FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Tony Gonzalez says he’ll probably take a break from his usual pregame routine on Sunday when the Falcons open their season at Kansas City — the city where he built his reputation for 12 seasons as perhaps the greatest player to suit up at tight end.
For someone with the unrivaled professionalism of Gonzalez, the act of changing his routine is no small matter. But it’s also because of that professionalism that Gonzalez will take extraordinary steps to ensure that he has enough time before game time so that once kickoff arrives the game can proceed as normally as possible.
He expects to see former teammates on the field, as well as Chiefs employees with whom he has long-standing relationships. He knows they’ll want to come up and shake hands and give hugs and he’ll want to reciprocate.
On the whole, he says he doesn’t know how he’ll react in such an emotional situation.
“I still have a lot of ties to the city so it’s going to be special,” Gonzalez said. “It’s going to be a little weird going in there. It’s going to be like going back to the house you grew up in. A lot of heartbreak on that field, a lot of triumphs. It’ll be a special feeling to go back to.”
At 36, Gonzalez has said this, his 16th season, will be his last – though he continues to keep the door open, ever so slightly, to a possible return. (“Tony says he’s 95 or 99.9 percent that this is his last year; I’m holding out for that point-one percent,” Falcons coach Mike Smith quipped.)
It seems fitting, then, that for the first time since the Chiefs traded him in April 2009 during a rebuilding phase that he will return to play in Kansas City in what is expected to be his last season.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said he can “only imagine” what will be going through his teammate’s head.
“It’s probably going to be a mixed bag for him a little bit,” Ryan said.
On Wednesday as he met with Atlanta media, Gonzalez waxed nostalgic about the many reasons why Kansas City is so special to him. When the Chiefs made him the 13th overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, an older brother came to live with him from his native California – to keep him out of trouble, Gonzalez said, as he was only 21.
That brother still lives there. So does a cousin, who moved there years later. In addition, Gonzalez, through his foundation, still has ties to a nonprofit group, Shadow Buddies, which is based in the Kansas City area.
“They all have ties there,” Gonzalez said of his family members who live there. “It’s a good place for them, not for me, though. I’ll be back in California by the beach.”
He said his fondest memories are of the fans and of the relationships he had. He contrasted Kansas City to Atlanta, which is larger and has more transplants but does not exactly enjoy a reputation for rabid pro sports fans.
“The thing that I miss most about Kansas City is the fan support,” he said. “It’s really unlike anything else. First of all, it’s Kansas City. There’s not too much else going on and they support you through thick and thin. They’re diehards, a lot of them.
“That’s the difference, I think, between Atlanta fans and Kansas City fans. There’s just more of them out there because there’s not as much to do. We certainly have our diehards here in Atlanta, but there’s just a lot more in Kansas City.”
He recalled his rookie season when Marcus Allen and Derrick Thomas were gaining veterans and the Chiefs were ascendant. They went 13-3 his rookie season but lost in the first round of the playoffs – a fate that has befallen Gonzalez every time one of his teams have qualified for the postseason and a run that he hopes finally to end in 2012.
The memories of Gonzalez’s rookie season also remain with him, however, for a more niggling reason. He caught 33 passes but had more than half as many drops – 17. He said the following offseason proved a turning point in his career.
“Yeah, after going through a season like that with such high expectations… they expected a lot out of me and I didn’t deliver…” he said. “To tell you the truth — I tell a lot of people this — I don’t think I’d be the player I am today if I didn’t have a season like that because it’s embarrassing. You feel like you let your teammates down, you let the city down, you let the organization down.
“It can either motivate you or it can kill your career. Luckily for me, it motivated me, changed a lot of my routine, the way I do things. I started reading books a little bit more, expanding my mind. It kind of made me who I am, set me on that path.”
His receptions rose 59 the next season then to 76 and then up to 93 in his fourth season, along with 1,203 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Today, his 1,149 receptions rank second in league history.
In terms of expanding his mind, Gonzalez said that process began when an older brother sent him a book of quotations from legendary coach Vince Lombardi. He said his interest in Lombardi grew and he was inspired by reading Pulitzer-prize winner David Maraniss’ biography of Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered.”
“I really got a kick out of his quotes,” Gonzalez said of Lombardi.
Then he cited one: “‘There’s no greater feeling than when a man lies victorious and he’s worked his hardest on the field…’
“And that’s the feeling I get after every win,” Gonzalez said. “I know I go out there, I lay it on the line. I try to put everything I have it in it. There is no better feeling than looking around the locker room after a game and you’ve had a tough-fought victory and you celebrate and you’re like ‘This is what we prepared for and we beat a really good football team.’