every single day. After he fits in his rigorous early morning workout, he is at the office working from 8:30am to 6:30pm Monday through Friday. When he’s not at the office managing a full-time staff of 9 employees, he’s out on the road making personal appearances on the trade show circuit and on sports talk shows trying to spread the word about All-Pro Science supplements.
In talking about APS products, Gonzalez is hell-bent on letting his customers see how personally invested he is in the product line—which he uses on a daily basis—and his mission to spread his healthy lifestyle message. “I want them to know that I’m into it and this is what I’m passionate about. This isn’t an endorsement deal. I’m not putting my name out there like most athletes, [who] endorse products that maybe they don’t believe in or just because they are getting paid for it. We’re a startup company; we’re not killing [it] by any means at this point. We are doing it strictly for the love of spreading that health message right now.”
Gonzalez is living proof that leading the all-natural lifestyle and consuming APS products can have real benefits, as evidenced by the fact that he is still productive at the tale-end of his career. In fact, this season he eclipsed the 1,000 career receptions mark, becoming the first tight end in NFL history to do so, and currently ranks sixth on the all-time career receptions list with 1,040. Even if Gonzalez has an established track record of success as an athlete, he is quick to point out that it doesn’t automatically translate to success in business and that a tough road lies ahead in establishing APS as a major player in the supplement industry.
“In this world, I am a regular person. This is not football. And even though I have a pretty good name because of football, it means nothing when it comes to this. So, I have to earn that respect, earn that trust from the customers out there. And let them know when they hear APS, they automatically think ‘Wow, that’s the upper echelon product that you want… that’s affordable as well.’”
Not only has Gonzalez kept the prices down, but he has stuck to the company’s core value of selling all-natural products, and he attributes APS’ initial success to this unwavering commitment. “You can’t cut corners on these products because people will see right through it,” said Gonzalez. Whereas other companies use artificial ingredients so they can sell their products cheaper, this is not something he is willing to entertain, even if it means that APS will turn less of a profit. “It’s more than about just going out there and making money. It’s all about spreading health and making sure the products always keep to that core value.”
With minimal advertising, APS has already found its own niche as an all-natural supplement company in the saturated, multi-billion dollar health supplement industry. It has built a loyal following that has gravitated to its all-natural line sans synthetics, hormones, and artificial preservatives and flavoring.
Capitalizing on the popularity of its protein powders, APS has expanded its supplement line to include a nice arsenal of products—a recovery drink, a healing agent, a multivitamin, an immune-system-boosting supplement, and an omega-3 tablet. The company plans to expand its line to 20 plus products in the near future. With APS’ sales doubling each month, the company hopes to have north of 20,000 customers and to be at $12 million in business by the end of the year.
APS has nurtured its growing customer base by giving them direct influence over the direction of its products and actively engaging them through social media and contests on twitter. Gonzalez also frequently answers questions about APS products and nutrition on his personal twitter account. Gonzalez actually calls at least 80 APS customers per month during the season to show his appreciation for them purchasing his products and to ensure they are satisfied with their order. “They are really surprised,” Gonzalez said of his calls and hands-on approach to customer service. “We let them be our boss and tell us what [they] want. And if enough people say ‘hey, we want this flavor, or if we think this ingredient should be in there, or we think it’s too sweet,’ then we’ll start messing with it. You got to keep the customer first, no matter what happens…”
What the Future Holds
Five years from now, Gonzalez’s goal is to have anybody who takes supplements to be taking APS products. He wants to use APS as a vehicle to spread the word of health and wellness and introduce people to The All-Pro Diet and the all-natural lifestyle.
Once he retires from the NFL—as the greatest tight end in the history of the game—he plans to transition to working on APS full-time. “This is what I want. I’m already doing what I want to do when I get done playing,” Gonzalez told Access Athletes.
He considers it a luxury that he is doing something that he’s so passionate about, even before he has finished playing football. Over the course of his 14-year career, many of his retired brethren have struggled to find something to take the place of football. “I’ve found it and I’m into it. It’s my lifestyle. I’ve been lucky from that standpoint.”
And Gonzalez can thank reading for making it happen.
For more on Tony Gonzalez and All Pro Science:
We would like to thank Tony Gonzalez for taking time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with Access Athletes. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.