Gonzalez leaning strongly toward retirement
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As perhaps the greatest in the history of the NFL at his position, Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez sought out the opinion of another former player in that category on the subject of retirement.
Among those Gonzalez polled was wide receiver Jerry Rice and Rice told Gonzalez to "play 'til the wheels fall off."
"And I think," Gonzalez said on Friday, "that's what he did."
Yet in terms of his own career, Gonzalez said he doesn't plan to take it that far. At age 36 entering his 16th season, Gonzalez has said he plans to make the coming campaign his last. In addressing the topic for the first time since offseason team activities, mini-camp and now training camp have begun, Gonzalez reiterated that that his plan – while giving himself a tiny bit of wiggle room in case he changes his mind.
"People change their mind and what I feel today might not be how I feel -- last year I came pretty close and I told you guys that and I was dead serious about that -- but I knew the type of team we'd have and I was comfortable with the system and everything that went into it," Gonzalez said. "This is where I wanted to be, there's no doubt about that. I love Atlanta, the city. The fans are great, organization's great, the players are really what brought me back here because there's such good players around.
"That five percent is just something in case…. Right now my family and my children, they're ready for me to be around the house full-time now."
Despite those words from Rice, who toiled well beyond his glory years until he was 42, catching only 30 passes that final season for two different teams, Gonzalez appears ready to opt for a different model. Call it the Jim Brown model, or maybe, to use another sport, the Ted Williams model, as Williams hit .316 at age 41 in his last season. No, it won't be the Jerry Rice or Michael Jordan for Gonzalez, who says he wants to go out on top and to "leave 'em wanting more."
"It's not matter of me thinking I can play," Gonzalez said. "Honestly, if I'm healthy, knock on wood, I can play another three years. And effectively, too. But it's really not about that. Sometimes you have to call it quits and I'm just one of those guys that can't handle being average at this sport because I've been at the top for a while and I hope that's not coming off cocky, but that's just the way I operate and I don't want to come out there and be somewhat of a role player.
"I want to be a guy who can contribute and give it and play like I'm supposed to. I don't want people looking at the TV and saying, 'You know, what? He was good back in the day.' Or, 'Oh, yeah, he's definitely lost a step.' You know, they're kind of saying it right now, but I don't believe it."
About the only achievement Gonzalez doesn't have in his storied career – he ranks second all-time on the NFL's receptions list with 1,149 – is a playoff win and he said the Falcons talent brought him back. It's his fourth season in Atlanta – the Falcons have earned three playoff berths in head coach Mike Smith's four seasons, including two with Gonzalez – but haven't broken the postseason jinx. Coming off last season's 10-win team, he said the Falcons have assembled "the best football team I've been on a long time."
In case he doesn't get that playoff win this season, Smith said he thinks Gonzalez has more good years in him.
"I've never seen anybody like Tony Gonzalez," he said. "He's still one of the first guys out on the field. He's going to catch three, four hundred balls in practice. He's going to work at blocking, he's going to get out early and hit the sled and he's a great mentor and example for everybody else on our football team. Not just the tight ends, not just the wide receivers. They're seeing a guy who's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and he's 36 years old and he's doing the things he's done his whole career and that's what's made him so successful. And I'm glad to hear he thinks he can play three more years.
"Maybe he will."
But it doesn't sound like that will happen. Gonzalez is starting to talk like a man who can see the end and is getting ready to savor his time remaining. He said he was happy to see that the Falcons open their season on the road against Kansas City, where he spent his first 12 seasons.
"Yeah, it'll be kind of sweet, huh, going out to KC?" Gonzalez asked rhetorically. "That was one thing I noticed right away when the schedule came out. … I don't know if the league did that on purpose or whatever…. I'm looking forward to it."
Gonzalez also comes from a generation of players who are now mostly retired. Those include a player against whom Gonzalez battled in the same division for six seasons from 1997 to 2002, linebacker Junior Seau who took his own life in May at age 43. Both men were southern California natives and got to know each other off the field. Gonzalez said he was saddened and shocked by Seau's death.
"He never seemed like that kind of person when I knew him," Gonzalez said. "Obviously, I was lucky to be able to hang out with him off the field a little bit, see him at the Pro-Bowls a couple of times. Went to his charity event a couple of times. He was a very fun guy. He did it right on and off the field. You heard in the media, but what he did off the field with his charities and his foundations and all that good stuff. He's a perfect example of how to have a good NFL career and, obviously, he'll be missed by us, but more so by his family and his close friends. It was a tough situation."
Seau's tragic end is one example of how life after football can be a difficult transition for even the best NFL players. As much as he exuded his typically confident air on Friday, Gonzalez said he knew that retirement won't be easy.
"I love playing football," he said. "I know I'm going to miss it. I know it's not as easy as maybe I'm coming off, standing here right now in front of you, especially when you know you can come back…
"We'll see how it goes, but I'm pretty adamant about it that it will probably be my last year. But I'll never say never."