Even those pulling for the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday had to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for Tony Gonzalez as he walked off the field, apparently 95% sure that it would be the last time. The 36-year-old tight end has said all year that he was almost certain to retire whenever the Falcons season drew to a close, regardless of the the outcome of their final game. And if that is indeed the case, it’s a pity for football fans everywhere.
During his 16 seasons in the NFL, Gonzalez has not only redefined the tight end position and cemented himself as the greatest to ever play it, but he did so with a degree of class and understated professionalism that is so refreshing in the age of diva pass catchers. With his 6’5” 250 pound frame, Gonzalez looked like a lot of other tight ends when standing on the sideline, but the way he played changed thee position the same way that Lawrence Taylor did the linebacker role.
There had been plenty of pass catching tight ends prior to his rookie year in 1997, but no one had ever seen one who could run like him or, more significantly, jump like him. To wit, he was the first of the basketball power forwards who turned tight ends, paving the way for guys like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham. Gonzalez has a standing vertical leap of 38 inches, a factor that more than anything else has made him the most dangerously consistent red zone target in the NFL for most of the last two decades. And just in case you forgot, he’ll remind you with his trademarked dunk through the goal posts (we see everyone do it now, but it was Gonzalez who made it popular).
There’s certainly no doubting Gonzalez’s impact on the game. If he is to retire in the coming weeks, he’s slotted for a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame thanks to his statistics that seem more like those of a wide receiver than a tight end. Gonzalez ranks second all time in receptions (1,242), seventh in receiving yards (14,268), and sixth in touchdowns (103), and that’s for all pass catchers; judging him against other tight ends just isn’t fair:
The biggest injustice regarding all this is that Gonzalez was mired on underachieving and/or just plain bad Kansas City Chiefs teams for the first 12 years of his career before going to an underachieving Falcons club four years ago, which means that his first and only career playoff win was Atlanta’s skin-of-their teeth victory over Seattle last weekend. For all of the media hype around Ray Lewis, a player who has already won a title and is a shadow of the player he once was, if there was anyone who deserved to make a trip to the Super Bowl and take a victory lap around the league, it’s Tony Gonzalez.
That bitter taste that he must have in his mouth right now is the only thing that could bring him back. Following the loss in the Georgia Dome on Sunday, Gonzalez maintained that he was 95 percent certain that his playing career was over and that he was leaving with no regrets, but some teammates like linebacker Sean Witherspoon believe he’ll come back for one more shot at a ring.
For all of the media hype around Ray Lewis, if there was anyone who deserved to make a trip to the Super Bowl, it’s Tony Gonzalez.
“I’ve been very blessed. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” Gonzalez said at his locker. “I’ve had a great ride, an unbelievable ride. … I have no regrets. Not one. And if there’s anyone out there, media or anyone, (who) even think about saying that I’m going to have regrets, I’m telling you right now, that’s not the case, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
If he does in fact walk away, one can hardly blame him. Not only has Gonzalez been a force to be reckoned with, but he’s managed to make it through 16 NFL seasons without a single significant injury, missing just two games in his entire career (that might be his most impressive stat of all). But when we sit here and talk about how “sad” it is to see great players retire, it’s a purely selfish notion. Clearly Gonzalez doesn’t see anything sad about it, and there is no sport that is less forgiving for outstaying your welcome than football. When we see the amount of ex-NFLers who have serious health issues and for whom just getting out of bed is a grueling and miserable process, how can anyone begrudge a player for getting out when he still has a full post-retirement life ahead of him?
Of course, if Gonzalez decides that he can’t go out like that, I’ll be the first to celebrate his return. But otherwise, I’ll be content with knowing that I got to see the greatest tight end to ever step on the field.
Fan Hub Action
Jeanne-Marie Jansen Lowell May 23rd
Greatest relief pitcher EVER! Someday we can all tell our grandchildren we got to see him pitch. A true legend!
Charlie Lobosco May 23rd
Ask Craig; I’ll say it again; not the best relief pitcher ever; the best MLB player ever. Yes, that includes everyone.
Jim Lowell May 23rd
Great tribute to a great player, a great Yankee, and a great man.Thank you!
Frank Lowell May 23rd
Great job, Ryan! As a life-long Yankee hater since the 1950’s in the closing days of the Brooklyn Dodgers, I can only sit back and…
Tiffany Riddle May 23rd
Love the article, and I completely agree!
Michael T Carr May 16th
Another good article, Craig Lowell.
Charlie Lobosco May 1st
This is a very compelling story because Mr. Collins is a very passionate, tough, intelligent, athelete taking on some additional responsibliity to help others as…
Scott Cohen May 1st
Charlie.. very well said.. he does have guts
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