Photo of Gian Paul Gonzalez coaching kids.

All In

Former Red Hawk Who Motivated a Team to the Super Bowl Now Motivates At-risk Youth In His Hometown

“I’m looking at Eli Manning in the front row, and Justin Tuck, and Victor Cruz. I’m like, ‘What would they possibly want to hear from a ninth-grade world history teacher?’”

Gian Paul Gonzalez

Even now, five years after a motivational speech he gave to a professional football team ended up changing his life, Gian Paul Gonzalez finds himself marveling at the incredible sequence of events.

He was a recent Montclair State graduate in December 2011, a former basketball player who gave up a professional basketball career to chase an even bigger dream of making a difference in his community. He was a ninth-grade history teacher in Union City, one who also ran a basketball program at a juvenile detention center.

That latter job led to the strangest phone call from George McGovern, the team chaplain for a popular NFL team in New Jersey. He had heard about the work Gonzalez had done with those at-risk youths, loved the positive message he delivered to those players and had a question: Would Gonzalez come speak to the team? To the New York Giants?

Gonzalez working with teens at the Hope + Future Center
Gonzalez working with teens at the Hope + Future Center

“I’m scared to death!” he says, recalling that moment in the locker room. “I’m looking at Eli Manning in the front row, and Justin Tuck, and Victor Cruz. I’m like, ‘What would they possibly want to hear from a ninth-grade world history teacher?’”

What they heard was a message of teamwork, dedication and maximum effort that was summed up in two words: “All In.” Gonzalez gave each player a poker chip, told them to sign it and keep it with them as a constant reminder to give everything they had to support their teammates.

“All In” became the rallying cry for the struggling Giants, propelling the team to whip the rival New York Jets the night after the speech and begin one of the greatest hot streaks in pro football history, ending with a Super Bowl championship and parade through lower Manhattan.

Gonzalez was a part of that wild ride, his story going national on Fox News, ESPN and CNN. But if you thought that story ended there, with those 15 minutes of fame that started in a football locker room, you haven’t met Gian Paul Gonzalez. The people who know him at Montclair State can tell you that.

The first time Adjunct Professor John McCarthy heard Gonzalez’s name was in a conversation with then longtime Montclair State basketball coach Ted Fiore.

“I have the best kid I’ve ever coached this year,” Fiore told McCarthy.

“You mean the best player?” McCarthy asked.

“That’s possible. I don’t know about that yet,” Fiore replied. “But he’s the best kid I’ve ever had.”

The basketball part of that conversation would also prove true, because Gonzalez would go on to rewrite the school record book. Of the 10 highest single-game scoring performances in team history, he still holds nine of them even a decade after his Red Hawk playing career ended – one for a game high of 51 points. In 2015, he was inducted into the University’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

But when he began at Montclair State, it was more than the basketball that impressed Fiore – and, soon, McCarthy and Sports Psychology Professor Rob Gilbert. It was his work ethic and his presence, and maybe most of all, the things that he had overcome growing up in Union City.

McCarthy and Gilbert asked him to speak to a class. Gonzalez told a story about how doctors had told his mother, while she was pregnant with him, that there were serious risks of complications and that she should abort him right away. She flatly refused.

He told a story about growing up in the inner city, about being home schooled for part of his childhood, about not playing competitive basketball until late in his high school career and refusing to let people put him down for playing at a Division III program like Montclair State. “It would be like someone scouting Wilt Chamberlain,” Gilbert says. “It was just, ‘This guy just has it.’”

Gonzalez, wearing a checkered shirt with a tie and vest, holding a basketball in a gym.

The two professors worked with Gonzalez to hone his message and delivery, and Gonzalez steadily improved. He would eventually major in history and decide to pursue a basketball career, but they believed he had a future in public speaking if he wanted it.

“I called my agent and said, ‘I don’t want to continue playing basketball. I want to go back and make a difference in my city.’”

Gian Paul Gonzalez

“I always say if you want to know how good a speech you gave, don’t listen to the applause but count how many [people] come up to talk to you after,” Gilbert says. “When Gian Paul speaks, he disrupts the whole school day because kids want to stick around and talk to him.”

Still, what about basketball? Gonzalez was impressive enough at a local workout to earn a roster spot in the NBA summer league, and while he might have trouble cracking a professional roster here, there was little doubt that he could have a long career playing overseas.

He was on that path, living in a house on Venice Beach several years ago, when he reached a conclusion.

Gonzalez brings it “All In” with youths at the Center.
Gonzalez brings it “All In” with youths at the Center.

“I realized basketball was something I enjoyed but it wasn’t something I loved,” Gonzalez says. “I called my agent and said, ‘I don’t want to continue playing basketball.

I want to go back and make a difference in my city.’ He didn’t really get it. He said, ‘You can set up a foundation, and they’ll make a difference for you!’”

Gonzalez laughs as he retells the story. The man who came up with “All In” as an inspirational mantra wasn’t about to go halfway with his own dreams.

On a blustery day this winter in Union City, Gonzalez folded his 6-foot-4 frame into a love seat that sits inside what once was an abandoned high school. Now, the gym in that school is open again every afternoon, with more than 100 kids signing up for programs at the Hope + Future Center designed to keep them off the streets.

Setting up the community center just 20 blocks from where he spent most of his childhood had consumed much of the past 18 months, leading Gonzalez to take a leave of absence from his teaching job. But it didn’t fill all his time.

He had to squeeze in this interview before leaving for a trip to Cleveland and Dallas, where he would speak to a group of city managers and employees of a food distribution company. The publicity from his “All In” speech to the Giants has changed his life in ways he could never have imagined.

“I went to school the next day (after the Super Bowl) and I got a phone call every period. ‘Mr. Gonzalez, there’s somebody from ABC News down here to talk to you. Mr. Gonzalez, there’s somebody here from CNN Espanol,’” he says. “Every period, they had to get a substitute for me. Eventually, the secretary said, ‘Mr. Gonzalez, did you do something you didn’t tell us about?’ I just said, ‘Long story.’”

Since then, he has given speeches to Walmart, to Anheuser-Busch, to NBA teams and to the European soccer powerhouse, Arsenal. He went to Asia on a speaking tour, with stops in Malaysia and Dubai, and he makes between $5,000 and $15,000 per speaking engagement.

He pours a lot of that money directly back into the Hope + Future Center, and if it proves successful, hopes to open a similar center in Camden, or Newark, or another city that needs it.

“All In,” he tells people frequently, is not just a slogan. It’s a lifestyle. He’s been all in for the at-risk youth in the programs he’s started since even before graduating in 2007. And that lifestyle earned him the honor of being named a New Jersey Hero by First Lady Mary Pat Christie in 2012. Even now, Gonzalez returns to Montclair State to speak to classes for Gilbert and McCarthy or to groups of athletes or, as he did last summer, to students in the Educational Opportunity Fund program. He never asks the University for money.

“Things just really took off for him nationally,” McCarthy says. “The thing that I like about him is that he’s so genuine about it. It doesn’t matter if there are 400 people in the room or seven, he’ll treat it just the same.”

Five years ago, there were exactly 53 in the room. The New York Giants took his message straight to a Super Bowl championship, and Gian Paul Gonzalez can’t help but marvel at the places it has taken him since.