ATLANTA - Ted Williams homered in his final at-bat. Michael Jordan won a championship on what should have been the final shot of his career. And on this Sunday afternoon, Tony Gonzalez, one of the greatest players in NFL history, enters the final seconds of the final game of his storied career with a chance to leave one last indelible mark.
The scene: Gonzalez’ Falcons are down one point to the Carolina Panthers. There are 88 seconds on the clock – 88, Gonzalez’ number, could it set up any more perfectly than that? – when Carolina punts and quarterback Matt Ryan begins guiding the Falcons inexorably down the field. Ryan picks apart the Panthers defense for a fast 31 yards out to midfield, and the entire Georgia Dome knows what’s about to happen, what should happen: Gonzalez with one final catch to seal a Falcons win, one last good memory in a season full of misfires, miscues and missed opportunities.
But 2013’s not done with the Falcons yet. While Ryan is calling an audible, center Joe Hawley inexplicably snaps the ball, which shoots another 15 yards back behind the line. A cascade of penalties and unanswered prayers, and the Falcons lose, 21-20.
Let the record show, then, that the final reception of Tony Gonzalez’ career was a nine-yard dump-off, the final completed pass of the Falcons’ season. It wasn’t the way Gonzalez deserved to go out, but then “deserve” rarely has much to do with results in the NFL.
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It was about 50 weeks ago, at the other end of this same field, where Tony Gonzalez stood, wide open in the end zone, waving his arms trying to get Ryan’s attention. The stakes were a bit higher then; Atlanta was trying to clamber past San Francisco for a trip to the Super Bowl. But the Falcons fell just short that day, too.
Gonzalez had sworn he was retiring after that game, and he stuck to that pledge for a good two months. But his family, his fans, and a paycheck with an awful lot of zeroes all pushed him back into a Falcons uniform one more time.
Gonzalez was supposed to be an integral, bruising part of an offense that had the potential to be the league’s best—the Charles Barkley of this Dream Team, the Batman of this Justice League. It wouldn’t be easy, but before the 2013 season, Atlanta had all the pieces in place to complete that Super Bowl run.
Stop laughing. People really did think that back in August.
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In the pregame flame-and-Metallica intro, Gonzalez is the final Falcon to run through the tunnel onto the field, and as is his style, he strides out with a minimum of attitude – no squirrel dance, no let-me-hear-ya’s to the crowd. He’s got work to do, and reliably enough, he does it.
He’ll finish Sunday’s game with four receptions and 56 yards, bringing his yearly total to 83 receptions and 859 yards. His annual averages during his five years in Atlanta are 81 receptions and 826 yards. He hasn’t lost a single step.
The question, then: why retire? “I’m old and my body hurts,” he’ll smile after the game. Plus, there’s the family issue. “For most of my life, family and football have both been right here,” he says, holding his hand at eye level. “It’s time for me to spend time focusing on my family.”
He ranks fifth all-time in receiving yards, second only to Jerry Rice in receptions, and sixth all-time in touchdowns. It goes without saying that he’s the No. 1 tight end in all those categories. They’ve had his gold Hall of Fame jacket sized and ready for a decade.
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At halftime, the Falcons have a makeshift ceremony to honor Gonzalez, shoehorned in between some kind of Coca-Cola obstacle course race and the start of the second half. As Panthers kickers practice mere feet away, Gonzalez and Falcons owner Arthur Blank step onto a small podium hastily erected at the 40-yard-line. Blank presents Gonzalez with a half-Falcons, half-Chiefs helmet. The crowd stands and applauds, Gonzalez waves in appreciation, and that’s it. Back to work.
There’s still football to be played. The NFL doesn’t wait for anyone, though it’ll slow down a few seconds to honor its best.
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The game’s been over for 45 minutes. Gonzalez generally meets with media in the locker room, but given the interest in his final words as a Falcon, he’ll speak in the media room, the area usually reserved for Ryan and head coach Mike Smith.
“This is what Matt does every week?” Gonzalez says, smiling as he enters the interview room to face two rows of cameras and two dozen reporters. He steps up to the podium and puts both hands alongside it. “I feel like the president up here.”
Gonzalez begins by thanking a few significant players and coaches in his life, from his now-former running mates on the Falcons to Chiefs names like Trent Green and Marv Schottenheimer. He notes that he offered words of hope to his younger Falcons teammates, that if he could push through a season in which he dropped 17 passes to become the player he is now, they could push through this flaming trainwreck in 2014.
He makes sure to address the never-won-a-Super-Bowl matter head-on. “Don’t ever look at me and say, ‘well, he never won the big game,’” Gonzalez says. “I hope there’s no glitch on my record because of that, and if you think that way, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”
He ends the press conference on a more hopeful metaphor. “This is graduation,” he says. “I’m going to miss this, I’m going to miss these guys. But it’s time for me to move on, to leave this game on my own terms.”
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Gonzalez is one of the last to leave the Falcons’ locker room. His nameplate is the only one remaining atop a locker. He could be back, certainly. Every team in the NFL would welcome him. But it’s time to go, to leave them all wanting more.
“My career has turned out to be something more than I ever thought, and more than I ever dreamed,” Gonzalez says in his final press conference. “It’s been an unbelievable ride. It’s amazing. I’m still looking back and saying, I can’t believe this has happened to me.”