Former Ohio State, NFL football player joins Congress

The walls of Rep. Anthony Gonzalez’s Capitol Hill office are bare, but Gonzalez knows how he’d like to decorate them: He’d like to post Polaroids of the people who visit from Ohio — faces of the people he now represents.

What the Ohio House delegation’s newest member won’t do is make it a tribute to his own storied football career, first at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, then at Ohio State University, then, finally, for the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots.

“This is the 16th District’s office, so I want it to reflect that,” he said, saying references to his football career will be “minimal.”

As of now, the only evidence of that career - the one that may have helped open doors in what was initially expected to be a tight congressional race - is a bobblehead on his chief of staff’s desk of Gonzalez wearing the Colts uniform. “Maybe I’ll put my Ohio State helmet in here,” Gonzalez muses on his first day in office, as family and friends flow in and out, munching on Corner Bakery pastries and sipping coffee as they awaited his swearing-in. “People might like to try it on.”

Gonzalez, who was elected last fall to fill the vacant seat left by Rep. Jim Renacci, is a jock who got an MBA at Stanford, the son of a Cuban immigrant who endorses legal immigration and voted to block a Democratic bill to fund the government because he said it “was neither a compromise nor a realistic solution to funding our government.”

In central Ohio - the heart of Buckeye Country - he is known for “the catch,” a leaping, gracefully acrobatic midair November 2005 catch from quarterback Troy Smith in the final minute of the OSU-Michigan game inside the five-yard line. The Buckeyes, who had been losing 21-19, scored a touchdown and won the game. It was the sort of play that people still talk about. And it was the sort of thing that Gonzalez’s campaign staff thought might start conversations in Gonzalez’s congressional district.

Gonzalez knew better.

“It’s like there’s kind of two parts to the district,” he said. “If you cut the football world of the district in two, the Stark County world talks about the high school football games - Massillon, McKinley, I went to Ignatius.” The other part, he said, is the part that’s interested in Ohio State football.

He proved that during his first campaign event in Stark County. A campaign aide told Gonzalez he thought people would want to talk about Ohio State football. No, Gonzalez said. They were going to want to talk about Massillon.

“And the first person who came up to me told me a story about a game my junior year of high school, a play-off game, the state semi-finals,” he said. “She knew plays, yards, how many catches I had. She knew everything. I turned to him and said, ‘I told you so.’”

But the catch? It came up during the campaign, too.

“It’s a good thing I caught it,” he said.

In fact, Ohio State football may have planted the seed for Gonzalez running. Then-Coach Jim Tressel had asked Gonzalez, a philosophy major, and other players on his team to create a list of goals, short-term and long-term. Gonzalez had listed “public service” among them.

Years later, after Gonzalez had left football, he went up to visit Tressel and Youngstown and the two sat down for three or four hours and discussed Gonzalez’s future.

“He’s always been an incredible mentor,” Gonzalez said of Tressel. “We talked through it for a long time.”

Tressel was unsurprised that Gonzalez was exploring public service. “I was wondering when you were going to come and tell me this,” Gonzalez said the coach told him.

The two discussed a few options, “spitballing,” Gonzalez said.

“His advice to me was, ‘go where you think you can be the most useful. Only you can figure that out.’”

That advice led to a successful campaign - Gonzalez’s first - and, on Thursday, him stepping on the floor of the House of Representatives for the first time.

“You get a real sense: there are 700,000 constituents counting on me to do a great job representing them,” he said. “I’m thrilled they chose me. Now I have to deliver on the promises I made.”

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