The Colony High School’s football team awards helmet stickers for each phase of the game: a skull and crossbones for defensive plays, gold stars for offense and cougar paws for special teams.
When Christian Gonzalez was playing at Tommy Briggs Stadium in the north Dallas suburb, few opponents were willing to challenge the cornerback, yet his helmet was still adorned with an array of merit badges.
“We had to develop a whole other category for Christian because they never threw to his side,” said Rudy Rangel, coach at The Colony. “I said every five routes that were run and your receiver didn’t catch the ball, you get a sticker. He would go 60 plays and they’d throw the ball to his side one time.
“It would keep him engaged. The stats weren’t there. You had to know that he eliminated a side of the field. There was one game, could have given him the offensive MVP, the defensive MVP and special teams.”
In two seasons at The Colony, Gonzalez had 46 tackles, 17 pass breakups, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He earned acclaim and attention, yet was still somewhat under the radar as a four-star recruit.
The No. 326-ranked overall prospect and No. 46 player in the state of Texas in the class of 2020, Gonzalez grossly surpassed those marks during his three seasons in college, two at Colorado and one at Oregon.
The 6-foot-1, 197-pound Gonzalez had 50 tackles, four interceptions, seven pass breakups and a blocked field goal last season for the Ducks en route to first-team all-Pac-12 honors by the league’s coaches.
He received a 92 overall draft score from NFL Next Gen Stats, highest among this year’s cornerbacks and boosted by his 40-yard dash time of 4.38 seconds.
RELATED: How Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez performed at the NFL Scouting Combine
Gonzalez will be selected in the first round of Thursday’s NFL draft in Kansas City and receive a four-year contract, with a fifth-year team option, that will include a signing bonus of more than $13 million if he’s chosen in the top 10 — as he is widely projected to be.
He’ll become the fourth Oregon defensive back selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1967 and the first since Alex Molden (No. 11 in 1996).
“Sky’s the limit for Christian,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said. “Whatever team gets Christian, they’re hitting a home run. He’s one of the best corners I’ve ever been around and a better human.”
But the red carpet and green room of the NFL draft, the handshake and hug with commissioner Roger Goodell — they were pipe dreams for Gonzalez just five years ago, when he almost walked away from football.
As a sophomore at Creekview High School, Gonzalez was relegated to the junior varsity team and played quarterback for a squad that went 1-9 while his varsity counterparts went 0-10. He felt his athleticism was going to waste and nearly gave up on football in favor of basketball.
But his parents, Temple and Hector, who played basketball at UTEP, and sisters Melissa and Samantha, both All-America track athletes at Texas and Miami, respectively, told him to stick with football.
He changed high schools to The Colony. Though transferring is not uncommon for a 16-year-old, it rarely proves such an athletic- and life-altering decision in retrospect.
Gonzalez and his friends from Creekview look back and see an extreme butterfly effect had he not chosen to transfer high schools.
“We talk like, if I never would’ve left, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college because that was one of my things — I didn’t want to be the kid to make my parents pay for college,” Gonzalez said. “That was something that really pushed me. So I probably wouldn’t have gone. I probably would’ve just worked and been at home still.”
• • •
Ray Buckley had a top-five pick in the 2007 Carrollton Youth Football League draft. Anyone who’s ever been to Texas, particularly the Dallas Metroplex, knows that even 5-year-old flag football is treated with the utmost seriousness there.
When the league held a minicamp for kids, Buckley was immediately blown away by the speed of Christian Gonzalez, whom he knew only by a jersey number at the time.
“I’ve never seen a kid at 5 that fast and brother, I’m almost 46,” Buckley said. “I was telling my wife, my other coaches, I said, ‘Man, I have got to have that kid. I don’t care if I have anybody else in the draft; I got to have that kid.’”
Buckley played Gonzalez at nearly every position on the field over eight years of youth football.
“He was the only kid that, all you had to do was tell him and show him one time and he would pick that play up, offense or defense, it was like it was programmed,” Buckley said. “We were running simple football, but he was so versatile he could play whatever you needed him to do on the football field. He could play all 22 spots.”
Gonzalez played for Buckley until he got to seventh grade, and their families grew and stayed close even as Buckley and his family moved to the town of Celeste, about an hour away.
When Gonzalez was a freshman at Creekview, where his mother is a teacher, he didn’t expect to play on varsity and was pleased with how his freshman season went while playing quarterback and receiver.
In the summer entering his sophomore year, he was a second-team receiver and confident he could climb the depth chart and make the varsity team.
“Closer to season, they based everything off of seniority and how much you could lift in the weight room,” Gonzalez said. “I wasn’t small, but I wasn’t as big as I am now. But I didn’t lift that much. They moved me down, all the way to JV — I ended up being a backup my sophomore year. That was kind of like, I knew I was better than that and it took a lot out of me because growing up it was, ‘Oh wait ’til he gets to high school because he’s going to show he can play and get offers and all of that.’”
This wasn’t merely a humbling experience for Gonzalez. This was humiliating. His sisters were track stars at Creekview and college All-Americans.
“I don’t think the word JUCO exists in their house,” Buckley said. “I knew he was never going to stop until he had an opportunity to have a shot at his ultimate goal. Whether he made it there or not, he wanted a fair shot. I know when they put him on JV, that was depressing. Because he’s always been that frontline athlete. Coaches who really knew, he’s always been coachable, he’s always been humble. It doesn’t take you long to see what kind of an athlete that is.
“He did get shortchanged a little bit, but he stayed on the path.”
Gonzalez said a member of the Creekview JV staff told him, “This is not where you’re supposed to be,” but he never got an explanation for why he wasn’t on the varsity team from then-coach Jay Cline, who resigned following the 2020 season and is now the athletic director at North Lamar in Paris, Texas. Attempts to reach Cline for this story were unsuccessful.
“The only time I went to a game, and he came out crying, he said, ‘I don’t even play,’” said Hector Gonzalez, Christian’s father. “I went to the coach — I never talk to the coaches or anything — I told the coach, ‘Hey man, what’s wrong?’ He said he doesn’t know the plays. They were trying to put him as a quarterback. He said he has to learn the plays. The only thing I said was ‘Hey, man, he’s an athlete. You have to find a way to put him on the field. He’s better than anybody in there.’ From that day, he made his mind that was going to be his last year at Creekview.”
“I never went back and said anything to the coach,” Hector Gonzalez added. “Everything happens for a reason. Maybe that was a good reason and he’s in a better place and everything that happened is history.”
• • •
The Colony’s football staff was conducting routine summer workouts the morning Gonzalez walked into Rangel’s office to say he was transferring to the school and would be joining the team.
“I’m thinking, this beautiful-looking kid, there’s something that has to be wrong with him,” Rangel said. “Why would he be a sophomore (on JV) at a school that’s 0-10?”
Brandon Grady, then the defensive backs coach at The Colony, had fewer questions for Gonzalez. He just wanted to make sure the 16-year-old, who already stood 6-1, played on his side of the ball.
“I definitely tried to grab him at DB before the receiver coach saw him because I was working summer camp the morning that he came and the receiver coach, he wasn’t,” Grady said.
Scott Johnson, then the defensive coordinator for The Colony, asked Gonzalez to come with them to a local 7-on-7 tournament that afternoon.
“I’ll go, but I don’t know any of your plays,” Gonzalez said.
“Christian, I don’t want you to play offense, I want you to play defense,” Johnson replied.
“I’ve never played defense,” Gonzalez said.
“I’m going to teach you how to play corner if you just go over there,” Johnson told him.
Then Johnson explained that playing man coverage is a lot like playing basketball.
“He went out there and looked like a duck in water, like he had been doing it his whole life, he had a couple of interceptions that day,” Johnson said. “I told him I’ve coached a lot of really talented defensive backs and you’ve got everything colleges are looking for. I said if you just trust me, you can continue to play offense, but I want you to play defense for me. He said, ‘Coach I just want to get on the field.’ We started utilizing him as a corner and right off the bat, you could tell he was going to fit. He was going to be an exceptional corner.”
Rangel was floored by Gonzalez’s first day and subsequent 4.5-second 40-yard dash and 37-inch vertical jump. He was also flummoxed as to what possibly could have kept him off the field previously.
“We get to the first game of the season and my coaches are convinced he’s the guy, and I am not convinced,” Rangel said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Gonzalez’s junior season began and he showcased his speed by scoring as a Wildcat quarterback, punt returner and kickoff returner while also being a stalwart though raw defender.
He eliminated any remaining doubters on Oct. 19, 2018, against Lone Star and receiver Marvin Mims, the state record-holder for career receiving yards and receiving yards in a season.
Gonzalez helped limit Mims to seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in a 21-14 win for The Colony. Only two of Mims’ catches came against Gonzalez, according to Rangel.
“I thought if a kid in high school can cover a guy like that and hold him to decent output but not anything crazy, I had a feeling he was going to be pretty special that night,” Grady said. “The first three or four games of Christian’s junior year we spent a lot of time talking about him trusting me and our other coaches when we told him how good he was. I think the third or fourth game of his junior year he realized, ‘you know what, I am one of the best ones out here’ and that was a wrap. Once he realized that, the sky was the limit for him.”
As a junior, Gonzalez had 29 tackles, nine pass breakups, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He also brought in 22 receptions for 306 yards with two touchdowns and added three carries for 98 yards and score.
Division I coaches descended on The Colony that winter and scholarship offers followed immediately.
Then-Colorado coach Mel Tucker and receivers coach Darrin Chiaverini came in and asked Grady to cue up Gonzalez’s film. They watched three plays, Grady recalled.
“You can pause it, coach, I don’t need to see anymore,” Tucker said. “He’s got a full offer to us. He can commit right now if he wants.”
Grady also remembers Tucker saying Gonzalez would be an NFL draft pick in three years if he kept doing what he was doing then.
Coaches from Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Miami, Purdue and others came to visit Gonzalez, who would go through on-field workouts at Johnson’s direction. The feedback was always outstanding, even as Gonzalez’s recruiting ranking stayed somewhat under the radar. Johnson attributed it to his lack of game film as a sophomore and Gonzalez being labeled as a safety by recruiting services because of his height, even though his skills projected as a corner.
“Everybody that walked off the practice field after watching him work out said he’s the best DB in the country,” Johnson said. “He is better than any kid that I’ve coached. I’ve been very blessed to have some very talented kids play for me, but he is the most talented kid that I’ve ever coached.”
As the offers poured in for Gonzalez, his mindset shifted. Football had given him purpose again and the opportunities he yearned for were being presented. He appreciated what Rangel, Grady and Johnson did to get him to love the game again.
“(Rangel) saw the potential I had and he took the chance,” Gonzalez said. “Gave me my confidence back.”
Gonzalez committed to Purdue before his senior season and word was out in his high school league that fall, when Rangel had to get creative with awarding skull and crossbones helmet stickers with three Division I players in Gonzalez, Keith Miller and Myles Price, receivers who signed with Colorado and Texas Tech, respectively.
“His senior highlight video is mostly offense because everybody knew not to throw over there,” Johnson said.
Once again, the matchup with Mims, who went on to play at Oklahoma, was an epic showdown. Gonzalez had two pass breakups and caught four passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Mims had six receptions for 134 yards and two scores in a 41-38 Lone Star win.
“That game I was on him almost every snap, following him around, playing both ways,” Gonzalez said. “It was a lot of fun. Got a lot of mutual respect for each other. That really prepared me a lot for college going up against him, following him around, him making plays, me making plays, and going back and forth. It was a great thing. Texas football is huge, that’s what we do down there. It’s different down there.”
One of Mims’ touchdowns that night came on a pass Gonzalez deflected into the air. The wideout managed to haul it in while falling on his back just inside the end zone.
“I still say to this day, Christian Gonzalez is the best defensive back I’ve ever played,” Mims said. “For us to go against each other, we were pretty good friends, it was memorable. He’s just consistent, not even talking about his football. His football skills are obvious, you can watch film and see what kind of skills he has football-wise. Him as a person, you don’t see it much, he’s always smiling, good attitude, good energy, fun to be around, fun to play against.”
As a senior, Gonzalez had 17 tackles with eight pass breakups, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. On offense, he finished with 43 catches for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns, plus four carries for 89 yards and a score. He also had a kickoff return touchdown.
He flipped his commitment to Colorado in November and signed with the Buffaloes that winter.
• • •
Despite not arriving to college until August 2020 and the Pac-12 playing a pandemic-shortened season, Gonzalez managed to win a starting job immediately as a true freshman.
“We needed a CB2,” said Oregon cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin, who coached Gonzalez at Colorado in 2020-21. “They had a CB1 (Mekhi Blackmon), but we didn’t have a CB2 and Gonzo was in the safeties room. I pleaded with the head coach (Karl Dorrell) to give him to me at corner. He did and then it took off from there.”
Gonzalez had 25 tackles and five pass breakups in six games. He backed it up as a sophomore with 53 stops, including 5.5 for loss, along with five pass breakups.
Only USC’s Drake London, who had nine catches for 130 yards and a touchdown against Colorado that season, can say he truly got the better of Gonzalez during his college career.
After Martin left Colorado for UO after the 2021 season, Gonzalez followed. It proved to be one of the most significant offseason personnel moves for the Ducks.
Basic and advanced statistics reveal aspects of how dominant Gonzalez was last season, and opposing quarterbacks and receivers in this year’s draft all cited him as one of the best cornerbacks they faced in their careers, if not the best.
“I couldn’t find a lot of flaws in his game at all,” former BYU quarterback Jaren Hall said. “No weaknesses. Any side of the field he was on, you had to be aware of him.”
UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw in Gonzalez’s direction only once in his first 24 pass attempts last season, and it was broken up and nearly intercepted.
“Obviously that Oregon game was pretty tough, losing that game,” Thompson-Robinson said. “He was a big part of that.”
Stanford receiver Michael Wilson had just two catches for 14 yards against Oregon last season, his fewest yards since 2019. Gonzalez didn’t allow a completion to Wilson on three targets, though he was flagged for holding him on another play.
“I think he’s one of those guys that, he’s difficult to run a fade against and I was thrown a fade twice in that game,” Wilson said. “Just because of his ability to stay square at the line of scrimmage and he’s just so long and fast, it’s hard to get vertical separation against him. He’s a really good player. I have a lot of respect for his game.”
On one play, Gonzalez identified the route the 6-foot-2 Cardinal receiver was running based on how Wilson placed his foot pre-snap. Wilson was targeted down the sideline, and Gonzalez broke up the pass.
“It definitely took time to really pick up the game, and I’m still learning so much now,” Gonzalez said. “All the little things that you can see, when they line up a certain way you get certain routes. Once you understand where everything is at, things start to slow down. When you first start playing corner, especially coming out of high school, all you’re thinking about is don’t let your guy catch the ball. You’re not thinking about, he’s here, so the probability of him doing this versus this is a lot more likely or less likely. I think it comes with being more comfortable and confident and getting more reps at it.
“Everybody was asking if I had ball skills, and I went out and showed I’ve got the ball skills that I trust in. And I know I had that my whole life, but I had to go make the plays.”
• • •
Premier cornerbacks relish being on an island in pass coverage, craving one-on-one situations where success and failure falls entirely on their ability to outplay a receiver.
Gonzalez is no different, though that’s taken time for him to embrace.
“He now has that swagger that he didn’t really have when I first got my hands on him,” Johnson said. “He was real quiet and shy.”
“He’ll get out there and tell you you’re not going to get a catch,” Johnson said.
RELATED: Christian Gonzalez shows why he’s vying to be the top cornerback in 2023 NFL draft at Oregon’s pro day
As Gonzalez prepares to take center stage at the NFL draft, he appreciates how the efforts of so many helped get him there.
“Those different situations he was in helped groom him,” Martin said. “Playing offense, playing different sports, getting cut as a freshman or not starting and all that, that all helped who he is now.”
Buckley has been a combination of coach, mentor and uncle to Gonzalez for the past 16 years and was the first person he called to invite to be with him at the draft.
A professional bounty hunter, Buckley said he was overwhelmed and will likely be crying like a baby Thursday night when Gonzalez receives the call from his future NFL general manager and head coach. He added that the Carrollton Youth Football League is discussing how to honor its former star.
“He had his mind made up as a 5-year-old kid that he wanted to play professional football,” Buckley said. “To witness where it started from, the journey of it and how it finished, you can’t ask for much more. He thinks that we impacted him, but at the same time as a league and as adults, that kid was great, he was a great kid to be around.”
Grady will be watching the draft from Texas with his son, who was an infant when Gonzalez first got to The Colony.
Johnson is hosting a barbecue for most of the members of the 2018-19 coaching staff at The Colony. Several of them, including Johnson, have moved on to bigger jobs in part because of coaching Gonzalez, Miller and Price.
“He could have gone a different route and not even be playing football,” Johnson said. “He could be working a 9-to-5 job right now. The fact that he trusted us enough to stay with it and learn a new spot says a lot about the kid. He put his trust in us and we did what we could for him, but ultimately it was him wanting to be successful.”
Rangel will also be in Kansas City with Buckley, Gonzalez and his family. He recently told Gonzalez how much of an impact he’s still making at The Colony.
A few weeks ago, there were 41 of 55 eighth grade boys at Lakeview Middle School signed up to play football. Then, after Rangel went to talk to the middle schoolers and share Gonzalez’s story, the other 14 also signed up.
“I texted Gonzo, I said, ‘Listen bro, you’re still helping. You don’t realize how much you’re helping me. We got 14 kids because of you,’” Rangel said. “He’s solidifying the football in this town, solidifying my coaches’ careers and my coaches’ families and my family, and it’s going to trickle now to all the head coaches I’ve got that left me from being a coordinator or assistant coordinator.
“You can look at the other end for what this is going to do or has done for the staff I’ve got. This is the butterfly effect on both sides. Somehow, some way, it was done right.”
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