Tammy Tonyan remembers the call well. It was September 2017, the final cut day during NFL training camp. The Detroit Lions, along with the rest of the league, needed to trim their roster to 53.
Her son Robert Tonyan, an undrafted rookie out of Indiana State, was trying to make the Lions as a tight end. He called his mother that day.
“Did you make the team?” Tammy Tonyan remembers asking.
“Did you make the practice squad?”
“What did you get?”
“Nothing. I’m coming home.”
And so, Robert came home.
His brief stint with the Lions, which lasted only a few months, was over. Within days, the 2012 McHenry East graduate was back on the sidelines at McHenry football games.
It was always important to Robert Tonyan, 24, to return to the place where his athletic career took off. He caught up with athletic director Barry Burmeister and varsity girls basketball coach Rob Niemic, both of whom coached him in the McHenry basketball program.
“They’ve given me so much,” Robert Tonyan said. “I’ve got to give back. That school and that program, they molded me into who I am. So I’m not just going to walk away from that.”
Now with the Packers, Robert Tonyan is nearing the end of his first full season in the NFL.
When the Packers played the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, it was a homecoming for Robert Tonyan, who recorded the tackle on the opening kick off. The support from the McHenry community is “nothing new,” he said Sunday. It was there through high school, college and now pro ball. But he doesn’t take it for granted.
“It’s just nice to know that I’ve got a good support system back home,” Robert Tonyan said.
‘He had no fear’
Robert Tonyan played football before he could even talk. His mother has a distinct memory of Robert’s father, Bob Tonyan, kicking a football high into the air, higher than the 100-year-old oak tree in the yard.
Robert, maybe 3 years old, caught it cleanly.
“I’m around a lot of 2- and 3-year-olds now and there’s no way a 2- or 3-year-old could do that,” Tammy Tonyan said. “He had no fear.”
Bob Tonyan would take Robert’s feet out from under him when he was running with the football, and Robert would stand up laughing when most toddlers would be crying.
Robert Tonyan played everything: football, basketball, baseball, soccer. He and his cousin, AJ Mercurio, were the only boy cousins on that side of the family. They tagged along with each other at most family parties, playing sports or finding a game on TV.
Mercurio and his family went to the game Sunday, which also happened to be Mercurio’s 25th birthday. He and Robert Tonyan were the same grade in school. They went to Marian Central together for a year before Robert transferred to McHenry.
By the time they were upperclassmen, they were squaring off on the varsity basketball court.
“When we played them, he was the focal point of their team, in terms of his name up on the board trying to figure out how to stop him,” Mercurio said.
Robert Tonyan played basketball and football at McHenry. He was the 2012 Northwest Herald Boys Basketball Player of the Year. In football, he set McHenry records as a quarterback.
Dan Glick was a teammate of Robert Tonyan’s on the McHenry basketball team, and a close friend. They went to kindergarten together and still talk regularly.
Glick, 25, now teaches social studies at McHenry West and is an assistant coach for the baseball and girls basketball programs.
“A lot of my students always ask about him,” Glick said. “The biggest thing I can say, it’s just his personality. It’s so contagious. He’s so energetic and positive.”
‘To play professional football’
Only for a minute did Robert Tonyan ever have his doubts. Less than a minute, in his own words.
When he changed positions from quarterback to receiver at Indiana State, he felt an initial fear that things might not work out.
“He said, ‘Yeah, it lasted about 20 seconds,’” Tammy Tonyan said.
The thing about Robert Tonyan is he’s always optimistic.
“From quarterback to wide receiver, he was just happy to be back on the field, doing things for his team,” Glick said.
Robert Tonyan changed positions again heading into pro ball, which meant putting weight onto his 6-foot-5 frame. Initially that was hard, and might have been one reason things didn't work out with the Lions.
He spent the next few months in McHenry, working out and putting on weight. When Green Bay signed him to the practice squad last December, he ate a lot of meals with the offensive linemen.
If that’s what it took to play pro football, he would do it. Mercurio, his cousin, said he even mentioned the Canadian league as an option.
“Whether he said it explicitly or not, it was always there as a goal: to play professional football,” Mercurio said.
So in September, a year after the disappointing finish with the Lions, Tammy Tonyan was eagerly awaiting a call on the NFL’s cut day, Sept. 1, which happened to by Tammy’s birthday.
When the call finally came, Robert said, “Happy birthday!”
Based on his tone alone, Tammy Tonyan knew he made the team.
‘Not going to be complacent’
Tammy Tonyan finally understood what people meant when they said their phone was “blowing up.”
The only game on Nov. 15, a Thursday Night Football matchup, the entire NFL world was watching the Packers-Seahawks game when Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers rolled out right and flung a 54-yard touchdown pass to Robert Tonyan in the end zone.
It was Robert Tonyan’s first NFL catch, and a memorable one.
“That was wild,” he said. “Just to come to the sideline and see all the support from my team. All the hard work is worth it and paying off.”
At home in McHenry, Tammy and Bob Tonyan were “like two little kids jumping up and down.”
“My husband’s yelling,” Tammy Tonyan said. “I can’t even see Robert. I knew he was in there because I saw him in the [huddle], but I did not see where he was at. My husband’s yelling at the TV, ‘Throw it to him, he’s open.’ I didn’t know that. All the sudden the ball goes through the air. I look at my husband. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Tammy Tonyan called that moment “another highlight of my life.” Her phone wouldn’t stop lighting up with text messages and Facebook posts.
Glick still has the game recorded at home. He said he was screaming at Rodgers to throw it. Mercurio said it was the most excited he has gotten for a single touchdown since Devin Hester’s kickoff return in Super Bowl XLI.
For Robert Tonyan, it was validation of what he already believed: that he belongs in the NFL. No one has given him that confidence more than the Packers’ three other tight ends: Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis and Lance Kendricks.
“There’s some things that I think I do way wrong, and they’re on board with me saying I’m doing the right thing and you’ve got to keep going,” Robert Tonyan said. “For me to be a young guy with an eight-year guy [Kendricks], a nine-year guy [Graham] and a 13-year guy [Lewis] in the room. You can’t really ask for that.”
Tammy Tonyan has seen her son mature in the year since he joined the Packers.
“He’s learned so much from these guys,” Tammy Tonyan said. “I’ve seen him grow into such a man since he’s been in Green Bay.”
Tammy Tonyan now has a No. 85 Packers jersey to match her son’s. She didn’t necessarily expect to ever see her son on an NFL field, but at the same time, she always believed he would get a chance.
“I don’t know how it got put in his head, but we just always thought that he would get a chance,” Tammy Tonyan said. “I don’t know why. I guess it’s just something in a person or their talent, or their dedication, but for some reason we did.”
Robert Tonyan hopes this season is only the beginning of his NFL journey.
“Over the last couple years, the biggest critic has been me,” Robert Tonyan said. “It’s always been, ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Can I do this?’ Then I come here and I’ve got three of the best [tight ends] telling me that I’ve got it, I’ve just got to keep going.
“I’m happy where I’m at in Green Bay, but I’m not going to be complacent with where I stand. I’m going to continue to get better, continue to work and continue to grow.”