Austin Hooper soaking up wisdom from Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez

Austin Hooper soaking up wisdom from Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez


Vaughn McClure

ESPN Staff Writer

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper couldn’t recall all the details, but he remembered being fascinated the first time he spoke with Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.

“Obviously, as a kid growing up watching him, I just enjoyed his style of play,” Hooper said. “I can’t tell you when that first talk was, but after the conversation I was like, ‘Man, that guy is cool as hell — super cool and laid-back, like SoCal.'”

Hooper, from San Ramon, has a California vibe similar to that of Gonzalez, who was born in Torrance and raised in Huntington Beach. Both have diverse ethnic backgrounds, with Gonzalez having a African-American, Mexican, Jamaican, American Indian, Scottish and Portuguese heritage, and Hooper coming from a blend of African-American, Mexican, Irish, Native American and Belgian ancestors.

FILE-Austin Hooper talks with Head Coach Dan Quinn at training camp. (AP PHOTO:TODD KIRKLAND)

Oh, and both were two-sport stars, with Gonzalez doubling as a rather dominant forward in basketball at Cal and Hooper being an all-league high school shot-putter before focusing on football at Pac-12 rival Stanford.

Hooper fully understands that on the football field, there’s no true comparison to Gonzalez. No one in history can match Gonzalez’s sheer dominance as a pass-catching tight end, which is why he’ll be enshrined Saturday night in Canton. Gonzalez finished his 17-yea

r career with 1,325 catches, 15,127 yards and 111 receiving touchdowns. But there’s nothing wrong with Hooper striving for such greatness as the Falcons’ most dangerous tight end threat since Gonzalez’s final season in 2013.

 

Hooper fully understands that on the football field, there’s no true comparison to Gonzalez. No one in history can match Gonzalez’s sheer dominance as a pass-catching tight end, which is why he’ll be enshrined Saturday night in Canton. Gonzalez finished his 17-year career with 1,325 catches, 15,127 yards and 111 receiving touchdowns. But there’s nothing wrong with Hooper striving for such greatness as the Falcons’ most dangerous tight end threat since Gonzalez’s final season in 2013.

“I’ve definitely taken bits and pieces from his game,” Hooper said of Gonzalez. “There’s a reason why he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest pass-catchers, regardless of position. There’s a lot of great aspects of his game. I can’t mention just one.”

Hooper is coming off his best season in 2018: 71 catches, 660 yards and four TDs. He wanted to work out with Gonzalez in the offseason yet respected that he had other obligations, such as preparing for this week’s Hall of Fame ceremonies. The two exchanged texts, and Gonzalez offered words of wisdom.

“The one part I can share is he just preached the importance of looking the ball all the way in,” Hooper said. “It sounds so trivial. It sounds like, ‘Duh.’ But there’s a difference between taking your eye off just for a millisecond and truly framing the ball, and that’s what Tony did really well. That’s why he has the [second] most catches in the history of the NFL. Something so simple as that translates in a huge way. That’s kind of what he preached. You’ve got to get the baby steps down before you start sprinting and doing crazy stuff.”

Hooper took a deeper dive into Gonzalez’s film a few years ago, dissecting clips of when Gonzalez played for Dirk Koetter during Koetter’s first stint as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator (2012-14). Hooper played for former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan at the time so the terminology was different. Despite not recognizing the exact playcalls, Hooper couldn’t help but notice how Gonzalez kept getting open.

“He was beating defenders using his footwork, his size,” Hooper said of the 6-foot-5 Gonzalez. “From that aspect, I learned a lot in terms of how he moved his body to manipulate defenders.

“And the way he attacked the football — every catch, no matter what, he frames the ball and you see his eyes right on the football. You see sometimes receivers don’t look it all the way in. But with Tony — like, every picture you’ve ever seen of him — he’s always framing the ball with his hands and eyes, and that’s why I think he was one of the most consistent to ever do it. That’s something he’s done to be really successful, and I try to emulate that. I think it’s really helped me become more consistent.”

Both Koetter and new Falcons tight ends coach Mike Mularkey coached Gonzalez as coordinators and have encouraged Hooper to continue studying the nuances of the Hall of Famer’s game.

“When I was here with Tony, if it was fourth down — like, to win the game — I knew who I was going to throw it to because of the trust factor,” Mularkey said. “The trust I had and the trust Matt [Ryan] had was there. And that’s what I’m trying to show Hoop: You’ve got to build a trust that if a play is called, you’re going to win for him.

“Tony had a real knack for patience at setting up his route. The things that he did at the top of his routes were very hard to defend. I’m trying to show that to Hoop. He’s already very talented on his own but the more he can pick up from the great ones, the better.”

Hooper went to his first Pro Bowl last season (Gonzalez went to 14) and has 139 career catches (1,186 fewer than Gonzalez) but his future looks promising as he continues to mature as a player. He spent part of his offseason again working out one-on-one with Ryan in California. Hooper believes there will be even more opportunities for tight ends in Koetter’s offense, especially when the Falcons go up-tempo.

Last season, Hooper ran 474 routes and played 769 offensive snaps. Mularkey wants Hooper to continue to improve his inline blocking so he doesn’t have to come out in certain personnel groupings.

Ryan believes Hooper will continue his ascent. The quarterback was asked about any similarities between Hooper and his Hall of Fame friend, Gonzalez.

“Both are similar in they have great length,” Ryan said. “Tony, a lot of his separation was due to how long he was, his body position. … Hoop is very much the same way in that he’s got great length and has the ability to use his length to be able to create separation. … They also catch the ball extended from their body really well. That’s a huge advantage, specifically in third down and red zone situations. The windows are going to be tight, and you’ve got to be able to extend and have strong hands out in front.”

Hooper’s play is getting stronger, thanks in part to Gonzalez’s helping hand.