Robert Tonyan was flattered when his buddies from McHenry added him to their fantasy football teams the past two years just because they knew him.
“They picked me up because they’re just good friends, and it’s funny, but I told them they have to be a good fantasy coach and not take me too early,” Tonyan said. “Now, I can’t use that excuse anymore.”
The McHenry East graduate has nearly equalled last season’s reception total (10) in three games. He has matched his career touchdown receptions (two) in the past two weeks.
The third-year NFL player is Green Bay’s starting tight end and has become someone upon whom quarterback Aaron Rodgers can rely on as the Packers (3-0) host the Atlanta Falcons (0-3) at 7:50 p.m. Monday.
Tonyan (6-foot-5, 237 pounds) has a touchdown catch in each of the past two games, something he had not done since he was a wide receiver at Indiana State. Tonyan has played 61% of the Packers’ offensive snaps and has seven catches for 75 yards with the two scores.
“It’s nice to be able to play fluid football again and be in for most of the plays,” Tonyan said. “You get that juice, that momentum. Once you get in a rhythm, football’s a lot easier and a lot more fun when you’re in the flow of the game, rather than coming in for a play here and there. It’s a momentum booster and, on top of that, a self-confidence booster.”
Former Packers tight end Jimmy Graham signed with the Bears in the offseason, leaving Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis and Jace Sternberger as the tight ends on the roster. The Packers drafted Josiah Degaura in the third round but did not sign any other tight ends of note.
That left Tonyan, who played mostly special teams his first two seasons, a chance for more playing time.
“With Jimmy leaving, it’s just kind of an open field to whoever wants to go earn that opportunity and get playing time,” Tonyan said. “The type of person I am, I want to go and get that spot.”
For the second straight offseason, Tonyan headed to Nashville and worked out with San Francisco tight end George Kittle. They have the same agent, Jack Bechta, and worked out with 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard. They also had a robot Jugs machine set up to throw football as they ran different routes.
The COVID-19 pandemic altered some of their workout plans, but they adjusted.
“We found a way to get some work done in the tough times,” Tonyan said. “Control what you can control and keep working.”
Tonyan played quarterback at McHenry and went to Indiana State to play that position. The Sycamores’ coaches liked Tonyan’s athleticism and versatility and decided, with their quarterback spot filled, to get him on the field as a wide receiver.
After college, he saw the chance to make it in the NFL as a smaller, faster tight end.
Tonyan remembers watching Super Bowl XLV with friends Corey Szamlewski, Bryan Wegner and Bobby Murphy as Rodgers led the Packers to a 31-25 victory.
Marian Central graduate Bryan Bulaga, the Packers’ rookie right tackle, became the youngest player to start in a Super Bowl in that game. Bulaga was teammates for two seasons with Tonyan in Green Bay before signing a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason.
“Growing up in our area, being a Bears fan and you get torched by Aaron Rodgers every time,” Tonyan said. “The last couple years, it’s been like, ‘I’m really in the huddle with Aaron Rodgers. This is crazy.’ It’s surreal. Now, it’s like off the field how much time I get to spend with him as a friend and on the field getting so many reps with him, it’s so much more comfortable.
“We have a good friendship. That’s going to continue to build. I want him to count on me and rely on me in certain situations.”