Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta's 36-year-old tight end, woke up sore, just after dawn, on Oct. 8. The previous afternoon had been a rousing success for both the Falcons and Gonzalez. Seventeen fourth-quarter points capped a 24--17 comeback win over the Redskins, and the 12-time Pro Bowler had the second-best receiving day of his 245-game NFL career: 13 catches—out of 14 targets by Matt Ryan—for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Now, as Gonzalez shook out the cobwebs in his leased suburban home, he took stock of his body, the way he had the morning after every other game. His left arm was swollen from a collision. And his right thumb throbbed, though he wasn't sure why. He just knew that when he tried to tie his daughter Malia's shoe, the thumb wouldn't function.
The physical stuff he could take. But something nagged at him: that lone missed connection. The ball that got away.
It happened in the first quarter. As he battled to get open, 13 yards past the line of scrimmage, up the seam, Gonzalez jousted with another NFL senior citizen, 37-year-old linebacker London Fletcher. With Fletcher in tight coverage Ryan threw a high ball, and Gonzalez got his right hand up, his left arm still engaged by the defender. The pass caromed off Gonzalez's fingers.
November 5, 2012
Had he made the grab, it would have been the catch of the day; the ball wasn't even in the palm of his hand. But that wasn't good enough for Gonzalez. He felt he should have corralled it.
"That's the way it goes with me," he says, sitting in the same kitchen where the play had tormented him two weeks earlier. "I beat myself up because I've made that catch before, and the way I'm wired, that's a ball I catch."
It's a reflection of his reputation that Atlanta tight ends coach Chris Scelfo dropped Gonzalez's postgame grade because of the miss. "I hold him to that high a standard," says Scelfo, "because I've seen him make that catch."
He has let it go now, but he hasn't forgotten it. "My big fear," he says, "is someone telling me, 'You ain't got it anymore.' I will never get called into a coach's office and hear that. If something like what happened to Alex Rodriguez"—being benched by the Yankees for not hitting in the playoffs—"ever happened to me, I'd quit. I'd have to. It'd be too embarrassing."
The game used to kick 36-year-old tight ends like Gonzalez to the curb. There was no place for 37-year-old linebackers like Fletcher, or 37-year-old defensive backs like Ronde Barber, or 37-year-old centers like Jeff Saturday. Time to do your life's work now. And yet this off-season the Skins went hard after Fletcher, their own free agent; new Bucs coach Greg Schiano recruited Barber to stay as the keystone of his secondary; and the Packers zeroed in on Saturday, a longtime Colt, to anchor their O-line. Come March it will be the Falcons begging Gonzalez to return in 2013. This is a new era in the NFL, with maniacally prepared players thriving in what used to be their NFL dotage.
To suggest that there's any one reason that Gonzalez is better in his 30s than in his 20s would be a disservice to all the other reasons. He's a nut about what he puts into his body, so much so that the junk-food eaters in Atlanta's locker room call him the Food Police. At practice every day he gets a p.r. aide to throw him 40 extra balls before drills commence, plus another 40 during mid-practice lulls and 20 after practice. He loathes the JUGS machine because of its predictability and tells his real-life passer, "Don't throw it at me. Give me some tough ones." He and Ryan hold chemistry sessions, where the QB learns exactly what mid-route adjustments Gonzalez is going to make. And because Gonzalez noticed last year that he was getting a few balls knocked out of his grasp by whacks on the arms, he started to work with 50-pound kettle bells, straight-jerking with both arms to strengthen the muscles that once allowed a ball to be chopped loose.
Gonzalez is getting better with age. In his 6½ seasons since turning 30, he's caught 547 passes for the Falcons and the Chiefs. In the 6½ seasons before, playing in Kansas City, he caught 533.
His 46 catches through Sunday were second among NFL tight ends (trailing only Jason Witten's 51), and he had helped Atlanta remain the NFL's only unbeaten team, at 7--0. His 1,195 career receptions are second only to Jerry Rice's 1,549, and he has 380 more than the next tight end on the list, Shannon Sharpe.
"Someday, maybe I'll have a moment of clarity and think about how amazing this all is," Gonzalez says in a rare quiet interlude at home. His two bundle-of-energy children, Malia, 4, and son River, 2, are at school, and his wife, October, is out. "It was all worth it. I never imagined being great."
Gonzalez draws a line in his career at the 10-year mark. That's when he began feeling logy, as if he might fall asleep in meetings. He had a bout of Bell's palsy, partial facial paralysis, in the summer of 2007. (The symptoms lasted three weeks.) And later that summer he had a scary experience when his blood-test results were mixed up with those of a man who had leukemia. Then, during a cross-country flight, after gorging on two dinners and two desserts, he began talking to an adjacent passenger, who explained that he was a vegan.
Gonzalez's first reaction: That's stupid. His second: Maybe I'll read about it. The fellow recommended The China Study, a 2004 tome that details the relationship between the consumption of animal products and chronic diseases such as cancer. And just like that, Gonzalez was sold. He switched to a mostly plant-based diet, starting every day with a smoothie of kale, spinach, bananas, blueberries, carrots, apple juice and water. "I'm dumbfounded when I see guys before a game eating fried chicken," Gonzalez says. "How do you expect to be alive in the fourth quarter?"
Combine that with good genes ("My mom's 64, and she looks like a young Tina Turner," he says), and suddenly the view from the high side of 30 is more promising. "I feel the difference," says Gonzalez. "I feel a lot better than I did earlier in my career."
He also says what men of a certain age in the NFL say: He's better now because nothing in this game surprises him. "I read about great people," he says. "What makes Warren Buffett great? He's prepared for everything. I read about Tiger, Michael Jordan.... Why were they great? They prepared meticulously. The amount of preparation I do is exhausting. I can't turn it off. I'm driving to work in the morning, and I'm playing the game in my head, right down to the color jerseys we're wearing, what the opponent's wearing. I think of everything."
Such preparation came in handy in the Washington game. Gonzalez and Ryan, during one of their skull sessions, had decided that on routes when the tight end is supposed to run up the seam and look for the ball after 13 to 15 yards, he'd cut it short if the defender played him differently. If the defender was fronting him, at whatever point in the route that was, Gonzalez would immediately cut inside.
Back on the field, with the Falcons trailing 17--14 in the fourth quarter and driving, Gonzalez ran 10 yards up the seam, and there was Fletcher, right in the way, backpedaling. If Ryan waited until Gonzalez cut and flashed open, it would be too late; Fletcher could recover and knock it away. So he released just as Gonzalez got to Fletcher on the hashmark, anticipating Gonzalez's improvised cut. The resulting 13-yard gain moved the ball to Washington's 31-yard line, setting up the tying field goal.
"We see things through the same lens," says Ryan. "He saw what I saw, and I trusted him."
"It's the beauty of knowing your quarterback, and him knowing you," adds Gonzalez.
With more catches than any of his much younger peers, it's working. But for how long?
For all his preparation, Gonzalez has never been on a team that's won a postseason game. It doesn't define him, but he's angry some pundits would belittle him for the gap in his résumé. "This isn't tennis or golf—or even basketball, where three great players together can win a championship," he says. "This is the ultimate team sport, with 22 guys on the field at once, where you need all three phases of the game working to win big. To say my career has been diminished because I haven't won a playoff game, I say bulls---! I'm a frickin' tight end, not the quarterback. My career will mean nothing less if I'm never on a team that wins a playoff game."
Tell us how you really feel.
As for the future, there's a wild card at play. The NFL has new rules, agreed upon in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, that shorten the formal off-season training program by a month, eliminate two-a-day training-camp practices and limiting to 14 the number of padded practices that teams can hold in-season. That will certainly lengthen careers. Defensive end John Abraham—one of Gonzalez's teammates on the Falcons and, at 34, in old age—imagines playing two or three years longer than he might have because every day but Sunday will be less physically taxing.
All Gonzalez knows is that, sore thumb aside, he feels great now. He acknowledges that there's no good reason he couldn't play beyond 2012. But he's said already that there's a 95% chance this is his last season. I asked him about it twice in October, and nothing has changed. It's still 95%, the 5% because he wants the right to change his mind in the winter.
"You play four more years," I tell him, "and you can probably break Jerry Rice's record."
"Maybe," he says. "But...." His voice fades away.
Gonzalez is 354 catches behind Rice. Let's say he ends this season within 310. He'd need to average 78 grabs for four years to pass Rice. In four of the last five years he's caught 80 or more. It's dubious that his health will hold up—he's closer to 37 than 36—but he's missed only two games in his career. You never know.
But Gonzalez knows. "I never want to be looked at as average," he says. And there are other things he'd like to do. During the Falcons' bye week he guested on Fox's pregame studio show. The camera loves him, and he loves it back. He knows he's smart enough to do television. And he thinks he owes it to his family to be there more for them.
It'll be his decision, though. Men of a certain age calling their own shots—it's a new day in the NFL.