KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There may never be another tight end as good as No. 88 in Kansas City Chiefs red.
And Sunday, Tony Gonzalez will revisit the place — Arrowhead Stadium — where his illustrious career started, this time wearing No. 88 in the red and black of the Atlanta Falcons.
It will be the first time Tony G has returned to Arrowhead since requesting a trade after the 2008 season, and it seems certain it will be the last. Gonzalez said he is 99 percent sure this will be his final season in the NFL.
“It’s going to be a little weird being in a different locker room and coming out of that tunnel when we first come in,” Gonzalez said in a conference call Wednesday. “It’s going to be a little weird, but I’m looking forward to it.
“I know this is the last time that I’ll ever get to play in Kansas City and that stadium. That’s a beautiful thing to me. I’m going to go out there and enjoy the hell out of it because it’s my last time.”
Gonzalez holds virtually every Chiefs receiving record, and he left Kansas City as the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions (916), receiving yards (10,940) and touchdowns (76) by a tight end. After three seasons with Atlanta, he’s now second all-time in NFL receptions (1,149) behind 49ers great Jerry Rice.
None of that will be lost on the Chiefs’ faithful who will be in attendance Sunday. Expect a huge ovation for Gonzalez, who was immensely popular not just inside Arrowhead but all around Kansas City, where he was a familiar figure in the community — particularly on the night scene.
Gonzalez said he was always appreciative of the support from Kansas Citians.
“My ties are more in the community and to the people than inside the organization,” Gonzalez said. “Just the fans and the memories, being down on The Plaza and going to the new Power and Light District for that year it was open, but really The Plaza since that’s where I did all of my damage while I was out there in Kansas City.”
Gonzalez expects to do some harm on the field Sunday with a Falcons team most experts agree will make another playoff run.
And that’s at the heart of Gonzalez’s goal this season — win that elusive, first playoff game of his career.
“We have a really good football team, there’s no doubt about that, and it’s not just false chatter,” he said. “We have a really good football team from top to bottom both offensively and defensively. I realize we have an opportunity to go to the playoffs, win a playoff game, and that’s what I want.
“I’ve been playing my whole career for a chance to go to the Super Bowl, and I feel we have as good a chance as anybody.”
The first roadblock, of course: Romeo Crennel’s Chiefs, who will be shorthanded defensively without rushing linebacker Tamba Hali, out because of a one-game suspension, and possibly linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive back Brandon Flowers, both because of injuries.
Stopping Gonzalez, even at age 36, wouldn’t be easy, Crennel said, even if the Chiefs were at full strength.
“Tony is probably a future Hall of Famer,” Crennel said. “He’s got size, he’s got speed, he’s got hands, he’s got savvy and that poses a lot of problems, particularly with the other weapons that they have.
“If you double Tony, then you’re leaving other guys singled up. If you single Tony, Tony can get open, so you have to kind of pick your poisons and try to keep the opposing quarterback off-balance a little bit, give him a couple different things to look at.”
Crennel believes Gonzalez probably ushered in the new wave of tight ends who changed the way the position was viewed — not just as a pass-catching tight end but as a weapon equivalent to that of a wide receiver.
“He probably was the leading edge of that transition to pass-catching tight ends and being able to flex them out and use them almost like a wide receiver,” Crennel said. “But to do that, you’ve got to have that ability. You’ve got to have that tremendous ability — hand-eye coordination, great hands, that savvy about reading coverages and knowing how to get open — and Tony has all of that.”
As much as anyone, Gonzalez understands that the season’s first test won’t be easy, not at this venue.
“Everybody (on the Falcons) is asking me, ‘What’s it like in there? Is the stadium loud?’ ” Gonzalez told The Kansas City Star this week. “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!’ “
And Gonzalez admits there will be plenty of nostalgia churning inside him when he hears that crowd on Sunday.
“The way (the fans) accepted me and the way they stuck with me throughout the years and the appreciation that they showed to me, I want to give it right back to them,” Gonzalez said. “They made my time in Kansas City a wonderful experience. In fact, that’s what I miss most about Kansas City.
“The fan support, no doubt, was No. 1 and the best in the league while I was there. Even when we were losing, they were packing the house. To look up and see the No. 88 jerseys was always a special thing to me, and they are truly the best in the business as far as I’m concerned.”