When the schedule for the 2012 NFL season was released earlier in April, the first thing that stuck out to Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez was Week 1.
Not just because it was Week 1 but because in this, his 16th and final season in the league, the potential first ballot Hall of Famer was going to start the season in the exact same place he started his career, Kansas City.
“It’s going to be special, it’s going to be kind of weird going in there,” said Gonzalez. “It’s going to be like going back to the house that you grew up in.
“A lot of heartbreak on that field, a lot of triumphs but it’s something I’m looking forward to. It’s going to be a special feeling going back there.”
During his 12 years in Kansas City, he managed to pull down 916 passes to become the top receiver in Chiefs’ history. Second on the franchise list is Henry Marshall with 416 receptions. He’s also, arguably, the best tight end in NFL history.
Through many ups and downs, Gonzalez learned what it took to become what he is today. The one season that stands out to him the most was his rookie season in the league. The Chiefs went 13-3 but Gonzalez didn’t have a season of fulfilling high expectations
Gonzalez had 33 receptions during his first year but also 17 drops that season. “After going through a season like that with such high expectations, after my rookie year, they expected a lot out of me and I didn’t deliver. I had 17 drops that season” said Gonzalez.
“I don’t think I’d be the player I am today if I didn’t have a season like that because it’s embarrassing,” said Gonzalez. “It can either motivate you or kill your career. Luckily, for me, it motivated me. It changed a lot of my routine.”
Gonzalez went back to the drawing board, getting inspiration from reading a book of quotes from Vince Lombardi. “I really got a kick out of his quotes. There’s no greater feeling than when a man lies victorious and he’s worked his hardest on the field,” referring to the legendary quote by Lombardi.
“And that’s the feeling I get after every win,” Gonzalez said. “I know I go out there, I lay it on the line. I try to put everything I have it in it. There is no better feeling than looking around the locker room after a game and you’ve had a tough fought victory and you celebrate and you’re like ‘This is what we prepared for and we beat a really good football team.'”
By the time he left Kansas City, Gonzalez wasn’t just the team’s all-time leading receiver in career receptions with 916, he also led the franchise in consecutive games with a reception with 130, career yards from scrimmage with 10,954, career receiving touchdowns with 76, and career receiving yards with 10,940.
He played on teams that were both good and bad, most notably the 1997 and 2003 teams. Each of those squads went 13-3 and were bounced from the playoffs without winning a game. In 1997 Denver beat Kansas City 14-10. In 2003 it was Indianapolis that dealt the death blow, a 38-31 ousting.
There were a few losing seasons in there as well, but it’s the successful seasons that Gonzalez remembers the most.
“As far as on the field. I remember the 2003 season, going 13-3,” said Gonzalez. “My rookie year, coming in, playing with guys like Marcus Allen, Derrick Thomas, going 13-3. Of course we lost in the first round those years and that’s probably some of the heartbreak I talked about.
“Just being around some great coaches like Dick Vermeil, Marty Schottenheimer. Hall of Fame-type coaches like that. It was a good experience for me,” said Gonzalez.
Sunday will be the first time Gonzalez has played at Arrowhead Stadium as a member of an opposing team. He’ll be accompanied by an explosive offense and a quarterback, in Matt Ryan, that he has great confidence in.
“Every year, he’s been improving and I think this year, he’s coming up to where we all knew he was going to be at,” said Gonzalez.
With all of the additions the team have made on offense in recent years, there has been a noticeable buzz growing about this Falcons team. Gonzalez is starting to see the progression of Ryan and thinks the possibilities are endless for him and the franchise.
“He’s starting to make really good decisions out there. The ball is coming perfect. What you saw in the preseason was not a fluke. This is the real deal,” said Gonzalez.
“I expect big things out of him, like he expects big things out of himself. I think the sky is the limit and he’s still got room to improve and he’s going to keep improving. He’s going to be a good quarterback for this organization for a long time.”
Gonzalez intends on treating this game like all the rest of them, even though it’ll be significantly different than anything he has experienced thus far.
“I want to go out there and win this game very badly,” said Gonzalez. “Just like I do every week. I’m just going to do what got me here and prepare the way I’ve always prepared.”
Except there will be a few wrinkles in the way Gonzalez goes about getting ready.
Expecting many friends and members of the Kansas City organization to want to spend some time with his prior to the game, Gonzalez plans on riding the early bus to the stadium from the team hotel, something he never does. He wants to maximize his time at Arrowhead Stadium.
“I know there’s going to be distractions before the game,” said Gonzalez. “It’s football when it comes down to it. All the hype and the pregame and the media and all this stuff that happens, it all disappears after that first snap and you’ve got to go out there and play football, which is something that I’ve been doing for a long time. So, I’m going to fall back on my instincts and just go out there and do my job.”
But believe he’ll soak a lot of the atmosphere in prior to that first snap.