ATLANTA — Tony Gonzalez wants to keep things simple.
Even with 40 family members and friends flying cross-country to be present for his final game, his high school basketball and football coaches included among them, Gonzalez clung to routine in his final 48 hours as an NFL player.
He was one of the first in the weight room. He followed that up with a 16-year tradition of catching 100 balls in practice. He then got a massage.
"Nothing changes," said Gonzalez, one of the game’s all-time greats who will suit up for the final time on Sunday at the Georgia Dome (Panthers-Falcons). "Why would I change at this point? Itâs worked so far and we have one game left so, like I said, I’m a creature of habit. I have that routine for a reason so I don’t have to think about it. I can just follow it and it works. So I’m going to stick to it until the end.â
Why would he change? He has missed only two of 271 possible games during his 17 seasons. He has redefined the position of tight end. He leads all players at his position in receiving yards (15,071) and became the first tight end in league history to catch 1,000 balls.
On the whole, it’s not right to limit the Gonzalez comparisons to only tight ends. His 1,321 receptions rank second in league history behind only Jerry Rice. Gonzalez also ranks fifth all-time in receiving yards behind wideouts Rice, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Isaac Bruce.
So, now you understand why teammate Roddy White hopes Gonzalez will unretire for a second straight season and return for 2014. Quarterback Matt Ryan echoed a similar sentiment on Thursday. terming Gonzalez’s swan song as ‘bittersweet.’
"I think he’s had an awesome year and played really, really well," Ryan said of Gonzalez, who has 79 catches (tied for 15th in the NFL) for 803 yards and eight touchdowns. "I’m sad to see him moving on selfishly because he’s been such a great player, such a great teammate. He’s so consistent. It sure has been a fun ride."
A fun ride but perhaps one that has grown stressful in recent weeks. Gonzalez is embracing the end, maybe a sign that he could be eager to put that anxiety past him.
"I know you guys probably think I was just talking but, yeah, I’m looking forward to it, honestly, to tell you the truth," he said, "kind of get it over with … It’s going to be a little emotional. I’m just so happy that I was able to have this opportunity and be in the NFL for all these years and I’m looking forward to finishing it on the right note."
There will be two ceremonies on Sunday: One will come before the game. Another will be at halftime, when the Falcons debut a video looking back on his career. Gonzalez will also receive a helmet bearing the logos of the Chiefs and Falcons — his only two NFL teams for the 17 seasons.
Gonzalez has spent the last five seasons in Atlanta. Last year, he won the first playoff game of his career, as Atlanta advanced to the NFC title game. A week later, Gonzalez wore his emotions after that heartbreaking 28-24 loss to San Francisco, with the Falcons falling 10 yards short of reaching the Super Bowl.
The Falcons enter their season finale at 4-11, but Gonzalez does not regret his decision to return.
"Itâs been unbelievable,â he said of his tenure in Atlanta, which included three playoff berths. "When I got traded, I think we won two games that year and Kansas City was rebuilding and I had a great time out there — no doubt about that. But coming here, the way they do things around here, just the environment and the players, how they wanted to go to work — guys like Roddy, guys like Matt, (John) Abraham back then.
"It’s contagious and you see why they’re able to do what they do around here, why the winning came when (head coach Mike Smith) got here and when (general manager) Thomas Dimitroff got hereâ â both arrived in 2008.
"I thank Thomas, obviously, for executing that trade. The fans have been great, the city of Atlanta. This is more than I ever thought it would be. I stayed here a lot longer than I ever thought I was going to and it has a lot to do with the guys on this team and the way they do things around here."
That’s high praise coming from a noted perfectionist like Gonzalez. As the final few weeks wind down, one way Gonzalez has tried to pursue perfection has been in trying to play every single play.
In Week 14 at Green Bay, Gonzalez played 100 percent of the snaps for the first time all season. Falcons head coach Mike Smith said after that game that he thought Gonzalez was savoring the end.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter added that Gonzalez has been hard to get off the field during the last few games. He played 100 percent again the following week against Washington and 69 of 72 against San Francisco on Monday night.
In all, he has played 196 of 199 snaps — or 98.5 percent — over the last three weeks. All of this despite a toe injury that has landed Gonzalez on the injury report.
Officially, he is listed as probable for Sunday, meaning a 25 percent chance exists that he would not play. But, really, does anyone think any chance exists that he will not dress?
On Friday, as he met with the local media for the final time, Gonzalez said he never thought his career would take him to the heights that it has. His words oozed finality as he spoke.
"The reality of this game is ‘not for long.’ You never know when it can come to an end and thatâs always been my approach. Thatâs why Iâve never, ever said ‘I have arrived’ — my accomplishments — I have never, ever said ‘That’s good enough for me’ or ‘I’ve caught enough balls to last a lifetime.’
I always want to keep working, working in case this is it and now it’s coming to my last one. And I’m glad I have done it. Itâs worked out and, hopefully, Iâll carry this to my next career, whatever it is."