Falcons' Gonzalez has 'Super' wish for final NFL season
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Tony Gonzalez wasn't kidding last year during the preseason when he stood before the media to announce the 2012 season would be his last — while leaving himself a 5 percent chance of changing his mind.
When that percentage blossomed to 100 this past offseason, Gonzalez nonetheless said he had made previous family commitments that would require him to be away from the team during training camp. Gonzalez, whose offseason home remains in Southern California, told his son Nikko, 12, that he would be there when Nikko starts playing football for the first time in the coming weeks.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith has allowed players time away from team duties in the past, for family reasons. Last year, as veteran cornerback Asante Samuel's mother was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Smith permitted Samuel frequent trips to visit her in Florida in the weeks prior to games.
The Falcons have yet to provide details as to how much time Gonzalez will miss, but Smith told FOXSportsSouth.com the Falcons tight end will be present for the preseason opener (Aug. 8 at the Georgia Dome) against the Bengals.
"Right now, I'm here," Gonzalez said on Thursday. "I plan on being here tomorrow. There were some obligations I made to my family, more specifically my son Nikko last year around this time. I was going to retire. I wasn’t joking about that. Those responsibilities are coming up here pretty soon.
"I'll probably head back and hang out with him and do what I told him I was going to do, and then I’ll join the team. I'll join the team early. I'm not going to be showing up the week before the game. I’ll be out here a lot earlier than that. I'll be ready to go, too. You can bet the house on that."
Gonzalez, whose 1,242 career receptions rank second in NFL history, certainly has earned his time off, and it's doubtful if any of Falcons will begrudge him. Smith said the permission to miss some parts of training camp was not a factor in persuading Gonzalez to return for a 17th season.
"No, absolutely not," Smith said. "I think Tony and his discussions with his family is what convinced him to come back. I think Tony was very transparent back in March. He said he talked to his family and his son and all of them got together."
With the incredible salaries that NFL players of Gonzalez's stature earn, they still miss out on things that money cannot replace, such as seeing their sons play football for the first time. That clearly is important to Gonzalez, who said Nikko will play safety and receiver.
"It worked out perfectly," Gonzalez said. "Right now if I was home, I could have been with him but he’s not in practice yet. It's his first year of football. I'm looking forward to being out there and watching learn how to hit somebody in the mouth."
It seems if anything persuaded Gonzalez to return, it was how close the Falcons came to a Super Bowl berth last season. On fourth down from the 49ers' 10 yard-line in the NFC title game, Gonzalez was wide open for the go-ahead touchdown, but quarterback Matt Ryan, who was under pressure, did not throw in his direction.
Instead, the pass to Roddy White was defended and fell incomplete. Gonzalez was emotional after the game.
"It's probably the last time I'm going to wear that uniform," he said after Atlanta's home loss to San Francisco. "I didn't want to take it off, to tell you the truth. All good things come to an end and, like I said all season long, this is probably my last one. What an unbelievable ride."
But the ride continues and Gonzalez thinks the addition of running back Steven Jackson should make the Falcons' already-potent offense even better.
"We just need to go out and do what we did last year and build on it," he said. "Honestly, it's not like something’s going to get us over the hump. We’ve had a good team for the last couple of years, and I think it’s even better this year so if anything we’re not thinking about a hump or 'Let’s get better' or a goal, we always want to improve in any facet of the game. But there isn't one specific thing we want to improve to get us where we want to go.
"We know if we just keep working hard with the players we have, we stay healthy, it’ll be very tough to stop."
To that end, Gonzalez, 37, ought to be able to stay healthy himself in the coming weeks. He has shown incredible durability during his career, dressing for 254 of his team's 256 games. He has not missed a game since Nov. 19, 2006.
Would such an ironman streak tempt him to return for one more season?
"Not this year,” said Gonzalez, who has made a parade of offseason television appearances, including one recently on CNBC, as he seemingly prepares for a future career in the public spotlight.
"We're not playing that game this year. This is it. This is my last season. It’s going to be fun. With the guys on this team, the fan support, we’re going to try to pick up where we left off last year but last year is last year. And the sky's the limit on what we can do.
"But we have to work hard. We know we’re a long way away and it starts in that first game in New Orleans."