Chiefs' TE Gonzalez helps Oprah give big

On the afternoon of his 32nd birthday, Tony Gonzalez sat comfortably under the glaring studio lights on the set of NFL Network's Total Access. The Kansas City Chiefs tight end seemed happy to be there to promote something he's passionate about -- giving back.

Gonzalez, who in December set the record for most receptions all time by a tight end, spent part of his last offseason taping "Oprah's Big Give," a reality show that rewards participants based on how much they can persuade others to contribute to needy people in cities across America. Gonzalez serves as one of three judges, along with comedian Chris Rock's wife, Malaak Compton-Rock, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

The producers were looking for an athlete on the panel of judges, and when Gonzalez's publicist contacted him about interviewing for the spot, he was skeptical at first.

"Why would they ever pick me?," Gonzalez asked. "There are so many other way more popular athletes than me."

Nonetheless, Oprah Winfrey's staff was on the hunt for a new face. While one of the best tight ends in the league may not occupy a glamorous position in a glamorous city, Gonzalez is well known for his dedication to community outreach and philanthropy.

When he flew to Chicago for the interview, however, things didn't go as smoothly as he'd hoped.

"They were telling me about the show but they weren't letting me talk," he said. "So they weren't letting me show my personality."

Then the room fell silent, as Winfrey, whom he had never met and who was not supposed to be at the interview, waltzed into the room. She introduced herself and casually said, "Oh, don't mind me."

"All of the sudden, she starts asking me questions that have nothing to do with what the show is about or anything," Gonzalez said. He and the media icon had a spirited exchange about, among other things, tequila, and his rapport with Winfrey gave the producers a chance to see how Gonzalez might interact with the contestants.

"I was so glad Oprah came in the room, because I probably wouldn't have even got the job," he said.

The primetime show's motto, "Give big or go home," could also refer to Gonzalez's philanthropic efforts.

"I think when you give, that's probably the highest form of living. It's better than almost any feeling you could think of. It's way better than scoring touchdowns to me. When you can actually go out and touch somebody's life and have an impact on them and help them for their future, there's nothing else like it."

The Tony Gonzalez Foundation has teamed with the Shadow Buddies Foundation, based in Kansas City, to provide sick children and senior citizens with dolls to help the patients and their families emotionally cope with their illnesses.

His newest charitable venture, called Team Give, has partnered with MVPspot.com, a sports socializing network, to help school districts whose budgets can't fully support sports programs.

"We want to help schools that don't have money," Gonzalez said. "Obviously, sports is something that's a big part of my life -- I wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't play sports."

The program will allocate grants of $500 to $2500 in communities surrounding Kansas City and Los Angeles. The awards are distributed through MVPSpot.com, but the funds come directly out of Gonzalez's own pocket. In the future he'd like to secure sponsors so Team Give can expand and touch as many lives as possible.

While Gonzalez's altruistic spirit may have landed him in primetime, it may not be the last time the Southern California native shows up on television without shoulder pads and a helmet. "Oprah's Big Give" debuted Sunday as the highest-rated show in primetime behind American Idol, and the exposure could open doors for Gonzalez as he ponders life after the NFL.

"Maybe after the show comes out, things will be different for me," he said. Then Gonzalez paused and pointed around the Total Access set.

"I always thought about doing something like this."

Stay tuned.

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