With Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez on the brink of retirement, it’s worth taking a look at some comments he made the day after the news broke that former linebacker Junior Seau suffered from a degenerative brain disease while pondering Gonzalez’s pending decision.
Several storylines have dominated the news media in this week leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl and one of them has been player safety — a conversation that President Obama jump-started when he said he would be wary of allowing his son, if he had one, to play football.
On Jan. 10, the National Institutes of Health released that Seau’s brain showed abnormalities consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease experts have linked to the repetitive and violent collisions associated with football. The family of Seau, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound — significantly sparing his brain — last May, filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL on Jan. 23.
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Gonzalez met with the media for his weekly availability on Jan. 11 prior to the Falcons’ divisional round meeting with Seattle. He was asked about the news that linked Seau to CTE and, as he turns 37 in four weeks, the possible effects he might suffer.
His comments showed that Gonzalez seemed fully aware of the risks — even if the science is relatively new since he joined the league.
“Being able to play tight end, I don’t have the — fullback or linebacker position, where you’re running into somebody full speed with your head every time, that’s tough,” he said. “Come on, you’re going to have wear-and-tear on your head.
“But that’s part of the process, that’s part of what you sign up for, you going into it knowing. But I’m glad they’re starting to figure this stuff out and trying to make it safer. For me, I try to keep my head out of it as much as I can. Use good technique. I get to go on offense. … I’m out there trying to catch balls.”
Gonzalez’s statement shows an intuitive understanding of the risks of playing football.
As anyone who has watched him play over the years would know, Gonzalez almost always finds a way to keep his head out of plays. In a game in which coaches exhort players with the maxim, “Low man wins!” he seems to take the lead from his career as a college basketball player.
As he said, he’s trying to catch balls. To do that, he posts up, often with his back to his defender. At 6-foot-5, it’s the rare defender who can launch a headshot on Gonzalez. Furthermore, it’s hard to remember him lowering his head in the search for yards after contact — when offensive players become most vulnerable to the type of violent hit that Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard made on New England’s Stevan Ridley in the AFC Championship Game.
What’s also worth noting was the look on Gonzalez’s face as he said this. It was almost as if to say, “That’s why I don’t play linebacker or fullback” — because of the risks inherent in those positions.
Gonzalez’s career has been almost mathematically perfect, as in a perfect square. In 16 regular seasons, he has fallen short of playing 16 games only twice for a total of 254 games. In his mind, it might be time to move on to a gig doing television broadcasts, for which he solicited offers in the week leading up to the NFC Championship Game.
In short, if he gets out now, Gonzalez would seem to be getting out while he has all of his faculties. Consider the state of Baltimore safety Ed Reed, one of the game’s hardest hitters and, like Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer.
This week Reed fumbled a question about Seau, saying that Seau likely does not have any regrets. He later clarified those statements and in a story posted on the Baltimore Sun’s Web site made these comments about his own issues with memory loss:
“I feel effects from it,” Reed said, as reported by the paper. “Some days, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Where did my memory go?’ But I signed up for it.”
Ravens center Matt Birk, who was born the same year as Gonzalez, spoke at length on the subject on Wednesday and talked about his decision to donate his brain to science after he dies.
“It’s my obligation as a professional football player to try to do my part to make the game as safe as possible for future generations,” he said.
He added, “I think it’s important for the cause and for them to compile as much data so they can learn as much as they can about head traumas and the effect it has. CTE and all these things that weren’t on anybody’s radar five years ago.”
Gonzalez said during the playoffs that he’s 97 percent sure that he will retire. Maybe part of it is that in a career as full as his, he’s glad to be getting out with his health.