KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez watched tape of the Chiefs-Seahawks preseason game, his eyes strayed from the field and scanned the sidelines and stands.
He looked for the changes that were made to Arrowhead Stadium. (He’s not a big fan of eliminating the permanent Ring of Honor). He searched for people on the sidelines that he remembered. And he tried recognizing fans.
Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer, couldn’t have asked for a better script to his farewell season in the NFL. He will begin his 16th season in the place where he spent his first 12 years — Arrowhead Stadium — when the Falcons open the regular season Sunday against the Chiefs.
“I’ve got to say thank you to the NFL people for scheduling it the first game of the season,” said Gonzalez, whose 174 starts for the Chiefs during 1997-2008 rank second in club history. “The only way it could be more special … is if it was the last game of the season, and there were playoff implications.
“The most special part about it is the fans. There’s no doubt about it. That’s what I miss, the fans, the atmosphere. The fan support they gave me and my family, I count that as my family because they’re always there with me when I’m on the field.”
Gonzalez, 36, left Kansas City in a trade he requested at the end of the 2008 season because at that stage of his career he didn’t want to endure another rebuilding program with a new administration and coaching staff. This will be his first regular-season game against the Chiefs since the trade for a second-round draft choice who turned out to be cornerback Javier Arenas.
“Everybody is asking me, ‘What’s it like in there? Is the stadium loud?’ ” Gonzalez said of his Atlanta teammates, who last played at Arrowhead in 2004. “And, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s going to be crazy, it’s opening day, they’ve got a pretty good football team … wait until you hear the national anthem, and wait until you hear, after every first down, the whole crowd shouting, ‘That’s a Chiefs’ first down!’ ”
When Gonzalez left Kansas City, he already was the most prolific pass receiver in Chiefs history and the NFL’s all-time leader for receptions (916), yards (10,940), touchdown catches (76) and Pro Bowl appearances (10) by a tight end. He famously punctuated his touchdowns by dunking the ball over the crossbar.
In his three seasons with the Falcons, he’s become the second-leading receiver of all time with 1,149 receptions, trailing only Jerry Rice, and ranks ninth all-time with 95 touchdowns. He has also added two more Pro Bowls.
But the number that stands out to most to Gonzalez is 17. That’s the number of passes he dropped in 1998, his second year with the Chiefs. It proved to be the turning point of his career.
He began reading inspirational books, including those written about Vince Lombardi, Michael Jordan and by coaches such as Lou Holtz and Pat Riley. Those books taught Gonzalez about focus and dedication. Already a gym rat from his two-sport career at the University of California, where he also started for the basketball team, Gonzalez sought advice from veterans such as Will Shields, Tony Richardson and Marcus Allen and intensified his practice routine before and after practice, running precise routes by himself and catching passes well before practice and long after everyone left.
“That was the year that prompted everything,” Gonzalez said. “Embarrassment motivates you. I figured out how to work. It wasn’t a problem with work ethic. It was a problem with concentrating the right way, preparing the right way, and realizing that’s how you move forward, by making mistakes. That’s what I tell young guys around me, it’s fine to get it wrong. The true pro is the guy who will learn from his mistakes and not them happen over and over again.”
Gonzalez caught 76 passes for 849 yards and a still career-best 11 touchdowns in 1999, the first of his 10 straight Pro Bowl seasons with the Chiefs.
“Like all of us, and Tony’s no exception, he had to learn how to become a professional,” said Rich Gannon, a Chiefs quarterback during Gonzalez’ first two seasons, “and do the little things it takes to be an elite player at his position.
“When you put the ball on the ground, you struggle with your confidence a little bit. But once he turned the corner, he never looked back. There are certain players, in a critical situation, when you get in a huddle, their eyes light up. They want to be in the middle of it, if you got the ball to them, they’d make a big play. Jerry Rice is one of those players. Tony Gonzalez is one of those players.”
While Gonzalez has said 2012 will be his final NFL season, he’s left himself just a little wiggle room. He says he’s “95 percent sure” he’ll be retiring. He’s 400 receptions behind Rice for the all-time lead, but said he won’t be around long enough to touch that record.
“I feel good physically,” said Gonzalez, who has averaged 78 catches a year in his three seasons with the Falcons. “I could easily play another two years, maybe three years, at a decent level. I know for sure right now, I can play my type of ball. I just don’t want to be one of those guys who is out there still on the field and people are saying, ‘He’s lost a step, or he’s not even close to what he used to be.’
“You’re not going to have to drag me off the field. I want to go out playing my type of football … and that’s at the top. It’s no secret, I want to be one of the best when I’m out there on the field, and I couldn’t take it any other way.”
And just as Gonzalez, the Chiefs’ first-round pick in 1997, learned from his elders, he’s passed on tips of the trade to his younger Atlanta teammates that have helped the Falcons go to the playoffs twice in his three seasons, including 13-3 in 2010. Unfortunately, he’s still looking for that elusive first postseason win of his career, having gone 0-3 with the Chiefs.
“That gets tough,” Gonzalez said of his lack of postseason success. “Kansas City deserves better. We were never able to get over that hump. … It’s the only sad part about it that I can think of in my time in Kansas City. I hope this year can be different. We’ve got a really good football team in Atlanta.
“Winning cures everything. (Quarterback) Matt Ryan is one of the best, and (wide receiver) Roddy White … I got lucky. They traded me to a pretty good team. To be honest, it wasn’t the team (I wanted)… it was one of the teams, but it wasn’t my top choice. I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”
Gonzalez, whose off-field interests may be among the most diverse in the NFL, hasn’t given a lot of thought to what he’ll do after he retires.
He’s owned businesses in Kansas City; he’s written books on nutrition and for youth based on his experience growing up as a bullied multicultural youngster; he’s appeared on television shows, including Oprah Winfrey’s “Big Give” and “Arliss”; and he’s active in the community with his foundation, including Shadow Buddies in Kansas City, where smiling dolls are given to ailing children and the elderly.
“I’m thinking about television,” Gonzalez said of a role as a game or studio analyst. “It would be a great way to stay around the game.”
During Gonzalez’ rookie year, tight ends coach Jim Erkenbeck would hand out tests to his players, and besides quizzing them on their assignments, the coach would throw in a trivia or current-events question.
One of the questions in 1997 was “Who’s Pete Rozelle?” A 21-year-old Tony Gonzalez was stuck for an answer (Paul Tagliabue was the NFL commissioner then), and he answered: “The governor of Missouri.”
Gonzalez can laugh about that now.
“To look back, I can’t believe how naive and unprepared I was,” Gonzalez said. “Football is a great life teacher. Fortunately, I was able to learn from it, and it’s taken me to where we’re at today. I grew up in Kansas City. I became a man in Kansas City. … Unbelievable memories … the teams I was able to play on, the players I was around … being able to play for Lamar Hunt, one of the innovators of the game. It was a cool history to have as a player.”
Gonzalez’ family will be on hand for Sunday’s game. His mom from California, his wife, oldest son Nikko, folks from the Shadow Buddies and former teammates, including Richardson, Jason Dunn, Shawn Barber and Kevin Lockett will be there as Gonzalez likely will extend his streak to 164 consecutive games with a reception, the longest active streak in the league and fourth all-time.
“I still love the game, I’m really enjoying it and am able to be effective, so I’m going to enjoy this year,” Gonzalez said. “It kind of makes it more special, too, knowing this is the last time I’ll be at Arrowhead. The last time. That’s a luxury.
“How many guys can say that? How many guys can say this is my last year, and I’m going out on my terms? I feel very lucky.”