Tony Gonzalez helped redefine what it means to be a tight end, paving the way for Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and the rest of the new wave of athletic phenoms at the position. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
From now until the opening of training camps, The MMQB will run a series of our Greatest Hits from the site’s first year. From December 2013, Peter King gave the floor to Tony Gonzalez as the tight end wrapped up a 17-year career.
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Two months shy of turning 38, Tony Gonzalez is on the verge of playing in his 277th and final game (including playoffs) of his NFL life. On a recent commute home from the Falcons’ training complex, he spent 30 minutes musing on his 17-year career in Kansas City and in Atlanta. He has set the bar ridiculously high for the next generation of tight ends, with his 1,321 regular-season catches and 15,071 yards. In the all-time tight end standings, Gonzalez has 454 more catches than No. 2 Jason Witten (867) and 5,000 more receiving yards than No. 2 Shannon Sharpe (10,060). He’s done it all while missing two games to injury. We are not likely to see his kind at tight end—or any position—anytime soon.
"As far as the regrets go, that’s just not part of my makeup. Once I made the decision to come back this season, I knew anything could happen and nothing was guaranteed—I’d been through that before. I learned that lesson early in football, you know, when I first got out there as a rookie and went 13-3 with the Chiefs. We went out there and added a few players, had the whole team coming back—added Chester McGlockton, Leslie O’Neal, a couple other players—and we didn't even make the playoffs. I think we won seven games that year. I knew there was a chance of that [happening this season in Atlanta]. I have no regrets. I still got a chance to play football. Believe it or not, I’ve had the best time I could have considering what has happened this year. It’s been miserable, don’t get me wrong. But really with the locker room, from that point of view, it’s been fun. It’s been fun. I got a chance to play another year with Matt Ryan. I got a chance to play with Julio Jones while he was healthy. And Roddy White. I got a chance to achieve a couple of milestones in there. I got a chance to interact with the fans again. A chance to play football."
His expectations of retirement
"I’m not naïve, and I’ve spoken to enough players who have retired that I know I’m going to miss it. It’s gonna be like a part of me that is dying, honestly. I’m never ever going to be able to play football again for a living. So I don’t have any regrets. Obviously, I regret that we didn’t have a better record, but after that, I would never say, Oh, I wish I would have stayed home and done whatever."
Lessons from a disastrous year
"It happens. It happened for a reason. I’ve learned a lot this year. You learn a lot more about yourself and the opportunity for growth is so much greater when you lose. I know that I wouldn’t be the player I am if I didn’t go through what I went through my second year in the league, when I dropped 17 balls. That kind of made me the player I am—on and off the field. It introduced me to reading. It introduced me to everything else. And I’d say that again this year. You can’t just look at it like, Well, I didn’t win the Super Bowl, so screw everything. I regret it and I’m gonna be pissed off. I’m not gonna do that. But it does suck, losing."
His routine, approaching the final game of his life
"My routine hasn’t changed at all. I still catch my 100 balls a day. First of all, that’s what I think has made me the player I am. But then I want the young guys to see it. I think that’s probably been the most enjoyable part about it—I’ve had a chance to kind of show these young guys and mentor these guys. Whether it’s verbally or just doing what I’m doing—by example. Last week, I was talking to our new starting right tackle, Ryan Schraeder. I can give them some advice and show them. Just watch. If you want to be a good player in this league, this is what it takes. This is how Will Shields taught me. This is what Warren Moon told me. Stuff like that."
"You have to be obsessed. I told Schraeder he could be a hell of a player in this league, just like I believe a lot of players could be great players in this league ... if they would just have that mental shift and be obsessed with what they’re doing—with being in the NFL, with being the best player they can be, obsessive-compulsively. That’s what the great ones have. Like I told him last week, you’ve got to work it over and over and over again. That is why I come out before practice and without a ball even in my hands, I work on route-running. Coming in and out of breaks. Then catching 100 balls."
'A Part of Me Is Dying'
Gonzalez was the 13th overall pick in the 1997 draft. (Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated)
He spent his first 12 seasons in Kansas City. (Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated)
He's a 13-time Pro Bowler and a six-time All-Pro. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)
He's caught 1,321 passes for 15,071 yards. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)
And 111 touchdowns. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)
In 2004, he led the NFL with 102 receptions. (Todd Rosenberg/Sports Illustrated)
He's averaging 11.4 yards per reception in his 17-year career. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated)
Gonzalez has fumbled just once in the past 14 seasons. (Tom Dahlin/Sports Illustrated)
He has the most 2-point conversions (four) among active players. (John Biever/Sports Illustrated)
The basketball skills he honed at Cal allow him to post-up linebackers. (Eli Reichman/Sports Illustrated)
He has started the most games (252) among active players. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated)
He's missed just two games to injury in his career. (Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated)
Gonzalez credits his longevity to an uncompromising work ethic. (Clay Patrick McBride/Sports Illustrated)
The football lifer is a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer. (Clay Patrick McBride/Sports Illustrated)
He joined the Falcons in 2009. (Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated)
Since then he's earned three Pro Bowl nods. (Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated)
He's appeared in only seven playoff games, winning just one. (Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated)
In 2012, the 49ers won the NFC title to deny Gonzalez the Super Bowl. (David Bergman/Sports Illustrated)
Even in his late 30s, Gonzalez hasn't lost his hops. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated)
The goal-post slam dunk has been a career trademark. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated)
Since joining Atlanta, he's caught 405 passes for 4,131 yards and 35 TDs. (Pouya Dianat/Sports Illustrated)
The Falcons are 4-11, but Gonzalez has no regrets about coming back this season. (Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated)
Could the soon-to-be 38-year-old still keep playing? (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated)
"Nothing comes easy. But it’ll come. It can come. You have to will it."
Chasing Jerry Rice
Gonzalez has 1,321 catches. Rice, who played his last NFL game at 42, retired with 1,549. That means Gonzalez would have to play three more years, minimum, and average more than 76 catches a year to pass Rice.
"Being from California, that’s a pretty big deal, obviously. Jerry’s so great. That would be tough to do, but I’ve thought about it. My high school coach tells me, ‘You gotta do it!’ But I think Jerry’s gonna have that record for a long, long time. Could I do it? What is that, 80 catches a year? Absolutely I could come back next year and catch 80 balls; there is no doubt in my mind. But this is it for me."
"The commitment it takes ... it just gets to you after a while. Consistency. Game after game, year after year, you never stop thinking about the balls you get your hands on and don’t catch. I’ve had balls go off my hands that weren’t perfect passes, and you look and say it’s not catchable or whatever, but if it hits my hands, that’s a ball I’ve got to catch. If I don’t, I’m miserable the whole next week."
Toughest thing about football
"For me, I’m really tired of living and dying with the game. Every game. I’ve tried to turn it off. I’m still trying. I can’t. It sucks. Believe me, it sucks."
"The NFL has to do something to stop receivers in the open field from getting blindsided and hit in the knees. Look what happened to Rob Gronkowski. He’s not the only one. You don’t want your stars, you don’t want anyone, to be taken out like that."
His greatest catch
"Man, that’s tough. I’d say one of the one-handed ones. Maybe the one-handed catch I had in the back of the end zone against Philly on Sunday night [in 2011]. I liked that one. Making the catch, getting the feet down. That’s my best catch, I think."
His favorite personal rivalry
"I’ve loved playing against London Fletcher. What a warrior. We just played Washington, and I caught a touchdown against him—and he was holding me all the way down the field. [Laughs.] I knew he was retiring. After the game, he told me, ‘This is it for me. Enough.’ I knew what he meant."
Life after football
"I’ll probably try the TV thing. I’d like to do some other things too, centered around a healthy lifestyle. Recently I’ve been into Fusionetics, which is basically using sports science to improve human performance. I believe in eating right and taking care of yourself. I’ve been on Roddy White to eat better. He’ll have a longer and better career if he does."
On his teams winning one playoff game in his 17 seasons
"I was just watching the Marty Schottenheimer: A Football Life on NFL Network. And there was something I didn’t like. They really dwelled on Marty never winning a Super Bowl. That bothers me, maybe because I haven’t won one. I haven’t won the big game either. I hope that does not define me as a player. There is no way that should define me as a player, and nobody can ever tell me differently. If, down the road, someone says about me, Well, he never won the big one—he never won the Super Bowl, I will say to them, Screw you. Just screw you. You don’t understand the game. You don’t understand me. I will absolutely not allow anyone to let my career be denigrated because of that."
What he’ll be thinking walking off the field on Sunday for the last time
"Relieved. Happy. Proud. Proud of what I’ve accomplished. The whole family will be there. I think I’ll feel somewhat relieved. I will be sad too. But I don’t think it’ll hit me 'til opening day next year, when I’m sitting there and the games come on and I’m not playing anymore."