FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. –- The first thing that happens in the sports aging process is a phenom shows up on a team, fresh faced, full of talent and promise and hope, like countless before him, only here’s the difference: This one is younger than you are. It comes as something of a shock. When you are a kid, there’s one thing that connects all your sports heroes and villains, all the sluggers and hurlers, field generals and point guards, sackers and scorers, icons and has-beens, flameouts and phenoms, one thing they all share. They are all older than you. It should stay that way forever.
Then, suddenly, one of them is not older than you. It’s disturbing. Then another youngster comes along. Then five. Then 10. Soon, way sooner than you expect, you are as old as half the league, then maybe a little bit more than half, and then, the next shocker happens. A coach is hired who is your age. A manager. This seems impossible. How could you be as old as a coach? Then you are as old as two coaches, then five, then 10, and then you find yourself looking around each league for any player who is older than you. Maybe you find yourself surprisingly attached to these older players. You defend them. Hey, why SHOULD Morten Andersen retire anyway? Why CAN’T Jamie Moyer pitch until he’s 50? Go get ‘em, Tom Watson.
All along the way, the players keep getting younger, and the managers keep getting younger, and eventually you find that even the knuckleball pitchers and ancient punters and veteran general managers don’t remember Nixon resigning like you do.
Then, finally, one day you find yourself at Atlanta Falcons camp, where everyone has gathered to hear from the team’s old man. He is old. He readily admits it. He’s so old that people were calling him old five years ago. He’s so old that he not only owns every meaningful record for his position, he set those records AGES ago. He’s so old that the team gave him a special dispensation so he would come back –- he did not have to come to training camp for the first three or so weeks. He was told he could just stay home with his family.
He’s so old that he was once a teammate of Marcus Allen, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame a DECADE ago.
“I’ve been playing football for a long, long time,” he tells reporters.
But here’s the thing: He couldn’t be playing THAT long, because I have watched the old man’s entire career from up close. I saw him when he was a confused kid. I saw him when he was entirely lost. I saw him when he was invincible. And now here we are, at the end, and if he’s the old man, what does that make me?
“What are you doing in this part of the world?” Tony Gonzalez asked me.
“Writing about you,” I said.
“Writing about me?” Gonzalez asked. “Still?”
* * *
The reporters are peppering Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith about his decision to let Tony Gonzalez stay at home for the start of training camp. Well, they are not exactly peppering him, it’s a light seasoning, nobody seems too worked up about any of this. It’s an NFL training camp, and Gonzalez has returned from a three-week hiatus, and people have to write about SOMETHING. Gonzalez’s absence seems as good a topic of the day as anything else.
“I don’t make decisions on a whim,” Smith is saying. Last year, Tony Gonzalez announced that he was going to retire. Well, to be precise, he said he was 95 percent sure he was going to retire. That’s pretty sure. But for a variety of reasons we’ll get into in a moment, he reconsidered. He decided to play one more year. Gonzalez did have a couple of requests, one being that he get to stay home with his family for three weeks while his teammates simmered in the Georgia heat for training camp. Smith agreed. He says he has no doubt whatsoever that Gonzalez is in great shape and will be ready for the season.
“Everyone on this team knows I have an open door policy, and if they have any request I will listen,” Smith says. He kind of smiles and then says. “And if they’ve played in 15 Pro Bowls, I will take that into consideration.”
Fifteen Pro Bowls? Can it really be that many for Tony Gonzalez? Well, no, actually it’s 13 ... but close enough. Gonzalez’s numbers are staggering. He has caught 1,242 passes -– only Jerry Rice has caught more. He is one of only six players to catch more than 100 touchdown passes, and none of the other five are tight ends. He has caught passes for more than 14,000 yards -- that’s 4,000 more than the second-place tight end, Shannon Sharpe, it’s more than Kellen Winslow and Mike Ditka combined, it’s more than Ozzie Newsome and John Mackey combined.
Those numbers confound my mind. When did he have time to do all that? It seems impossible that it was 16 years ago that I first saw Tony Gonzalez walk on a practice field in a sweet little town called River Falls, Wisconsin. He showed up a week after camp began because of a contract dispute – first-round picks never seemed to show up on time in those days.
He looked like a star right away. I don’t mean he played like a star -– he didn’t, not at the beginning -- but he looked like one. He looked like the cover of a magazine. The Chiefs had come off this dismal season where they had just missed the playoffs and the offense was C-Span 3 boring. They needed some kind of flash, something thrilling, and so they maneuvered on draft day to take Gonzalez with the 13th pick.
“Just like the Chiefs,” people were saying. “They need excitement and they draft a tight end.”
But, well, Tony Gonzalez was not an ordinary tight end. He was a basketball player for a California team that went to the Sweet 16. He was a California dude who grew up liking surfing more than football, a multi-sport superstar who shared Orange County High School Athlete of the Year with a young golfer named Tiger Woods. He was a reflective guy who wrote in journals and wanted to open himself up to the world. Also, he didn’t care much for blocking.
“Pretty boy,” one veteran football observer decided the first day he saw Gonzalez practice, and he would stick with that assessment for a long time.
* * *
“You know, I’ve been to A LOT of training camps,” Gonzalez is saying to the reporters here in Flowery Branch when asked what he missed in his time away. He talks about studying the plays on his iPad. He talks about having two weeks to finish his preparations for the seasons, and he knows his body better than anybody. His face has chiseled into something different -- he’s still handsome, but in a different way. Distinguished, maybe.
That first year of his career, 1997, Gonzalez played a small but meaningful role on a Chiefs team that went 13-3, the best record in the conference. In the playoff game against Denver, he might have caught the touchdown pass that would have given the Chiefs a victory, but the official ruled that he landed out of bounds. Denver went on to win the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, went into an offseason spending spree and put together a uniquely talented and uniquely undisciplined group of players who strutted and griped and ultimately crumbled. In a Monday Night Game forever to be known in Kansas City as the Monday Night Meltdown, the Chiefs played Denver, and they committed FIVE personal foul penalties on the same drive. They finished 7-9. They’d embarrassed everybody. Marty Schottenheimer, the team’s longstanding coach, resigned at the end of the year. He’d had enough.
And Tony Gonzalez dropped passes. He dropped them all season long. He dropped so many passes -– he counted 17 of them –- that at some point the fans started booing him. More to the point, though, he started booing himself. It was that year, 1998, that changed Tony Gonzalez.
See, here’s the little secret about Gonzalez: He hated football. He hated it when he was a kid, but truth is, he didn’t quite stop hating it even when he began to grow up. He played football because he was awesome at it, that’s all. No linebacker could run with him. No safety could match up with him. He was so ridiculously awesome, it would have been insult to his talent to NOT play football. But he didn’t like it.
And, so, those first couple of years, he drifted. His talent still shined. Hey, even in 1998, his disastrous season, he caught 59 passes -- only three tight ends in the NFL caught more. He could get by on his amazing talent, and he knew it. He could have a successful NFL career without really giving that much of himself.
But that season -– he could not bear it. He could not take the drops. He could not stand the boos. He could not deal with this feeling that he was wasting his gifts. And at that point, Gonazlez went on a mission a bit unlike anything I’ve seen from any other player. He determined that he would never, ever drop another pass.
* * *
While Mike Smith talks to the reporters – “Tony looks very good; he always does,” Smith says -- Gonzalez is doing something I have seen him do a hundred times. He runs simulation routes. By this, I mean he is kind of PRETENDING to run a rout. He runs in place for a couple of seconds, with his knees bouncing high. And then, after moving maybe two feet, he turns his head to the passer, signaling that the ball should be thrown. The ball is thrown, he catches it, tucks it away, then runs in place for another second or two. Then he stops, lofts the ball back, and begins again. It’s like pantomime football.
I’ve seen Tony Gonzalez do this all over America. It seems like every spare second -– in the pregame warmups, on the sideline in the middle of a game, in a down time at a practice, in the minutes before lunch, outside the Abercrombie & Fitch at the mall, outside on the beach, he asks people to throw him footballs. I estimate that between practice, games, and the countless side sessions, he catches 1,000 footballs every week, maybe 1,500. I have little doubt that nobody ever worked harder at route running than the great Jerry Rice. But I’ll bet no one, not even Rice himself, has caught more practice balls than Tony Gonzalez.
It’s an obsession -– and has been ever since Gonzalez’s third season. That was the breakout year. He caught 76 passes that year, 11 of them for touchdowns, and made his first Pro Bowl. The next year he caught 93 balls for more than 1,200 yards. He made his second Pro Bowl. He was great every year for the next decade. I’m sure he has dropped passes. But I’ll bet he has not dropped 17 balls in the 15 years since his crisis season.
Gonzalez has a somewhat unique style -– he will go to a somewhat open spot, turn around, catch the ball, and get tackled. That’s how he has done it from the start. That is pretty much his entire game. He would not often run “patterns” the way they are normally visualized – you rarely saw him run to the post or try a crossing pattern. You almost never saw him catch a ball over his shoulder. He was not a yards-after-catch kind of receiver. What he could do -– and I would argue he could do this better than anyone who ever lived –- was go to a spot and catch the football no matter where it was thrown, no how many defenders surrounded him, no matter the temperature or conditions, no matter how many linebackers grabbed him, no matter how hard the safety crashed in.
I think it was the basketball player in him. Gonzalez desperately wanted to be a basketball player. In college, he actually played a football and basketball game on the same day. He messed around with lower-level pro basketball even after he became an NFL star. He loves still playing basketball. I have absolutely no doubt that, given the option, he would have been three inches taller and Karl Malone rather than the greatest pass-catching tight end in NFL history.
But he was not given the option –- he will tell you, point blank, he didn’t CHOOSE football over basketball, it was chosen for him. But he brought basketball with him into his sport. His NFL catches more closely resembled a power-forward catching a ball on the blocks than anything Kellen Winslow ever did. His pass patterns -- run to a spot, turn the defender, face the passer –- look a lot more like Tim Duncan than Dave Casper.
The Chiefs had this play back in the day where the quarterback -– it worked best when Trent Green was quarterback -– would fake a handoff to the running back, then fake a handoff to a receiver coming around the end. And then the quarterback would throw the ball to Tony Gonzalez, who was always WIDE OPEN over the middle about 20 yards downfield. I don’t think I ever saw Gonzalez gain more than three yards after catching the ball. And I don’t think I ever saw that play not work.
* * *
“We had some selfish guys on those Chiefs teams,” Gonzalez is saying now. Then this: “I don’t know, maybe people would say I was one of the selfish players.” He pauses as if he’s considering the charge. Then he nods and says, “Maybe I was selfish. But I always did the work.”
Well, say this: He loved to catch footballs. It’s funny that someone who had so little regard for football would grow to delight in catching footballs as much as he did. Nobody ever looked happier than Tony Gonzalez after a good game. But there were two necessities that made a “good game.”
1. The Chiefs had to win.
2. Gonzalez had to catch several passes, including important ones.
He did not hide from the individual part of the equation. If he caught a lot of passes but the Chiefs lost, he would feel miserable after the game. So it wasn’t exactly selfishness; he wasn’t exactly interested in his own numbers. But if the Chiefs won and he did not catch a lot of passes, he would try to hide it but he was not especially happy. He needed to feel like he contributed to the victory. He needed to feel like he was an important part of the team. He needed his catches.
For most of his time in Kansas City, the catches were easier to come by than the victories. After his opening season, the Chiefs missed the playoffs five straight years. Then, after losing a heartbreaker to Indianapolis in 2003, they missed the playoffs four of the next five seasons. During that time, Gonzalez set the record for catches by a tight end. He set the record for receiving yards for a tight end. He set the record for touchdowns by a tight end.
But he wasn’t happy. He would talk all the time then about retiring. I mean: All the time. Remember: This was six and seven years ago. Gonzalez had all these off-the-field interests. He was interested in diet –- he experiments with various diets and wrote a book about healthy dieting with nutritionist Mitzi Dulan. He was interested in acting, in modeling, in television. He was interested in language; he entered a Spanish immersion program. He was committed to his family –- he never seemed happier than with his wife October over a good meal with good wine. He was friends with famous people –- with Oprah and the chef Jamie Oliver. One time, he told me he wanted to read my book about Buck O’Neil “Soul of Baseball,” but first he had to read this other book because Barack had recommended it to him. Yeah. Barack.
So he was about ready to give up football. He talked about the beating his body had taken. He talked about the drudgery of training camps and the need to do new things. He talked about how he would walk away from the game and -– unlike other stars - he wouldn’t miss it. He talked mostly about the agony of losing. But I think it was actually the opposite that broke him. After losses, throughout his career, Gonzalez would sit on a stool in the locker room, still in full uniform, and just stare into his locker. He might do this for 10 minutes and he might do it for an hour, you never knew. He was devastated after the losses.
And then, the last year or so in Kansas City, something changed. When the Chiefs lost, he would no longer sit in front of his locker. He would no longer stare at nothing and beat himself up. Instead, he would dress quickly, say a few words to the press, and split. He had, more or less, stopped caring.
“I won’t play much longer,” he said then. “I can promise you that.”
* * *
Atlanta revived him. He was traded to the Falcons in 2009. He was 33 years old, already the all-time record-holder in just about every tight end category, and the Falcons were young and exciting and successful. The quarterback was a kid, Matt Ryan. They called him Matty Ice, and he zipped passes all over the field. The outside receiver, Roddy White, was a force of nature. The offensive line stuck together. There was a whole different vibe about the team.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the Chiefs organization,” Gonzalez says. “But it’s different here. There’s just a family atmosphere here. I don’t know what these guys do away from the field, but they come here ready to work, ready to win, and it’s a great feeling to be around.”
In 2009, Gonzalez caught 83 passes, most ever for a 33-year-old tight end, and the Falcons won their last three games, and so he HAD to come back.
In 2010, he caught 70 passes –- most ever for a 34-year-old tight end –- and the Falcons went 13-3. Yes, the got blitzed by Green Bay in the playoffs, but everything was looking so promising. Gonzalez HAD to come back.
In 2011, he caught 80 passes -– most ever for a 35-year-old tight end –- and the Falcons made the playoffs again, losing again to the eventual Super Bowl champion (Giants, this time) and Gonzalez decided, fine, one more year. But it would only be one more year.
So 2012 was to be the last. He was 95 percent sure of that. He caught 93 passes, which was obviously most ever for any 36-year-old tight end (the previous record was held by Wesley Walls with 19). The Falcons went 13-3 again. They won a playoff game (the first playoff victory of Gonzalez’s career). They got to the NFC Championship game against San Francisco, and they had a chance to win it at the end, and Tony Gonzalez looked open. The ball did not come to him. The Falcons lost. And Tony Gonzalez cried like it was the last game he would ever play. And he stared into his locker.
Then Tony Gonzalez retired. He absolutely retired. “I checked out for two weeks,” he insists.
“Dad,” his 12-year-old son Nico said to him. “You have to come back.”
“But I thought you wanted me to quit,” Tony told him.
“I know I said that,” Nico said. ‘But you guys were SO CLOSE.”
So, he thought about coming back one more time. His family thought he should play one more year. Mike Smith told him he could stay with his family at the beginning of training camp and watch Nico play football. Matt Ryan told him that it would be great to take one more shot. Gonzalez’s conscience told him that he would regret not trying once more.
“Would I have come back if I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of winning the Super Bowl?” Gonzalez says. “No. Probably not. We have a great team here. That was a very big factor in my decision.”
“So let me ask you,” I begin. “What if you guys don’t win ...”
“I’m done,” Gonzalez says. “I’m not coming back no matter what. This is the last year.”
“No,” I say, “I have a different question. What if you guys don’t win it all. Will you regret coming back this year?”
He thinks about it for a second. Then he looks at me and smiles and says, “It’s not gonna happen.”
* * *
Gonzalez says he did not just sit around during his time away from training camp. He had the quarterback from Huntington Beach High School throw him some passes. He worked out a bit. “Did you feel at all guilty?” a reporter asks him.
“A little bit for my teammates,” he says.
“They were out here sweating,” the reporter says.
“They know I’ve sweated through a lot of training camps,” Gonzalez says.
He has done that. Gonzalez has started 237 NFL games, 40 more than any tight end ever. There is no way he would have predicted that. There is no way that he would have predicted coming back at age 37 for one more shot at the Super Bowl. The journey has been filled with surprises.
The main thing Gonzalez did in his time away from camp was watch Nico play football for the first time. Gonzalez says what parents always say -– it’s much more nerve-wracking watching your child play sports than it is playing sports yourself. He was particularly nervous watching Nico participate in the Oklahoma Drill -– that’s the fierce drill, developed by Oklahoma’s famous coach Bud Wilkinson, where two players crash into each other until one is on the ground.
Gonzalez noticed that Nico was game but a bit hesitant in those Oklahoma drills. Afterward, Gonzalez pulled Nico aside and said, “You know why you’re hesitant? Because you’re smart. You don’t want your head kicked in. That’s the smart reaction. Football is a hard game to like.”
Then Nico looked up at him, a look that said he DID like football, and Tony Gonzalez shrugged. He’s a sure Hall of Famer, a 37-year-old marvel, a star on one of the best teams in the NFL. He’s going into his last season with one goal, to win a championship. But after all these years, more than anything, he’s a Dad who knows what to say to a son looking for approval.
“You know what,” Gonzalez said to his son. “You stick your head in there enough times, you’ll learn to love it. I did.”
The best souvenirs from Sochi don't need a bag. They are moments like Noelle Pikus-Pace's tearful triumph.