Former Kansas Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is used to the limelight, but in the new Showtime documentary Play It Forward, it’s the football star’s older brother, Chris Gonzalez, who comes into focus.
The film, from Andrea Blaugrund Nevins, chronicles the brothers’ parallel pursuits: Tony’s journey to his first playoff victory, and his supportive brother’s aspirations to become a firefighter and paramedic.
Both men are athletes, to be sure, but the sports aspects in the documentary were intentionally minimized in favor of an eyes-wide-open look at their brotherly bond. “It’s not just about making a playoff run,” Tony, now a television analyst, tells EW. “To me, Chris is the hero of the movie. He is the hero in this. It’s not me.”
Chris has yet to achieve his goal of becoming a firefighter, but Tony does not doubt his brother will make it happen. “He is your average American chasing the dream,” Tony says. “He’s like a Terminator: He will not stop until he gets his goal, and that’s inspiring.”
EW talked to Tony about his documentary, which premiere on Showtime tonight at 9 p.m. ET.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to document what you thought was going to be your final season?
TONY GONZALEZ: It didn’t start out that way. It was kind of something that evolved. At first, it was about football players transitioning to the next stage of life, and that’s what they were going to follow me on. [Michael] Strahan, Wayne Chrebet — I can’t remember who the other person was. So they start following us, then Andrea came to me and she’s like, “You know what? This is a great story. There’s much, much more there. This is a better story to be told.” Once they gave me the premise of it, of course I was excited about it. I never thought about it like, “Hey, this is a great story.” It is kind of rare, the relationship [my brother] and I have.
You shared a recording of your stepdad’s reflections from the hospital, before he died. What life lessons did you glean from him?
When I went there, I obviously knew he was going to pass away, so I wanted to document all his thoughts, because I’ve always cherished everything that he imparted to us ever since he came in. I asked a broad range of questions about myself and my brothers, and I gave it to him. We all got a CD.
The thing that I would take away… He gave me a really curious mind, to always keep searching for answers, never settle, and he did that by words and his actions. He always had a book in his hand, and he was always challenging people’s beliefs and trying to find ways to do it better.
The family, too. How this man comes in here: He marries my mother, he gets two boys, and in that process, he goes from no family, single, to two little boys stealing his underwear out of the drawer [laughs].
And teenage boys, too. Maybe the worst time for children to get a new parental figure.
Yeah. And he handled it great. It wasn’t easy at all, I’m sure, for him. Like I said, you go from the single life to boys coming in and stealing your drawers [laughs] and stealing your jacket and socks. But my mom always made us respect, and us being teenage boys, that wasn’t always easy, but we worked through it.
The other brothers aren’t really mentioned in there, but my brother Travis came and lived with us when we were in high school. My other brother Vince was at our house all the time, because his mother passed away when he was like 7 years old, and his dad was really not really around. He’s my brother, is the way we look at it. He was always very, very open to anybody who wanted to get something to eat, to come over and hang out. He’d give advice. These guys looked at him more so as a father, because they didn’t have fathers, more so than us.
During the season, it was the first time Chris wasn’t really with you, as he had his own challenge to conquer. How did you two push each other?
The way we always do. It’s motivation, it’s encouragement, then re-encouraging, too, when you get down, because obviously he struggled, I struggled. You don’t win ’em all, and it’s good to have somebody there that you love and you respect their opinion.
That’s what I think of a lot of the problems that go on with athletes and entertainers: They don’t have anybody in their life that they truly respect enough to listen to them when they tell you something. They have too many “yes” people in their life, and that is what Chris and I serve to each other, because we respect each other’s opinions. Even if we don’t agree with it … we’re going to listen. Sometimes, we know they probably have a better view of what we have, because we’re in the trenches, and we can’t see the big picture sometimes.
Your mother says Chris always loved football more than you. He got you into it. Do you wish Chris was able to play in the pros?
All the time. I look at it all the time. I even say that in there: I don’t know why. I didn’t ask for it. Genetics plays a big part of playing a professional sport. You can work as hard as you want, but if you just don’t have it athletically, you’re not going to get there. I don’t care what you do, it’s probably not going to happen. It’s very, very tough. Yeah, of course. I’ve always wished it was somewhat different for him, but that’s his path, though. He’s going to make a great fireman someday.
Did you end up shooting footage in your actual last season?
Yeah, we shot stuff in the actual season, but we all know how that went [the Falcons wen 4-12 in 2013]. The only way it would have made it good is if I came back for one more season and eventually won the Super Bowl. It didn’t go that way — not even f—ing close. What’d we win, two games? It was a disaster.
The Falcons won four.
Was it four? I don’t even remember. Put it that way [laughs.]