Tony Gonzalez perused the Chiefs'roster the other day and strained to see a few familiar names.
It's been just 17 months since Gonzalez, the Chiefs' all-time leading receiver, was traded to the Atlanta Falcons, but it may as well have been seven years. Only 23 players — and counting — remain in camp with the club since Gonzalez played his last game in Kansas City in 2008.
"I see Brian Waters there... is Jarrad Page still there?" Gonzalez said during a phone interview on Wednesday. "I see Rudy (Niswanger)... on McGraw is still there, isn't he?"
Gonzalez will renew acquaintances with those remaining former teammates Friday night when the Chiefs visit Atlanta in the preseason opener. He's not sure how he'll react when for the first time Gonzalez sees another team's players wearing Arrowhead logos on their helmets.
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"It's going to be weird," Gonzalez said. "I've been getting that question this week, and not just from reporters, but from my family and friends, and yeah, nostalgia is going to pop up. The relationships, all the hard work that you put in, the bad times that you went through with the organization....
"And it's not just about football. It's about time spent in the city, the relationships I made with the fans. I'm sure some of them will travel, because the fans are unbelievable. But it is an exhibition game, and I'm keeping that in mind. It's really for the young guys, and you just want to get through it healthy and get some of the timing back."
Gonzalez, 34, certainly enjoyed good times and bad with the Chiefs. He wrote a Hall of Fame resume by becoming the all-time leader among NFL tight ends for receptions (916), yards (10,940) and touchdown catches (76) as well as the Chiefs' franchise leader in those departments.
But the Chiefs reached the playoffs just three times in his 12-year career — in 1997, 2003 and 2006 — and went 0-3 in those games. Not wanting to endure another rebuilding job, Gonzalez asked for a trade to a contender before the 2009 season.
The Chiefs accommodated him by sending Gonzalez to Atlanta, which had reached the playoffs in 2008 under a new coach in Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. But the Falcons, who lost Ryan two games to injuries and running back Michael Turner for five games, went 9-7 and missed the playoffs, though Gonzalez caught 83 passes, a franchise record for receptions by a tight end.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, are still looking to replace Gonzalez. Veteran Leonard Pope (20 catches) and Jake O'Connell combined for 22 receptions in 2009, and the club selected Tony Moeaki from Iowa in the third round of the draft. Moeaki was injury prone in college and has missed this week because of injuries suffered in last Saturday's scrimmage.
Gonzalez will begin this season with 999 career catches and is looking forward to the season opener at Pittsburgh where he'll certainly become the seventh player in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes. Only Terrell Owens, with 1,066, has more receptions among active players.
"I wish I could have done it last year," Gonzalez said of joining the 1,000-catch club. "I'm looking forward to getting that catch in Pittsburgh and getting it out of the way. It's a milestone. Seeing the group of guys I will be joining, it's a pretty good feeling."
Gonzalez couldn't remember catch No. 1 for the Chiefs — a 22-yard pass from Elvis Grbac in the 1997 opener at Denver, but remembered his first catch as a professional.
"It was in preseason against Pittsburgh, an XY hook for a touchdown," he said. "I remember my first (regular-season) touchdown against Miami."
Then, Gonzalez, a former college basketball player who usually punctuated his touchdown catches by slam-dunking the ball over the crossbar, reminisced about two other memorable receptions with the Chiefs.
There was catch No. 753, a back-of-the-end zone grab against Cincinnati at Arrowhead in 2007 that broke the all-time record for touchdown catches by a tight end.
And Catch No. 837, a 10-yard touchdown pass against Denver in a 33-19 win at Arrowhead in 2008.
"I landed on the ball and got the wind knocked out of me, and when I couldn't get up, the crowd started screaming, 'Tony! Tony!" Gonzalez said. "That was one of the most special times. It really gave me chills right there."
Those chills may have to last until 2012, when the Falcons are next scheduled to play at Arrowhead. Gonzalez sees no reason why he still won't be playing.
"Physically, I feel like I can play another three, four years at a pretty good level," he said. "Right now, everybody knows what I'm playing for. It's no secret. I'm playing for a Super Bowl. I'm not playing for stats. I'm not playing for (fame). I've done everything I ever wanted to do in a career. And more. Both on and off the field.
"The closure I'm looking for, and I hope I can get... and if I can't, it's not going to devastate me. But that's what I'm working for, that's what all my energy is for, that ring."