Playing in a high-powered pickup basketball game in an Orange County gym a few months ago, the Falcons' future Hall of Fame tight end switched off his man to stop a fast break and rose up to reject a precocious teenager slashing in from the wing.
The next thing Gonzalez knew, he was getting the most unwelcome facial of his 35-year existence.
"I was posterized," Gonzalez recalled Sunday night after helping the Falcons to a 35-31 victory over the Eagles at the Georgia Dome. "It was real bad. I got dunked on by a high school senior – he came down over me and threw down with two hands.
"It hurt my feelings. I thought, 'Maybe I am old.' "
Gonzalez's athletic mortality has been a popular subject in recent years – last November, he was particularly peeved by former Lions president Matt Millen's assertion that his skills had declined – and it's not specious that he'd use the basketball court as a gauge. The dude has game, and the only thing that kept him from pursuing a pro hoops career was his emergence as a slam-dunk NFL prospect. A two-sport standout at Cal, Gonzalez closed out his collegiate career by leading the Bears on a run to the Sweet 16 of the 1997 NCAA tournament. In a second-round victory over Villanova, Gonzalez scored 23 points while holding forward Tim Thomas to 11. A few months later, Thomas was selected seventh overall in the NBA draft and ultimately played 13 seasons in the league.
And Gonzalez? Now in his 15th season in the NFL, he is in the process of becoming the most prolific pass-catcher of anyone in history not named Jerry Rice.
On Sunday, Gonzalez boosted his career receptions total to 1,081, moving past Terrell Owens(notes) into fifth place on the league's all-time list. He needs another 13 to catch Tim Brown(notes), 20 to pull even with Cris Carter and 21 to tie Marvin Harrison(notes). After that, he'll look up only to Rice (1,549) – a remarkable accomplishment for a tight end.
Though Gonzalez's numbers have been slightly less impressive since he was traded from the Chiefs to the Falcons before the 2009 season, he certainly doesn't seem like a player on the decline. On Sunday, in a game steeped in symbolic significance for the Falcons and fourth-year franchise quarterback Matt Ryan(notes), Gonzalez played a huge role, catching seven passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
His first scoring reception was simply spectacular. With the Falcons trailing 10-7 and facing a third-and-3 from the Philadelphia 4-yard-line late in the first half, Ryan dropped back and launched a high pass to the back of the end zone. Covered tightly by Philly linebacker Jamar Chaney(notes), Gonzalez leapt up and tapped the ball with his right hand, then somehow managed to pin it to his shoulder pad while falling face-first and dragging his feet inbounds.
Early in the third quarter, Gonzalez gave the Falcons a 21-10 lead when he cut across the middle, caught a sharp pass from Ryan inside the 5 and finished off the 17-yard touchdown while dragging safety Jarrad Page into the end zone.
Given that he'd done the same for his team in a figurative sense, I wondered whether Gonzalez felt an obligation to come through for Ryan as the quarterback squared off against predecessor Michael Vick(notes).
"I look at it like he did me a solid," Gonzalez said of Ryan. "Everybody thinks I'm old, so I want to go out and prove I can still play."
He was especially driven after that dunking episode over the offseason, not that his conditioning regimen is ever subtle. An obsessive health freak, Gonzalez co-founded All-Pro Science – a supplement company designed to boost athletic performance – and has spent much of his time in recent years helping to run the business while exploring cutting-edge philosophies.
This past spring and summer, he went back to basics: "I changed my workout approach: more Pilates, more aerobic exercise, more basketball."
While playing regularly at that gym near his Orange County home, in games that included plenty of current and former college hoopsters – "Kobe even showed up one day," Gonzalez said, "but I wasn't there" – the veteran tight end more than held his own. At first, however, gravity began to drag him down.
"I had a hard time dunking," he said. "It scared the [expletive] out of me. I mean, I could dunk, but I had to time it up just right, like I was in 9th grade again. It was a wake-up call for me."
(Did he say ninth grade? "Yeah," Gonzalez said, laughing. "I actually started dunking in eighth grade." This, my friends, is what's known as an upscale problem.)
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In response, Gonzalez "freaked out and started working on my vertical. I was doing box jumps, the [medicine]-ball routine. In the heyday, my vertical was 37 or 38 inches. I'm not sure it's quite that high now, but by the end of the summer I was dunking again."
Suffice it to say that getting dunked on was a one-time occurrence.
"The kid was pretty good," Gonzalez said. "I can't remember his name, but he got a scholarship to UC Irvine. As soon as it happened, I looked around and nobody was filming, so I didn't have to worry [about it showing up on YouTube]. I put my head down and ran back down the court like it was no big deal.
"Then I started guarding him. I don't think he scored any points on me the rest of the summer."
Now it's my turn to get vertical, in the form of this week's puzzle-filled totem pole assessing pro football's ever-fluid pecking order:
1. Green Bay Packers: Will Nick Collins'(notes) neck injury be exacerbated by the act of straining to watch balls, thrown by opposing quarterbacks, sail over the heads of the Pack's healthy defensive backs?
2. New England Patriots: How fun was it to watch Vince Wilfork rumble 28 yards after picking off a Philip Rivers(notes) pass – and how many of you remember the way-more-awesome, 61-yard interception return for a touchdown by the 49ers' 326-pound nose tackle, Michael Carter, in a 1990 playoff victory over the Redskins at Candlestick Park?
3. New York Jets: When Mark Sanchez(notes) apologized to Plaxico Burress(notes) for not throwing him more passes during Sunday's rout of the Jaguars, was the young quarterback tempted to add, "and if you go back to jail, I promise I'll visit you, or at least write a letter"?
10. Atlanta Falcons: How brutal is it that cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) has picked up more fines for violating player-safety rules than he has picked off passes since signing a six-year, $57-million deal with the Falcons?
11. Houston Texans: Arian who?
12. Oakland Raiders: How did Denarius Moore last until the fifth round – and how close did the rookie wideout come to making one of the most memorable catches in franchise history on the final play of Sunday's game?
13. Pittsburgh Steelers: After his allegedly old defense shut out the Seahawks, will Mike Tomlin rock one of his buddy Raheem Morris' "Youngry" hats on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night?
14. Dallas Cowboys: In the wake of his 77-yard catch-and-run that set up Sunday's overtime victory at San Francisco, will reality-show star Jesse Holley(notes) be asked to appear opposite 49ers safety Donte Whitner(notes) in an episode of "So You Think You Can Cover"?
24. Jacksonville Jaguars: In retrospect, should Jason Hill(notes) have said that his own quarterback was "overhyped" (to the extent that Luke McCown(notes) received any hype before Sunday's disaster)?
25. Cincinnati Bengals: Before writing that Sunday's 24-22 defeat to the Broncos was "the best L this team has taken in years," how many hours did it take Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty to sift through the other candidates?
27. Minnesota Vikings: After Percy Harvin(notes) took his offensive teammates to task for botched formations and third-down "meltdowns," did coach Leslie Frazier give thanks that Harvin at least spared the caterers?
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