ATLANTA — Standing at the podium for the final time as a pro football player, stylish as ever, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez held his large right hand that had caught so many balls at eye level to make his point. He entered Sunday tied for 15th in the NFL in receptions — still plenty good enough to continue to play — but at 37 he has chosen to walk away from the millions and retire.
"Football has been up here for me, it always was," Gonzalez said.
Then he lifted his left hand and raised it to the same point.
"My family’s here and football is right next to it — for better, for worse," he said. "That’s just the way my mentality worked. I was obsessed with football, OCD about it — OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder — but it’s not a disorder if you channel it the right way in the right direction, it’s a gift.
"I need to put that emphasis on my family now, and on the next part of my life. This is like graduating to me. I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss my classmates — my teammates, my coaches — my teachers. I’m going to miss them, but at the same time, it’s time for me to go onto the next stage of life like everybody else. Nobody is immune to this. Everybody that plays is going to have this day. The way that I’ve been able to go out, on my own terms, it’s a blessing. Like I said, I have no regrets."
The final game of his career, No. 270 — remarkably, he missed only two in 17 seasons — went the way he said he thought it would, save the winning. He caught a pass each of the four times quarterback Matt Ryan targeted him, totaling 56 yards. The Falcons, four-point losers in the NFC Championship game last season, finished a disappointing 4-12 season with a disappointing 21-20 loss at the Georgia Dome to Carolina, a game in which Atlanta led 10-0.
Gonzalez retired after the 2012 season, during which he said he was 95 percent sure it would be his last, but came back one more time to see if he could win his first Super Bowl. His hall of fame credentials — No. 2 all-time in receptions, fifth in receiving yards — will have to go without a Super Bowl victory, which he said would not define him.
"The Super Bowl wasn’t obviously in my cards and I’m OK with that," he said. "I did an interviewâ¦ a couple of weeks ago, and that was one thing I wanted to emphasize: Don’t ever look at me and say, ‘Well, he never won the big game.’ I hope there’s no glitch on my record because of that, and if you think that way, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. I really don’t because this is the ultimate team sport.
"I’ve been on some really good teams but we weren’t able to get over the hump. It’s offense, defense and special teams and then the ball has to go your way. We didn’t have that this year. It seems like the horseshoe fell out of our butts."
Throughout the game on Sunday, the Falcons honored Gonzalez in various ways. He was the final player introduced. He was the lone captain the team sent out for the coin flip. Videotaped messages from teammates and head coach Mike Smith played on the scoreboards.
At halftime, he came out early and received a gift, a helmet that bore the Falcons’ logo on one side and that of the Kansas City Chiefs’ on the other — the only two teams for which he played. Many family members and friends were present on the field at that time and as he descended a makeshift podium he shared some hugs with them.
When the game ended, he shook hands with the Panthers’ Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen, among others. Olsen said he wished Gonzalez the best of luck in his retirement.
"He’s been a guy a lot of us younger guys have looked up to," Olsen said. "He’s paved the way for our tight end position to be what it is today. I think they did a nice job sending him off today and I wish him the best in whatever I’m sure he has lots of options in retirement."
For his part, Gonzalez, a college basketball player at Cal who paved the way for future college basketball players like the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham to become star pass-catchers, thanked previous coaches for allowing him to help reinvent the position.
"When I first came in I used to watch Shannon Sharpe, I used to watch tapes of Kellen Winslow Sr.," Gonzalez said. "I was just lucky to get that torch passed to me and be in some offenses where they trusted me to move me out from that traditional tight end spot, where you’re not just attached to the line, where they can put you out at receiver, put you in the slot. Put me in the backfield, I remember coming out of the backfield, catching balls. I mean where you’re just a weapon and it’s just a matchup and you pose that matchup at all times.
"I’m proud of the guys that have come after me, guys that are coming up now — guys like Rob Gronkowski, guys like Jimmy Graham and what they’re doing with the position, and they’re going to take it to new heights, I hope. I’m glad that I was a part of that. It’s a good feeling. It’s a humbling feeling."
As he dressed in the locker room, teammates came by one by one and shook his hand, wishing him well. Second-year reserve defensive tackle Travian Robertson, starting safety William Moore. Gonzalez interrupted a telephone conversation to make sure Moore knew the location of a party that was being thrown for him later that night.
Despite a season in which almost everything went wrong for the Falcons, Gonzalez’s ending proved a celebration, not a funeral. Yes, he can still play and play well, but he said he was too old and that his body hurts. He wants to live full-time in the Los Angeles area so he can be a full-time parent to his 12-year-old son Nikko.
The obsession with football is over but it was fun while it lasted.
"When you’re having fun, it’s never work," he said. "I still haven’t worked a day in my life, maybe when I was younger, my first job passing out flyers. Now this is a dream come true to play in the NFL. It’s such a gift. If somebody feels like this is long (17 seasons), you’re not doing it the right way. You’re not enjoying it. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it. I’ve had some great teammates, like I said, and a couple of those guys are here that I’ve played with. I’m going to go out tonight. I’m going to have a great time tonight, celebrating with a couple of my coaches, my teammates and my friends and family.
"That’s what it’s all about. You have to have fun with this. Otherwise, you won’t enjoy the ride."